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Putin’s Kalashnikov Diplomacy Gets a Win in Egypt

Putin’s Kalashnikov Diplomacy Gets a Win in Egypt

Just when you thought Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t possibly do more to resemble a comic book villain, he goes and outdoes himself. The Russian leader was in Cairo Tuesday for meetings with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and presented the former general with a modest gift: a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The gift was a red bow on top of a series of agreements strengthening ties between Russia and Egypt. The two leaders announced the creation of a free-trade zone between Egypt and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal, and Russian aid in the construction of a nuclear power plant.

Sisi rolled out a warm welcome for the Russian president, lining highways with posters of his face. The hosts treated Putin to a 21-gun salute and a military parade featuring officers on horseback as he entered the vicinity of Cairo’s Qasr El-Qobba palace. The Egyptian press was also quick to play up Putin and Sisi’s budding relationship, with the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper dedicating a two-page feature to the Russian president, calling him a “hero of our times” and extolling his “glowing intelligence.”

For Egypt, the visit comes at a time when Sisi’s government is eager to showcase that it is not wholly beholden to Washington, which has for decades provided billions in military aid. But after Sisi and a coterie of Egyptian generals overthrew the country’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, relations have been strained.

Similarly, Putin’s trip appears geared at putting the world on notice that Western sanctions related to Russia’s actions in Ukraine have not curtailed Moscow’s influence in the world.

The free trade zone with the Eurasian Union is one such measure to boost Moscow’s fortunes abroad. The deal allows Cairo to strengthen its links with Russia, as trade between the two economies has already been growing. In 2014, there was $4.5 billion in trade between the two countries, an 80 percent increase since 2013, Putin said Tuesday. The agreement also opens the door for Egypt, the first non-former Soviet country to establish links to the bloc, to increase trade ties with other Eurasian Union members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

While the free trade agreement is a political victory for Putin and Sisi, it remains to be seen whether it will be an economic one. The Eurasian Union has limped out of the start gate since coming into effect on Jan. 1, with falling oil prices and a plummeting ruble hammering the Russian and other Eurasian Union members’ economies. This strain has exposed cracks in the bloc, with its members feuding over everything from food exports to trade balances and raising the question of whether the union is an economic alliance in name, and a political one in practice.

On top of the free trade deal, Russia will provide assistance in helping Egypt build the Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant, the country’s first nuclear energy facility.

Moscow has also sought to secure a larger slice of the Egyptian arms market after Washington suspended some weapons deliveries in the immediate aftermath of Sisi’s crackdown on supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo hosted the Russian defense and foreign ministers in November — the first such visit since the Soviet era — and the two sides announced on Tuesday that they are close to signing a $3.5 billion arms deal.

The arms deal with Moscow was reportedly discussed during Putin’s visit, according to AFP, but no breakthrough appears to have been made.

Washington has warmed to Sisi’s rule and resumed aid to the government in Cairo, disbursing $1.5 billion in assistance. No word yet on whether President Barack Obama plans on traveling to Cairo soon bearing gifts from America’s classic gun manufacturers.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images