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.
Putin appeared to be capitalizing on a growing move by Gulf nations — particularly Saudi Arabia — to move the Middle East off its traditional reliance on the United States.
Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's visit to Moscow comes amid reports of a $2 billion Egyptian 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.
"The United States' influence is steadily waning in the region for several years," said Gamal Abdel-Gawad, a political analyst at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Traditional allies like the Saudis are becoming more and more suspicious, and U.S. credibility in the region is at stake.
Without naming the United States, the Kremlin criticized 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.
"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 presidential vote. It also reflected the Russian leader's intention to forge close relations with Egypt under el-Sissi.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf accused Putin of interfering with Egypt's internal affairs.
"We don't endorse a candidate and don't think it's, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt," Harf told reporters.
She said the U.S. will continue to work with all parties to help Cairo advance an inclusive democratic transition of power for the government, but the ultimate decision will be up to the Egyptian people.
Harf maintained that the U.S. continues to have a strong relationship with Egypt, citing military and economic capabilities that Washington can offer Cairo.
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 ... and both share 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," el-Sinawi 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.
Russian and Egyptian ministers issued a joint communique that "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.
Asked about the joint communique, Harf cited "some irony to a foreign country issuing a statement saying other foreign countries shouldn't get involved." She said, "Egypt is free to pursue relationships with other countries. It doesn't impact our shared interests."
Saudi Arabia, long America's closest Arab ally, has become increasingly frustrated with U.S. policies in the Mideast, and some see the reported Gulf-financed Egyptian arms deal with Russia as a sign of that.
Saudi Arabia is not only bankrolling Egypt's reported deal with Russia. In December, Saudi Arabia promised the Lebanese government $3 billion to buy arms from France. For the past seven years, Beirut has been in a close military alliance with Washington.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is critical of the United States on a number of issues. Washington's thawing of ties with Iran, leading to November's interim nuclear deal between Tehran and the West, angered the Saudis, who see Iran has their top rival in the Middle East.
Also frustrating the kingdom is the United States' reluctance to more strongly back Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia has thrown its weight behind rebels, hoping to dislodge Iran's ally, President Assad.
The region's Arab Spring uprisings also drove a wedge between the U.S. and the Gulf.
When the U.S. backed the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, Saudi Arabia "lost faith in U.S. commitment," said analyst Abdel-Gawad.
Like many Egyptians, the Saudis also saw the U.S. as supportive of Mubarak's elected successor, Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that the kingdom sees as a bitter enemy.
Saudi Arabia firmly backed el-Sissi's removal of Morsi, and it and other Gulf nations have since funneled Egypt's military-backed government billions of dollars in loans and grants.
Still, the Saudi willingness to reportedly back an arms purchase from Russia likely doesn't mean a warming of the kingdom's ties with Moscow. Saudi Arabia has been critical of Russia for its firm backing of Assad, including Moscow's thwarting of any tough U.N. action on the conflict.
But Putin voiced hope for expanding Russia trade and tourism in Egypt, and Cabinet ministers from both countries used the visit to discuss stepping up their military cooperation.
AP writers Hamza Hendawi, Maggie Michael and Mariam Rizk in Cairo, and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.