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March 2, 2024

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Putin’s Gulf visit defies efforts to isolate him over war

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday will visit the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where he plans to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as he seeks to bolster Moscow’s important partnerships with the strategic oil producers.

The Kremlin said Tuesday that Putin would discuss trade and investments, with Interfax earlier reporting the oil market and Israeli-Palestinian conflict are also set to be on the agenda.

On Thursday, Putin will also host Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who’ll lead a delegation to Moscow at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Putin will be at negotiations in Abu Dhabi and won’t visit the COP28 summit, which is taking place this week in the neighboring emirate of Dubai, Peskov told Bloomberg News.

The visit signals Putin is becoming more emboldened to travel outside Russia despite U.S. and European efforts to isolate him on the global stage, with his economy on a surer footing and fighting on the battlefield in Ukraine settling into a stalemate. The Gulf states’ cooperation with Moscow will be front-and-center during the visit, given Russia’s dependence on energy revenues.

Putin’s visit to the two key Gulf powers is “a clear sign” that Russia is breaking out of its international isolation, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. It advances Russia’s goal of asserting its Middle East influence and shows that the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both traditional U.S. allies, are keen to balance their foreign policy, he said.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia are all members of OPEC+, the alliance between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other major oil producers, which last week agreed to extend and deepen its production cuts. In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman emphasized the level of trust and cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow on oil policy. The relationship between the two countries forms the backbone of the OPEC+ alliance.

Russian outlet Life.ru reported Monday that Putin would visit the two countries.

Putin may be keen to exploit a wedge between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over Israel’s current military campaign in Gaza.

Moscow supports Riyadh’s current push for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza as well as its efforts to relaunch its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel to withdraw from Arab and Palestinian land it has occupied since 1967 as a prelude to creating a state for Palestinians alongside the Jewish one.

Selective Standards?

“The selectivity we have witnessed in applying international legal and moral standards and the disregard for the heinous crimes committed by Israeli occupation forces against defenseless Palestinian civilians have enraged the Islamic and Arab world,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on Nov. 21.

While the U.S. has warned Israel over heavy civilian Palestinian casualties, Washington has maintained its political and military support for Israel’s operation in Gaza against Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.

Riyadh has also taken a different approach on Iran, which has deepened its ties and military cooperation with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Although Washington has issued public and private warnings to Iran and its network of armed groups across the region not to provoke a regional war with Israel, Riyadh has gone out of its way to engage with Iran since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and the war that has ensued.

As Putin looks to bolster his ties with the Gulf leaders, the durability of America’s support for Ukraine is coming into question. President Joe Biden’s budget director warned this week that the U.S. would run out of resources to assist Kyiv by the end of the year if lawmakers didn’t pass an emergency funding package. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country’s counteroffensive did not achieve its desired goals because allies had not provided hoped-for weapons.

The UAE has become a home for many Russian companies fleeing the West amid sanctions. UAE President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan also visited Putin for a flagship business forum in June in St. Petersburg. The U.S. has pressed the Gulf state to curb ties with Moscow, and close channels used by Russia to skirt sanctions. This month, the Biden administration targeted several UAE-based shipping firms, part of a crackdown on non-compliance with its oil price cap.

Arrest Warrant

Putin has rarely left Russia since he ordered troops into Ukraine in February 2022, triggering a raft of international sanctions, though he has visited China and former Soviet neighbors. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him in March for alleged war crimes, further complicating travel outside his country.

The Russian leader didn’t attend either the August BRICS summit of emerging economies in South Africa, which is a member of the tribunal, or the Group of 20 gathering the following month in India, which isn’t a signatory to the court. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have signed onto the ICC.

“Putin feels more confident, this density of external visits has not been seen for a long time,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East analyst based in Moscow. “For Putin, both in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE, the goals of the visit are the same: matters related to OPEC, the Middle East conflict and the Russian chairmanship of BRICS.”

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