Putin’s visit to Egypt nets plan to build nuclear plant

CAIRO — Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart said on Tuesday that the two countries plan to jointly build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, as well as boost trade relations and investments.

Putin’s landmark two-day visit to Cairo, during which he was feted with much pomp and pageantry, came as Russia faces heightened tensions with Washington and the European Union over Moscow’s backing of separatists in Ukraine.

Both Putin and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were eager to deepen a bilateral relationship unimpeded by foreign criticism, strengthening economic and military ties in part to show they have other options available than working with the West.

The courting of Russia also puts Egypt, a decades-long U.S. ally, into a delicate balancing act with one of its main foreign backers, Saudi Arabia, which supports rebels fighting to overthrow a government that Moscow supports in Syria’s civil war.

Tuesday’s announcement on the nuclear plants came at a joint press conference after talks at a former royal palace, where Putin arrived to a 21-gun salute and 200 Egyptian schoolchildren waving flags and crying out the two leaders’ names, along with chants of “Long live Egypt!”

El-Sissi told reporters that memorandums of understanding had been signed on the plant’s construction, as well as plans to increase gas sales to Egypt and boost investment.

The plant would be built at an existing nuclear site in Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coast west of the port city of Alexandria, where a research reactor has stood for years.

Putin stressed that the deal was not finalized but that it had major potential. Egypt began its nuclear program in 1954 and in 1961, acquired a 2-megawatt research reactor, built by the Soviet Union. Plans to expand the site have been decades in the making but repeatedly fell through. In 2010, that reactor suffered a breakdown, though no radiation was reported to have leaked out.

“If final decisions are made, it will mean not just building a nuclear power plant, it means the creation of the entire new atomic industry in Egypt,” Putin said.

Boosting electricity generation has been a priority for Egypt, where shortages lead to frequent blackouts in cities, especially in the summer, which have stoked popular anger.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s Rosatom state-controlled nuclear corporation, said the agreement signed envisages a power plant with four reactors producing 1,200 megawatts each.

In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Kiriyenko said that technical and commercial details of the project have yet to be finalized. He said it envisages new technology with strong safety measures that take into account lessons learned during the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, as well as a loan for its construction.

Along with the reactors, the plant will also have desalination capacities, Kiriyenko said, adding that Rosatom will provide its fuel, personnel training, and build necessary infrastructure.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Egyptian-Russian nuclear plant had been discussed for some time.

“We support peaceful nuclear power programs as long as obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Egypt is a signatory … are fully met,” she told reporters in Washington.

Egypt has also signaled renewed interest to purchase Russian arms, although observers say any eventual deals would be unlikely to reorient Cairo’s dependence on Washington, which grants it up to $1.3 billion in annual military aid.

“This is a decades-long relationship, this is an American outfitted military,” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation.

“To be able to present the image of its military that it wants requires American assistance, just at the very basic level of spare parts and upkeep. You can’t turn that around based off a few billion dollars in deals for a few airplanes and tanks, even if that were to come to fruition,” he said. “In many ways, the U.S. and Egypt are stuck with each other.”

The Interfax news agency reported Monday that Russia currently has $3.5 billion worth of new arms contracts with Egypt, including fighter jets, helicopters, air defense missiles and other weapons. It said Egypt is one of the first foreign customers for Russia’s sophisticated Antei-2500 long-range air defense missile systems.

Upon arrival in Cairo the previous day, Putin presented el-Sissi a Kalashnikov assault rifle as a gift. Egypt was Moscow’s closest Arab ally in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the country was led by nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

In another key deal, el-Sissi said the two nations signed an agreement to create a Russian industrial zone along the Suez Canal, the expansion of which has been a star project for the Egyptian president. Cairo also aims to import Russian liquefied natural gas via a floating terminal being built by a Norwegian company, planned to open by April.

Putin said Sunday in an interview with Egypt’s flagship state newspaper, al-Ahram daily, that the volume of bilateral trade has increased by almost half last year compared to the previous year to surpass $4.5 billion. “We see great potential for achieving results that are even more impressive,” he said.

Putin is to fly Wednesday to Belarus for a crucial summit in Minsk involving the leaders of France, Germany, and Ukraine.

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