Just days after President Joe Biden returned from his controversial trip to the Middle East, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is paying his own visit to the region this week. On Tuesday, Putin arrived in Iran, where he will meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hold talks with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is visiting at the same time. It is only Putin’s second trip outside Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in February and the first outside the former Soviet Union.
It is also a visit loaded with strategic significance — for Russia, for Iran and for their respective adversary, the United States.
The ostensible reason for the trip is talks on the situation in Syria. Iran, Russia and Turkey are co-sponsors of the Astana format, an alternative set of Syrian peace talks to the U.N.-organized talks in Geneva. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said a “comprehensive treaty on strategic cooperation” between Russia and Iran is in the works. Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who studies Russia’s relations with the Middle East, told Grid that for Putin, “the important thing is the image that he is not all-consumed with what’s going on with Ukraine, that he is able to focus on other things.” Nonetheless, Ukraine is certainly a factor on this trip. U.S. officials recently publicized intelligence suggesting that Iran is preparing to provide Russia with hundreds of drones, including some that are weapons-capable.
Mona Yacoubian, Middle East analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Grid that the trip could also provide some clues about the “various quid pro quos” between Russia, Iran and Turkey over “various battle spaces” including both Syria and Ukraine. Others have noted the extent to which Russia has been able to broaden contacts and alliances with what some have called an “alliance of the aggrieved” — nations that for whatever reason hold grudges or worse against the United States. Putin’s Iran trip is a sign of just how much the war in Ukraine has shifted the global status quo and how much it intersects with other conflicts around the world.
According to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Russian officials visited Iran twice in the past month to view Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129, both weapons-capable drones somewhat similar in design to American Predator drones. Iran has previously provided drones to allied militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and Iraq as well as to foreign governments, including Venezuela and Ethiopia. Russia would be the most high-profile recipient yet.
Traditionally, Iran is thought of as a customer for Russian weapons, rather than the other way around, Nicole Grajewski, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, noted to Grid. Over the years, Iran has purchased a number of big-ticket Russian systems including S-300 air defenses and Kilo-class submarines as well as tanks, helicopters and armored vehicles. Now, it seems, Russia is the one in need. “If these reports are true, that’s an indication that this relationship has changed in a really broad way,” Grajewski said.
Heavily employed by both sides, drones have perhaps played a greater role in the Ukraine War than in any conventional war to date. Though neither side has an overwhelming advantage when it comes to drones, Ukraine has been receiving a significant number of them from its Western backers. Meanwhile, outside of Belarus, few countries are providing military aid of any sort to Russia. Turning to Iran would be a sign that Russia is struggling to keep up with the never-ending flow of heavy weapons into Ukraine.
A complicated friendship — and the Syria factor
“What’s interesting is that Putin is courting Iran so much,” said Katz, noting that the Russian president hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for talks in Moscow in January, shortly before the war began, and that the two met on the sidelines of a Caspian Sea summit in Turkmenistan in June, Putin’s last foreign trip. “The Russians know that the Iranians have the capacity to make things easier or tougher for them everywhere.”
Iran and Russia have clear reasons to be friends, given the geopolitics of the moment. They share a rival in the U.S. as well as difficulties with Western economic sanctions. They’ve both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the long Syrian civil war.
Iran was among the very first countries to publicly support Russia’s war. On Feb. 24, the day the invasion began, Raisi put in a call to Putin in order to stress, as his office put it, that NATO expansion “is a serious threat to the stability and security of independent countries in different regions.” It was a line that might have been delivered by Putin himself.
But the two have their differences as well. Since the war in Ukraine began, Russia, to Tehran’s annoyance, has been selling its oil at a discount, undercutting Iran’s own sales to the countries, notably China, that still buy its oil despite Western sanctions. And Russian troops have jostled for influence and control in southern Syria with Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.
When it comes to Syria, where Russian troops have been operating since 2015, the war in Ukraine is likely sapping Moscow’s ability to maintain its influence on the conflict. The Russian military has reportedly withdrawn troops from Syria to send to the higher-priority conflict on Russia’s borders. According to Yacoubian, Iran-backed militias may be moving in to fill the vacuum left behind by the Russians. “Ukraine has become an existential priority for Russia. Syria is not as high of a priority right now,” she said. “What we’re seeing is Iran, always the opportunist, seeking to take advantage on the ground of areas in which Russia may have somewhat shifted its posture.”
There is some parallel here to Biden’s trip, which was seen by some analysts as part of an effort to assure that the U.S. still maintains influence in the region even as it draws down its military presence. Russia, too, has to economize on its global military presence, owing to the all-consuming “special military operation” in Ukraine that is stretching its military to the breaking point. That makes it all the more important that it maintain relationships with key regional countries including Iran and Turkey.
