Since he launched the fateful invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian President had not traveled outside the former Soviet territories. His only visit outside Russia was to “friendly” Central Asian States in June, where he predictably received a warm reception. The first trip by Putin outside former Soviet territories proved to be to the Iranian capital Tehran for the Astana Trilateral Summit — a forum established for the settlement of the Syrian conflict and features key players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian conflict took a back seat and the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the discussions at the trilateral summit.
After the boycott of Putin by the Western world, the Russian leader has been attempting strategic and economic reorientation toward Asia and has achieved considerable success in making up for the losses in revenues incurred owing to the Western economic sanctions by selling oil at heavily discounted prices to countries like China and India. The trip to Iran provided the beleaguered Russian leader an opportunity to dissipate the impression of Russian isolation — no matter if the support extended is from a state under the severest of Western sanctions – Iran. The outright endorsement of his Ukraine invasion and scathing condemnation of the Western world was precisely the music Putin wanted to hearken and the Iranian Supreme Leader had plenty to offer.
Nonetheless, being under Western sanctions has positioned both the countries abreast and Russia, by offering even cheaper energy rates, has captured the energy and steel markets previously held by under-sanctions Iran. The shift did cause some resentment in Iran and Putin sought to assuage the Iranian grievances by signing the $40 billion deal between the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom for the development of oil and gas fields in Iran. Nonetheless, the suspicions do persist as the Iranian Supreme Leader pushed Russians to follow up and fulfill the agreements signed between the two countries in the oil and gas sectors.
Putin’s Tehran visit has cemented Russia’s position as an important power broker in the Middle East having friendly relations with countries on both sides of the regional Middle Eastern divide. Besides its longstanding relationship with Iran, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war forestalled the almost certain downfall of Bashar’s regime and the country is also a party in the Libyan civil war, wherein it patronizes the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Moreover, Russia now has a multifaceted relationship with the USA’s Arab allies — particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar — primarily owing to the convergence of their energy interests in OPEC Plus. The Arab countries also avoided harshly denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine — as the West would have anticipated — so as to avoid antagonizing Moscow, and top Saudi and Emirati royals reportedly declined calls from President Biden during the initial days of the invasion.
Days before Putin visited Tehran, President Biden took a trip to the Middle East and in his address to a gathering of Arab leaders, tried to reassure Washington’s Arab allies that the superpower remains committed to the region and urged oil-rich Arab nations to increase their oil production to mitigate global oil price shock caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Following Biden’s visit, the de facto Saudi ruler Muhammad Bin Salman and President Putin during a phone call agreed to keep coordinating within the framework of OPEC Plus. Accordingly, during the cartel’s meeting held on August 3rd the OPEC Plus members agreed to make a small increase in the oil production, which is unlikely to drastically impact the energy prices as President Biden counted upon.
Even more remarkably, in utter defiance of the US sanctions, Saudi Arabia is importing Russian oil at discounted price for domestic use while selling its oil at higher prices in the international market. In effect, in a major geopolitical turnaround for Moscow in the Middle East, Putin has been able to reaffirm its partnerships, and the days of Arab capitals uncritically following Washington’s lead are all but over.
Putin’s meeting with Turkish President Erdogan during Astana Summit also captured headlines — initially after the Russian President was left awkwardly standing for around 50 seconds waiting for his Turkish counterpart before their meeting and successively for the discussions between the two strongmen to strike a deal to freight the Ukrainian grain from its three Black Sea ports (the deal has now been reached). During the discussions on Syria, Erdogan reportedly talked about the Russian President as “My dear friend Putin” in an exhibition of the close relationship between the two strongmen. Though Turkey and Russia feature on the opposite sides of equations in the Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan-Armenia, and Ukraine conflicts, they have long-lasting trade and energy ties. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, did not join the Western sanctions against Russia and is now buying more oil from Moscow. Correspondingly, Moscow looks to Turkey as a partner — nonetheless a difficult one — among a host of antagonists and as a crucial market for its energy products and wheat. Yet another meeting between the two leaders in the Russian city of Sochi further hollows Western gambits to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine; meanwhile, Putin continues to assemble allies.