It isn’t hard to guess why Vladimir Putin’s trip to Tehran was announced as Joe Biden made his way to Jerusalem and Jeddah. The Russian president may hanker for a time when the occupants of the White House and the Kremlin were held in equal regard across the Middle East and North Africa; in reality, he can only hope for superpower status by association.
But the illusion that Putin’s travels are of equal import as Biden’s can’t be sustained by his meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his fellow guest, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
If anything, Putin’s war on Ukraine has diminished his country’s stature in the region. Rather than offer solutions to geopolitical, economic and security problems created by US disengagement, Russia is now a source of new crises.
Mounting grain scarcities and food inflation in the poorer Arab nations are a direct consequence of Putin’s belligerence. His continued support for Iran despite its nuclear brinkmanship is cause for frustration for Israel and the Gulf Arab states menaced by the regime in Tehran. Not that the Iranians are feeling especially grateful at the moment: Russia is undercutting their oil exports to China.
Meanwhile, the poor performance of Putin’s forces in the battlefield is hardly reassuring for those who get their military supplies from Moscow. It won’t have escaped the attention of weapons buyers from India to China to sub-Saharan Africa that Russia has been reduced to seeking drones from Iran. If it was embarrassing for Biden to bump fists with the Saudi prince he once vowed to make a pariah, it is even more ignominious for Putin to have to plead for arms from a regime that actually is an international pariah.
Unlike the US president, the Russian leader can count on a cowed and coopted media back home to spare his blushes. But this is a small mercy for a man who compares himself with Peter the Great, the tsar who inflicted military humiliation on the Iranian Safavid empire in the 18th century.
If Biden’s ambitions for his Middle East trip were limited to getting Saudi Arabia to pump more oil, Putin’s goal is, commensurate with his lower status, humbler still. He is hoping to protect the delicate balance of power in Syria, where Russia, Iran and Turkey all have military forces and support opposing sides.
With his forces strained by the war in Ukraine, Putin can ill afford a disturbance to the Syrian equilibrium that might require him to invest more military resources there. But Erdogan is threatening to expand the Turkish sphere of influence by mounting a new invasion in northern Syria, ostensibly against Kurdish groups.
Iran’s Khamenei is also opposed to any Turkish expansion in Syria. But he and Putin will struggle to reason with Erdogan, who is in the middle of a reelection campaign and desperately needs victories abroad to offset his growing economic problems at home. Biden knows what that is like, having dealt with the Turkish leader’s intransigence over allowing Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Having finally joined the consensus within the alliance, Erdogan is again threatening to freeze the expansion.
If he has the traditional Russian appreciation for irony, Putin might reflect that the one thing he has in common with his US counterpart is a problem called Erdogan. But the parallels end there.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
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