The Turkey factor
Erdogan, the third president in the trio that is meeting in Tehran this week, has sought from the beginning to turn the war on the other side of the Black Sea to his advantage. Turkey has sold weapons to Ukraine, including the now-iconic Bayraktar drones that inflicted a heavy toll on Russian forces in the early days of the war. But Erdogan has refrained from following his NATO partners in sanctioning Russia and has maintained diplomatic relations with both sides.
Turkey has also shown it can create headaches for Russia’s adversaries. It initially opposed Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, accusing the two Nordic states of supporting Kurdish militants. Judging by comments he made just before leaving for Iran, Erdogan still hasn’t made a final decision on this issue.
Like Iran, Turkey may be looking to use Russia’s Ukrainian difficulties to gain advantage in Syria. Turkey has backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria, and Erdogan is believed to be planning a new military incursion into Syria in the coming months to take territory from Kurdish forces. Russia is opposed to any such operation, but given its own declining influence in Syria and the leverage Turkey has in Ukraine, Russia probably won’t push back too hard if Turkey invades.
There’s another facet of the Turkey-Russia talks that may hold more relevance for the wider world. Turkey, which controls the southern entry to the Black Sea, has also been negotiating a deal with both Ukraine and Russia to facilitate the shipment of grain through the sea, potentially ending a disruptive blockade that has contributed to a global hunger crisis. A deal is reportedly imminent, though given the mines and ongoing combat in the sea, it’s unclear whether shipping could resume as normal even if all the parties agree.
Signal to the region
Harvard’s Grajewski said that more than seeking help on any particular issue, Putin may be coming to Iran to “signal to the West this kind of alternative vision that Russia has for the Middle East.”
In the years leading up to the war in Ukraine, Russia was able to maintain a remarkable amount of influence in the region while keeping strong relationships with governments on all sides of the region’s political and sectarian divides. Often Russia, with its more narrowly transactional approach based on energy and security assistance, has managed to take advantage of mistrust of American intentions and frustrations with Washington’s lectures on human rights.
Case in point: Even while courting the Iranians, Russia has managed to maintain decent relationships with Iran’s archrivals across the Gulf. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed both took phone calls in March from Putin after declining calls from Biden, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Saudi leadership of OPEC at a summit in June.
Biden’s trip to the region last week, a dramatic about-face from his campaign promises to isolate the Saudis over their human rights practices, was largely motivated by a desire to maintain relations with these longtime regional allies at a time when the war is putting stress on global energy supplies. The Kremlin took notice, with spokesman Peskov responding to Biden’s trip by saying, “We highly appreciate our relations and our interaction with Riyadh and we certainly hope that the building of relations and the development of relations between Riyadh and other world capitals will in no way be directed against us.”
George Mason University’s Katz said that Putin’s trip can also be interpreted as a signal from Russia to the places that Biden just visited. “Essentially, the message that they’re sending, not just to the Saudis, but also to the Emiratis and the Israelis, is that you need to work with us, or we can do things that you do not like,” he said.
Things are a little more complicated when it comes to Israel. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has blasted Israel’s refusal to sanction Russia, and former prime minister Naftali Bennett refrained from criticizing Russia in the early days of the war. However, at the beginning of July, Bennett was replaced as prime minister by Yair Lapid, who has been far more outspoken in his condemnation of Russia.
Israel’s reluctance to take too strong a stance against the invasion was probably partially motivated by its interests in Syria. Russia has long tolerated Israel’s strikes against Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, in Syria. But those strikes have been getting more dramatic in recent months, and Russia has been growing less tolerant. Russia sponsored a U.N. resolution condemning an Israeli strike that shut down the Damascus airport in June. And, in a potential first, the Russian military reportedly opened fire on Israeli jets in Syria with its S-300 anti-aircraft systems in May.
Russia has been able to maintain decent relations with both Iran and Israel up until now. That’s becoming an increasingly difficult position to maintain.
Russia still in the mix
Ultimately, Putin comes to Tehran looking for military, economic and regional strategic gains — all the while working to ensure that he doesn’t lose the relationships he has cultivated with those countries in the region that view Iran as an enemy. It’s one more effort by the Russian leader to show that he and his country are hardly pariahs on the world stage, despite all the efforts by the U.S. and Europe to make them so.
Put differently, given the long war it is waging in Ukraine, Russia is now in a moment of need. Putin expects his friends in the Middle East to have his back.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.