Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday endorsed Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's undeclared bid to head the strife-torn North African nation as the two leaders negotiated a massive Moscow weapons deal.
Sisi came to Moscow with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy for talks aimed at securing Russian assistance -- stagnant since the late Soviet era -- that could replace subsiding support from Cairo's more recent ally Washington.
Putin told Sisi that he fully backed Egypt's new constitution and crucially made no mention of Cairo's crackdown on protests or the army-backed overthrow in July of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
"I know that you, mister defence minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt," Putin told Sisi in televised remarks.
"I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people."
The 59-year-old Egyptian field marshal has not officially declared his presidential ambitions but is overwhelmingly expected to run in elections likely to be held before the end of April.
A Kuwaiti newspaper had quoted Sisi as saying last week that he felt obliged "to meet the demands of the Egyptian people" and run for head of state. The army later denied the report.
Sisi and Fahmy had earlier on Thursday met their Russian counterparts to negotiate a $2-billion arms deal the two sides initially discussed in Cairo in November -- a month after Washington suspended millions of dollars in assistance to the Egyptian army over Morsi's ouster.
"Our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological cooperation between Egypt and Russia," Sisi told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
"We hope to speed up this cooperation," Sisi said.
Top officials revealed no details of Thursday's military discussions while signalling that both sides were interested in the speedy conclusion of a deal.
"It was decided to accelerate preparations on an intergovernmental agreement on military and technological cooperation," a joint statement released by the Russian foreign ministry after the talks said.
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- Air defence systems -
The head of Russia's state industrial holding company had said after the Cairo meeting that Moscow was on the verge of reaching a landmark agreement to deliver air defence systems to Egypt's army.
Rostec chief Sergei Chemezov said on November 18 that "some contracts (with Egypt) have already been signed -- particularly one concerning air defence systems."
But he later clarified that he was referring only to a framework deal and not to firm delivery contracts.
Moscow's authoritative Vedomosti business daily on November 15 said the deals under discussion were worth more than $2 billion and could be financed by Saudi Arabia.
Some Gulf media have reported that the United Arab Emirates -- a strong Egyptian backer since Morsi's fall -- was also ready to fund a part of the purchase.
The Soviet Union was the main supplier of arms to Egypt in the 1960s and early 1970s. Cooperation between the two sides dropped after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty and Cairo began receiving generous US aid.
Russia is now keen to revive those ties and Shoigu made clear on Thursday that Moscow fully supported the tough measures taken by Sisi against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement.
"We cannot but celebrate the adoption of the new Egyptian constitution," the Russian defence minister told Sisi.
"We view your efforts at achieving stability as effective."
Shoigu added that the two sides had touched on the possibility of Russia and Egypt conducting joint military exercises and the option of the North African country's officers undergoing military training in Moscow.
Some analysts said the Kremlin had sensed a weakening of Washington's position in a vital Middle Eastern nation and was now preparing to pounce on the opportunity.
"Politically, this is a very advantageous time for Russia," said Russia in Global Affairs magazine editor Fyodor Lukyanov.
"The Kremlin wants to demonstrate it is honest and open in its dealings while others like the United States are playing games."