Putin Kicks Off Visit to Mideast

APPutin shaking hands with Mubarak in the Abdeen Palace in Cairo on Tuesday.
CAIRO, Egypt -- Vladimir Putin arrived Tuesday in Cairo on his first visit to the Middle East as president, becoming the first Russian or Soviet leader in 40 years to make an official state visit to Egypt, once a close ally of the former Soviet Union.

Topping the agenda of his talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom he met shortly after arrival, were efforts to revive the tenuous peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Putin will later head to Israel amid hopes that Moscow can play a larger role in the search for a solution to the stalled peace process.

Putin and Mubarak will also discuss Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, as well as proposals to reform the United Nations, said Putin's foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, Itar-Tass reported.

In an interview published Monday in the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, Putin stressed that his visit to Egypt -- his first to an Arab country since he becoming president in 2000 -- aimed to bolster ties with a region where the Soviet Union once wielded tremendous influence.

"My colleagues and I think we must start direct communications with Arab countries, starting with Egypt," he said.

"It's obvious that we cannot solve the problems of today's world without taking into consideration the views and interests of the people of this region," Putin said.

The last Kremlin chief to make an official state visit to Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1964 inaugurated the first stage in the construction of the Aswan High Dam -- a hugely ambitious project to irrigate arable land which once supplied up to 80 percent of Egypt's electricity. The dam was partly financed and built with Soviet help.

But the ties forged between Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Moscow lapsed after his death in 1970, when the Arab nationalist hero was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who set the regional powerhouse on a new pro-U.S. track that accelerated under Mubarak.

Today, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S aid after Israel, and is seen as a staunch ally of Washington.

Russia, in turn, has forged stronger ties with Israel, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and cooperates closely with Moscow on anti-terrorism efforts. During Putin's visit to Israel, he may ask the country to extradite media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin and other Russian tycoons who live in exile there and face charges in Russia.

Analysts say there is scope for Russia and Egypt to improve relations, including commercial ties that are currently blossoming.

"The visit to Israel is no doubt more important, but Putin's presence in Egypt will rekindle enthusiasm about long-lost ties," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs quarterly journal.

"Egypt is a key power in the Middle East, and Russia is keen to show it has an important role to play in world affairs," he said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Monday that Cairo appreciated Moscow's efforts to implement the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted, but which has stalled as both sides have failed to carry out their initial obligations.

Russia is one of the four international sponsors of the plan. The others are the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Mubarak has twice visited Russia in recent years, including in May last year. But Putin had until now concentrated on cultivating ties with the West and Russia's economically powerful Asian neighbors.

Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, never held a presidential meeting in Cairo, but in 1996 attended an international summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

On Wednesday, Putin and Mubarak are slated to hold further talks, and Putin, who will leave for Israel at the end of the day, is also expected to tour the Pyramids.

The Russian delegation includes top business figures who will hold discussions in Cairo with Egyptian industrialists interested in securing access to Russian technology.

n Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Tuesday that Moscow would go ahead with its sale of Strelets missile systems to Syria -- a deal that Israel has hotly criticized.

"This will not harm the balance of forces in the region," Ivanov said, Interfax reported. "In our estimation, Israel significantly surpasses Syria in military terms."

Ivanov said the missiles could not be used to attack Israel because their range is 4 to 5 kilometers, and he has said previously that Russia would reserve the right to make inspections of the sites where they are deployed on demand.

He said Tuesday that Russian military officials had briefed their Israeli counterparts in detail about the parameters of the missiles "and vividly demonstrated that this complex cannot be used in a portable version, and the Israeli military officials agreed with this," Interfax reported.

He added that calling such a system portable was "like saying submarines can fly."