MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday wished Egypt's military chief victory in the nation's presidential vote, even though he has yet to announce his bid — a strong endorsement signaling Moscow's desire to expand its military and other ties with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Without naming the United States, the Kremlin used Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi 's visit to criticize what it regards as U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia's ties with the U.S. have been badly strained by disputes ranging from Syria's civil war, to missile defense plans in Europe, to Moscow's human rights record.
Putin's public endorsement of el-Sissi is unlikely to cause a stir in Egypt, where an announcement by the field marshal that he is running in the election is a matter of when, not if.
"I know that you have made a decision to run for president," Putin said at the start of his meeting with el-Sissi. "That's a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success."
El-Sissi didn't mention his presidential ambitions in brief opening remarks, but emphasized his focus on ensuring security, saying that the country's military is capable of providing it.
The 59-year old El-Sissi, who rose to prominence after the ouster of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, is popular among a large segment of Egyptians and is widely expected to announce a candidacy for presidential elections that are likely due in late April.
Putin's statement could be a reflection of widespread predictions in Egypt that the career infantry officer will win a landslide in the upcoming presidential vote. It also reflected the Russian leader's intention to forge close relations with Egypt under el-Sissi.
Putin is known to have been less than warm toward Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's oldest and most powerful Islamist group — has been a guidance force for Islamic groups across much of the world in the last 50 years or more.
"Putin and el-Sissi have a lot in common, both coming from an intelligence background, both having waged a war on terrorism ... and both sharing a negative view of the Brotherhood," said Abdullah el-Sinawi, a prominent Cairo-based analyst known to be close to the military.
El-Sinawi said el-Sissi wanted to send a signal to Washington, while Putin was eager to acquire a new ally in the Middle East. "Putin wants to have a foot in Egypt instead of an expected loss on the Syrian side," he said. "Egypt needs an international entrusted ally that would balance relations with America. Egypt will be open to other centers of power without breaking the relations with the U.S."
Last month, the U.S. Congress approved a spending bill that would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.
While Putin didn't hesitate to openly throw his support behind el-Sissi bid that has yet to be announced, Russian and Egyptian ministers issued a joint communique in which they "condemned foreign interference in domestic affairs of any country and called for solving all existing problems and crises exclusively by peaceful means and broad all-inclusive dialogue" — an apparent jab at the U.S.
Russia has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in other countries' affairs. It has used vetoes at the U.N. Security Council to block U.S.-backed resolutions that would impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Moscow also has clashed with Washington over Ukraine, accusing the U.S. of meddling in its political affairs during its months of anti-government protests.
El-Sissi's visit to Moscow, his first trip abroad since Morsi's ouster, comes amid reports of a $2 billion arms deal with Russia to be funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is part of Egypt's shift to reduce reliance on the United States.
Moscow's ties with both countries have been tense over Syria. But the reported arms deal comes at a time when the Saudis, a traditional U.S. ally, have sharply criticized the United States for what they regard as its indecisiveness on Syria and Washington's attempts at reconciliation with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.
Moscow is eager to expand its influence in Egypt at a time when Egyptian-U.S. relations have soured in the aftermath of Morsi's ouster. The U.S. has been Cairo's chief foreign backer and benefactor since the 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke with Moscow after decades of close political and military ties and expelled Soviet military advisers.
Putin referred to the historic ties between the two nations during his talks with el-Sissi, saying that "the mutual sympathy between the two peoples has served as the basis for such cooperation." He voiced hope for expanding the trade and restoring the flow of Russian tourists to Egypt, which has ebbed amid the country's political turmoil.
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, that Russia and Egypt agreed to "speed up the preparation of documents that would give an additional impulse to our military and military-technical cooperation."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who met separately with el-Sissi, said the need to strengthen military cooperation between Russia and Egypt stems from "common challenges and threats," but mainly terrorism.
Shoigu said he and el-Sissi discussed possibilities for joint military exercises and training Egyptian officers in Russian military academies. "We also discussed the ways of expanding cooperation between our air forces and navies," Shoigu said.
Neither Lavrov nor Shoigu mentioned any specifics related to weapons sales, but Russian media reported last fall that Egypt was interested in acquiring Russian air defense missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and other weapons.
The visit comes nearly three months after Lavrov and Shoigu visited Cairo, the fact that Fahmy said reflects both countries' interest in expanding their cooperation.
"Naturally, we discussed bilateral relations, and there is an interest in developing economic ties through a bilateral committee next month that will have specific proposals working toward the interest of both nations," Fahmy said.
Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi and Mariam Rizk in Cairo contributed to this report.