MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday wished Egypt's military chief victory in the nation's presidential vote, even though he has yet to announce his bid -- a strong endorsement signaling Moscow's desire to expand its military and other ties with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Putin appeared to be capitalizing on a growing move by Gulf nations -- particularly Saudi Arabia -- to move the Middle East off its traditional reliance on the United States.
Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's visit to Moscow comes amid reports of a $2 billion Egyptian arms deal with Russia to be funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is part of Egypt's shift to reduce reliance on the United States.
"The United States' influence is steadily waning in the region for several years," said Gamal Abdel-Gawad, a political analyst at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Traditional allies like the Saudis are becoming more and more suspicious, and U.S. credibility in the region is at stake.
Without naming the United States, the Kremlin criticized what it regards as U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia's ties with the U.S. have been badly strained by disputes ranging from Syria's civil war, to missile defense plans in Europe, to Moscow's human rights record.
"I know that you have made a decision to run for president," Putin said at the start of his meeting with el-Sissi. "That's a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success."
El-Sissi didn't mention his presidential ambitions in brief opening remarks, but emphasized his focus on ensuring security, saying that the country's military is capable of providing it.
The 59-year old el-Sissi, who rose to prominence after the ouster of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, is popular among a large segment of Egyptians and is widely expected to announce a candidacy for presidential elections that are likely due in late April.
Putin's statement could be a reflection of widespread predictions in Egypt that the career infantry officer will win a landslide in the presidential vote. It also reflected the Russian leader's intention to forge close relations with Egypt under el-Sissi.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf accused Putin of interfering with Egypt's internal affairs.
"We don't endorse a candidate and don't think it's, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt," Harf told reporters.
She said the U.S. will continue to work with all parties to help Cairo advance an inclusive democratic transition of power for the government, but the ultimate decision will be up to the Egyptian people.
Harf maintained that the U.S. continues to have a strong relationship with Egypt, citing military and economic capabilities that Washington can offer Cairo.
Putin is known to have been less than warm toward Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood -- Egypt's oldest and most powerful Islamist group -- has been a guidance force for Islamic groups across much of the world in the last 50 years or more.
"Putin and el-Sissi have a lot in common ... and both share a negative view of the Brotherhood," said Abdullah el-Sinawi, a prominent Cairo-based analyst known to be close to the military.
El-Sinawi said el-Sissi wanted to send a signal to Washington, while Putin was eager to acquire a new ally in the Middle East. "Putin wants to have a foot in Egypt instead of an expected loss on the Syrian side," el-Sinawi said. "Egypt needs an international entrusted ally that would balance relations with America. Egypt will be open to other centers of power without breaking the relations with the U.S."
Last month, the U.S. Congress approved a spending bill that would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.
Russian and Egyptian ministers issued a joint communique that "condemned foreign interference in domestic affairs of any country and called for solving all existing problems and crises exclusively by peaceful means and broad all-inclusive dialogue" -- an apparent jab at the U.S.
Russia has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in other countries' affairs. It has used vetoes at the U.N. Security Council to block U.S.-backed resolutions that would impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Moscow also has clashed with Washington over Ukraine, accusing the U.S. of meddling in its political affairs during its months of anti-government protests.