Defying an ICC arrest warrant, Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a one-day foray to UAE and Saudi Arabia to display his role in shaping the geopolitical and energy landscape — and to make the world forget about the Ukraine war just a little bit more.
PARIS — There are several remarkable aspects to Vladimir Putin's trip to the Middle East: firstly, the fact that it is taking place at all. The Russian president has been facing an International Criminal Court arrest warrant since March: since then, he has only traveled to countries that are safe for him, such as former Soviet Republics and China.
This is his first foray outside his own world: he's showing to Russians back home that he's not a global outcast.
His destinations are also interesting: the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in a whirlwind one-day trip. He arrived in the Emirates in the middle of COP28, making sure to go after the Western leaders that had left. French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris were there last week, making the choreography perfect for Putin — and for the UAE, which has positioned itself as a hub for circumventing international sanctions.
Finally, Saudi Arabia, Moscow's partner in the OPEC+ consortium, bringing together the main oil-producing countries and Russia, and crucial in setting worldwide crude oil prices. This agreement remained in force despite the invasion of Ukraine, much to the dismay of the Americans, who hoped to see the Saudis play its part in isolating Russia.
Russia's role in the Middle East
The Russian President remains a major player in the Middle East. By visiting this region in the midst of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, he is showing that Russia remains a world power that counts, even if it is bogged down in the war in Ukraine.
Russia saved Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.
Moscow has also drawn considerably closer to Iran, which has supplied it with drones that were immediately sent to strike Ukraine. Putin will receive Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Kremlin on Thursday, to follow up on his talks from Wednesday's trip.
All of this makes Putin a key figure at a time when the entire region fears an expansion of the Middle East conflict, with Iranian intervention on all fronts, and considerable U.S. military deployment.
During a March 15 visit of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall
Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via ZUMA
Distraction from Ukraine
If we were cynical, we could say that anything that distracts attention from the war in Ukraine is good for Putin; and so a good old fashioned war in the Middle East perfectly achieves this objective.
Is this why, after October 7, the Russian president sacrificed his very personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in favor of a more classic pro-Palestinian stance? It has even led to a flirtation with supporting Hamas, not exactly a natural partner for the Kremlin.
This will help Russia in its battle for world public opinion.
This stance will allow him to discredit the West at little cost, accusing them of double standards between their support for the Ukrainians and their longstanding passivity towards the Palestinians, in defiance of international law. Putin knows that this is a powerful argument at the moment, and allows him — at least for a day — to forget about Ukraine.