Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Cairo on Monday for a two-day visit that comes at a time of continued tension between Washington and Cairo because of US criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdown against his opponents.
This will be the Russian leader’s first visit to Cairo since 2005, and comes quickly on the heels of a visit by the Russian foreign and defense ministers to Cairo in November. Sisi visited Russia in August. Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Cairo in 2009.
Russian flags and portraits of the Russian leader bedecked the Egyptian capital, Cairo, ahead of Putin’s arrival. Dozens of Egyptians flocked to Cairo International Airport to greet Putin, Egyptian state news agency MENA reported.
Coming as it does amid the controversy regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, and charges by some that this issue is creating an “irreparable” rift between Jerusalem and Washington, the visit serves as a reminder that while the US and Israel are not equal partners in their relationship, Israel is an important and reliable strategic asset for the US in a swiftly changing region.
There was some talk last month that Putin, while in the region, would also visit Israel, but that trip never materialized.
Putin last visited Israel in 2012. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman visited Moscow last month. Neither Russian nor Israeli officials would confirm reports that Putin plans to visit Israel after the March 17 elections.
In an interview that appeared Monday in Egypt’s Al-Ahram
daily, Putin was asked what Russia has done in recent months to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and “settle the Palestinian problem.”
The Russian leader noted that Moscow voted in favor of the Palestinians’ unsuccessful resolution brought to the UN Security Council in December calling for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines by 2017, adding that “the unceasing conflict cannot but worry us.”
He said that Moscow is in “regular contact” with senior officials both in the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
“We urge both parties to make concessions to each other and to search for common ground in order to normalize the situation,” he said. “We will further pursue this policy, both through bilateral channels and on various international platforms, first of all within the framework of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators, the activities of which should be intensified. We also consider it important to ensure close coordination of the Quartet’s efforts with Egypt and other Arab countries.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in Sunday’s meeting of Quartet principals – made up of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN – in Munich.
The Quartet issued a statement after that meeting making clear that it does not favor Palestinian unilateral efforts to get the international community to impose a settlement on Israel, saying that “a sustainable peace requires the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and sovereignty and those of Israelis for security to be fulfilled through negotiations based on the twostate solution.”
Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Putin repeated Russia’s position that “Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear activity, including uranium enrichment, naturally under control of the IAEA.”
Putin said that while “substantial progress” has been made in the negotiations between the world powers and Iran, “we have not managed yet to produce a final, comprehensive solution either regarding the Iranian nuclear program itself or the prospects of lifting the sanctions.”
A memorandum of economic cooperation is set to be signed during the visit, which includes the participation of Russian companies in constructing facilities in the Arab country, Russian News Agency TASS reported.
Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov noted that the visit comes at the request of Sisi and that cooperation in the energy field, including nuclear power and space, would be discussed.
Other topics that will be discussed are the situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya, the fight against terrorism and Islamic State, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, said the TASS report.
Egypt, the world’s top wheat importer and the second-largest buyer of Russian wheat, has been hit by Russia’s decision to curb grain exports, as Moscow seeks to cool domestic prices amid an economic crisis.
Russia, the world’s second- largest arms exporter, is also seeking to boost military ties with Egypt, as the country’s military cracks down on domestic terrorism.
“Russian-Egyptian relations are developing rapidly. The volume of bilateral trade has increased significantly over the past years: in 2014, it has increased by almost half compared to the previous year and amounted to more than $4.5 billion,” Putin said in the Al-Ahram
“Clearly, this trend needs to be strengthened. We see great potential for achieving results that are even more impressive,” he said.
As to the domestic troubles Egypt has been suffering, Putin showed his support for Sisi, noting, “We have treated with respect the expression of the will by the Egyptian people in the course of the plebiscite held on the draft of the new constitution and the elections of the head of state.”
Putin also signaled in the interview that the countries might stop using US dollars for trade and revert to national currencies.
On the Syrian civil war, Putin said that the approaches of the two governments “are similar” in that they call for the continued unity of Syria and a political settlement of the conflict.
In thinly veiled criticism of US policy in the region, he seemed to blame the current chaos and the rise of Islamic State on American policy.
“Today’s developments in Syria and Iraq stem, among other things, from a heavy-handed and irresponsible interference from the outside into the affairs of the region and unilateral use of force, double standards, and differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists.”
He went on to criticize the strategy and tactics of the US-led coalition against the terrorist group and the lack of a UN mandate for the attacks.
Putin also criticized attacks in the territory of Russia’s ally Syria. “Unlike Iraq, where the fight against terrorism is conducted in cooperation with the officials in Baghdad, in Syria the coalition refuses to work together with the legitimate authorities.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
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