CAIRO, Egypt – Vladimir Putin (search) on Tuesday makes his first visit to the Middle East as Russia's president, becoming the first Russian or Soviet leader in 40 years to make an official state visit to Egypt, a one-time close ally of the former Soviet Union.
Topping the agenda for talks with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (search) are 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, and proposals to reform the United Nations, the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass quoted Putin's foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, as saying.
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 becoming president in 2000 — aims to bolster ties with a region where the former 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 issues 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 (search), who in 1964 inaugurated the first stage in the construction of the Aswan High Dam (search) — a hugely ambitious project to irrigate arable land that once supplied up to 80 percent of Egypt's electricity. The dam was partly financed and built with Soviet help.
But the close ties forged between Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser (search) and Moscow lapsed after his death in 1971 when the Arab nationalist hero was succeeded by Anwar Sadat (search), who set the regional powerhouse on a new pro-American track that accelerated under Mubarak.
Today, Egypt is the second-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.
But analysts say there is room 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 by telephone from Moscow.
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.
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.
The Russian leader is scheduled to meet Mubarak in the presidential palace after his arrival on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, the two leaders 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.