Egypt Nearly Supplied Rockets to Russia, Agreed to Arm Ukraine Instead, Leak Shows

REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
The Egyptian flag in front of the presidential palace in Cairo

Egypt paused a plan to secretly supply rockets to Russia last month following talks with senior U.S. officials and instead decided to produce artillery ammunition for Ukraine, according to five leaked U.S. intelligence documents that have not been previously reported.

The Post last week reported on another document that exposed a covert scheme by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in February to provide Russia with up to 40,000 122mm Sakr-45 rockets, which can be used in Russian multiple-launch rocket launchers. Sisi instructed his subordinates to keep the project secret “to avoid problems with the West,” the document said.

But the new documents, which The Washington Post obtained from a trove of material allegedly posted on Discord by a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, appear to show Sisi in early March backing away from plans to supply Moscow, a move that would have represented a major rebuke to Cairo’s most generous Western ally, the United States.

Egypt, though it has a long-standing diplomatic and military relationship with Russia, has for decades been a principal American ally in the Middle East and receives more than $1 billion a year in U.S. military aid.

In an apparent diplomatic win for the Biden administration, a new leaked document stated that Egypt shelved the Moscow deal and approved selling 152mm and 155mm artillery rounds to the United States for transfer to Ukraine.

Washington has sought to enlist new supporters – and desperately needed ammunition – for Kyiv’s fight against Russian forces. Egypt intended to use its capacity to produce weapons for Ukraine as “leverage” to obtain advanced U.S. military items, the document said.

Taken together, the documents provide new insight into the Biden administration’s quiet but high-stakes diplomacy with countries that have sought to stay on the margins of Washington’s intensifying standoff with Moscow. They also show how great power competition has allowed Egypt to seek new advantages as its relationship with the United States grows less crucial.

“The mere fact of competition creates openings for easy wins with the U.S., and you can imagine that this will be to the detriment of the democracy and human rights agenda,” said Michael Hanna, U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group.

The documents do not indicate whether Cairo later revived the Moscow plan or whether it has yet supplied the United States with the ammunition for Ukraine.

The Post earlier reported that Egypt has denied producing rockets for Russia, and a U.S. government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive information, told The Post there was no indication Egypt had executed the plan.

Presented with the new documents, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the leaked materials. After the initial report on Russian rocket production, Egyptian state-run media reported that officials denied the claim, saying it had “no basis in truth.”

A senior Biden administration official said, “Egypt is a close partner and we are regularly engaged with its leadership on a host of regional and global issues.”

The United States faces challenges ramping up its own production of artillery shells and other items needed in Ukraine and has sought help from partner nations worldwide in advance of what U.S. officials predict will be challenging spring fighting season. Conversely, Washington has slapped sanctions on its adversary Iran over shipments of arms to Russia and issued warnings to China against doing the same.

One Western ambassador in Cairo said the leaks suggest Egypt “underestimated the U.S. response to a possible arms supply to Russia” and wanted to “maximize their benefit from both sides.”

The top-secret documents – informed in part by signals intelligence, or eavesdropping – detail a month of intelligence reports from early February to early March and were intended for top Pentagon officials.

The first, dated Feb. 17, reports that Egypt took steps in late January and early February to secretly supply rockets to Russia, including setting a price and making plans for obtaining brass to make the rockets. In a conversation on Jan. 31, Minister of State for Military Production Mohamed Salah al-Din told Sisi that he advised Russian delegates that their agreed price of $1,100 per unit could rise to $1,500 due to a potential increase in brass prices. The Russians were ready to “buy anything,” he told Sisi. The Egyptian president also told Salah al-Din, according to the document, to request “specialized equipment” from Russia to improve the accuracy of the rockets or the quality of the Egyptian factories making them.

A second and undated document, likely from mid-February, states that Egypt began creating a rocket production line for the Russian military. Russian delegates had requested to purchase 15,000 rockets at the $1,100 unit price, the document states, but Sisi ordered subordinates to purchase the necessary materials to produce up to 40,000.

Like Ukraine’s army, Russian forces have expended enormous amounts of weaponry in the grinding war and need resupply.

Egypt’s president appears to have put a stop to the rocket plan following visits from U.S. officials, including Brett McGurk and Barbara Leaf, the top White House and State Department officials for Middle East issues, who traveled to Cairo in late February, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who visited in early March.

