MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to speed up the delivery of billions of dollars in arms Tuesday and invited Cairo to forge free trade ties with a Moscow-led customs bloc.
The two strong-willed leaders have developed a warm working relationship since Putin gave his backing to Sisi’s presidential run during the Egyptian’s visit to Moscow in February.
Russian television showed the former field marshal descending the ramp of his plane and immediately being greeted with a display of heavy tanks and armored vehicles assembled on the apron of the Sochi airport.
“We are actively developing our military and technological cooperation,” Putin later told Sisi at the Russian president’s Black Sea resort summer residence.
“We signed a corresponding protocol in March. We are delivering weapons to Egypt. We are ready to expand this cooperation.”
Sisi in turn thanked Putin for being the first leader outside the Arab world to invite him for a visit since his swearing-in as head of state.
“All the people of Egypt are closely watching my visit and expecting a high level of cooperation between our states,” Russian state news agencies quoted Sisi as telling Putin. “I expect us to meet their expectations.”
Russia has jumped at the chance to grab a bigger slice of the Egyptian arms market after the United States suspended some of its weapons deliveries in the wake of Sisi’s crackdown on the former Islamic government last year.
Cairo hosted the Russian defense and foreign ministers in November – the first such visit since the Soviet era – for discussions on an Egyptian arms purchase plan.
Moscow’s Vedemosti business daily reported after those talks that Russia and Egypt were nearing a $3 billion (2.2 billion euro) advanced missiles and warplanes deal that would be financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The report said Moscow and Cairo had already either “initialed or signed” contracts for the purchase of MiG-29 fighters and Russian attack helicopters as well as coastal defense systems.
“ Egypt is most interested in air defense systems,” said Moscow’s World Arms Trade Analysis Centre chief Igor Korotchenko.
“I think that the signing of actual contracts is just a question of time,” the analyst said in a telephone interview. “A political-level agreement has already been reached.”
Putin said Egypt could purchase a fifth of Russia’s total wheat exports, and was eager to help fill the void left by Moscow’s sanctions on U.S. and European produce and meat.
The Russian leader also invited Cairo to establish a free trade zone between Egypt and a customs union that Russia has forged with ex-Soviet Belarus and Kazakhstan.
State media did not report Sisi’s response to the invitation, but it said he in turn told Putin that Russia was welcome to play a greater role in Egypt’s recently unveiled “new Suez Canal” project.
Closer agricultural and military trade ties between Cairo and Moscow – strategic partners during parts of the Cold War – are unlikely to go down well in Washington, amid the effective freeze in East-West relations brought on by the Ukraine crisis.
Putin has responded to his diplomatic isolation from the United States and its EU allies by striking a massive gas deal with China and inviting Latin American countries to sell their agricultural goods to Russia on preferential terms.