The Wall Street Journal reported that month that Austin asked Egyptian leaders to provide Ukraine artillery rounds during their talks in Cairo but got no clear agreement. But an intelligence document dated March 9, the day after Austin’s visit, states that Egypt had approved selling 152mm and 155mm artillery rounds to the United States for transfer to Ukraine.

That document, part of a daily intelligence update for senior Pentagon leaders, said that Egypt planned to use the U.S. request for ammunition to push Washington for a long-term military aid deal and to obtain specific American equipment, including F-35 stealth fighter jets and Patriot air defense systems. The document said that Egypt would require American help for establishing a production line for the shells, a licensing agreement and raw materials.

Austin’s visit is the subject of another document, apparently from mid-March, that summarizes conversations between Sisi and two senior officials on March 8, the day the Egyptian president and the U.S. defense secretary held talks in Cairo.

In the March 8 conversations, Sisi appeared to suspect the possibility his discussions were being surveilled and issued Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki what the document described as a warning to “‘be careful’ about discussing presumably military requests from other countries, like Russia.” He and Zaki referenced “military contracts” with Russia but did not explicitly reference the rocket production plan, the document reported.

Zaki told Sisi that plans for an Egyptian delegation to travel to Russia on March 12 or 13, when they would likely sign contracts, had been postponed “until the situation is clearer” following Austin’s visit. Sisi said that “caution was warranted to avoid Egypt getting into trouble unnecessarily,” to which Zaki responded that “we have not taken any measures” and that Egypt had not signed any contracts.

Cairo has recently evinced frustration with the state of the relationship with Washington. The document summarizing Sisi’s March 8 conversations reports the Egyptian president “characterized the situation as the U.S. not having anything new for Egypt and not needing anything from Egypt, with the U.S. only interested in confirming U.S.-Egypt relations.”

“ElSisi envisioned the U.S. believing Israel was doing well, the Gulf countries were fine, and Europe was supporting the U.S. regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so as a result, Egypt’s role was secondary,” it continued.

The United States has pressed Egypt on human rights issues, including on its widespread jailing of activists and anyone who might voice opposition to Sisi. Last year, Washington withheld a small portion of its military aid to Egypt, citing concerns over this pattern of repression.

Even so, President Biden – who once pledged “no more blank checks” for Sisi – has faced scrutiny for adopting what some critics saw as an overly friendly approach to the Egyptian president, including a chummy interaction on the sidelines of the COP27 climate conference in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh last year.

The intelligence also provides additional visibility into Egypt’s deepening military relationship with Moscow and how it may have already aided Russian forces on the battlefield. An additional, undated document in the leaked trove notes that U.S. imagery and electronic intelligence had identified four Russian SA-23 surface-to-air missile systems in Ukraine that “very likely” had been intended for export to Egypt. Cairo signed a contract with Moscow for four SA-23 batteries in 2017, and the first two were delivered to Egypt in 2020 and 2021, the document stated. It did not explicitly say whether Egypt had returned those two systems to Russia for use in Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Egypt took a public position of noninvolvement, voting for an end to the invasion at the United Nations but otherwise remaining neutral, and receiving visiting officials from both Russia and the United States. But with international grain shortages due to the war in Ukraine, Egypt has relied heavily on Russia to provide wheat that has helped stave off social unrest over rising food prices and an economic crisis caused in part by fallout from the conflict. Russia also began construction on Egypt’s first nuclear power plant last year and recently signed a deal for a railway workshop in Egypt.

The two countries have a long history of military and trade cooperation, even as Egypt relies on the United States for more than $1 billion of military aid each year. Egypt’s enormous population, strategic location neighboring Israel and control over the Suez Canal have long kept it relevant internationally, and Egyptian officials have tried to represent themselves to the United States and other powerful allies as a key security partner and mediator in regional tensions.

A former National Security Council official during the Obama administration who worked on the Middle East and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations said that it was common for Egypt to use Russia as a “hedge” to push Washington. After the 2013 Rabaa massacre and military coup led by Sisi prompted the government to review aid to Egypt, Cairo indicated that it could “turn to Russia,” a threat that “resonated with some senior officials at the time,” the person said.

Behind the scenes, the leaked documents suggest, Egypt’s balancing act was more complicated.

“Ideally it is not an either or, but appeasing both ends,” the Western ambassador said. “Bottom line is, though, they cannot endanger their ties with Russia [either], so they cannot actively cooperate with the U.S. on supplies to Ukraine.”