STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. On July 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his second trip outside the country since the invasion of Ukraine – a limited foreign travel schedule reflecting the diplomatic isolation imposed on him in response to Russian aggression. In Tehran, he met with Iran’s leaders and, both separately and jointly, with Turkey’s (Türkiye) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In late June, Putin traveled to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where he attended the Caspian Summit, and met with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, Putin’s host in Tehran. The Putin trip came less than a week after President Biden’s visit with historic U.S. regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, and clearly represented a Kremlin effort to counter President Biden’s drive to re-establish U.S. leadership in the region. President Biden’s explicit goal during his trip was to reassure U.S. allies that the United States will remain deeply involved in the region, and that U.S. allies in the region should avoid expanding security ties to either China or Russia.
By visiting Tehran, President Putin hoped to expand economic and military ties to Iran, which is already a de-facto partner on multiple regional and international issues. Russian and Iranian military support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been pivotal to his ability to remain in power 10 years since the protests against his rule began. Many of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies are modeled on the comprehensive sanctions regime successive U.S. presidents have maintained against Iran. Iran has significant experience, and has had modest success, in circumventing the U.S. sanctions – expertise that the Kremlin might tap as it seeks to parry Western sanctions. In advance of the trip, Putin noted that bilateral trade had increased by more than 80% in recent years, and that the two states should further expand economic ties. At the same time, the two have become competitors in the cut-rate oil export market, as both countries heavily discount their oil prices to attract buyers wary of purchasing sanctioned Russian oil. Ahead of Putin’s arrival in Tehran, Putin’s delegation signed a non-binding agreement providing for $40 billion in investments to develop two gas and six oil fields in Iran.
In addition to watching for signs of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow against Western sanctions, U.S. officials are intently monitoring the possibility that Tehran will help President Putin replenish his arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, which has been depleted after five months of intense fighting in Ukraine. According to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Russian officials visited Kashan Airfield in Iran in June and early July to examine armed drones for possible acquisition. To support the U.S. assertion that Iran is preparing to supply Russia with “up to several hundred” drones, U.S. officials released a satellite image that showed “attack-capable” Shahed-129 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in flight while a Russian delegation transport plane was at the airfield. Sullivan added that it was unclear whether any Iranian UAVs had already been delivered to Russia. However, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called the U.S. allegations “baseless” in a call with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, saying that Tehran objects to “any action that leads to escalation of conflicts.” Many others are skeptical of Iran’s ability to provide Russia with sophisticated military hardware anytime soon.
Perhaps the key meeting of President Putin’s trip was a trilateral summit with both President Raisi and President Erdogan, focusing on the situation in Syria – where Moscow seeks to maintain its influence in the levant despite its preoccupation with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As expected, the talks between Putin and Erdogan, both bilateral and those including Iran, were more contentious than Putin’s bilateral meetings with the Iranian leadership. Turkey is a member of NATO and, in recent weeks, defied Moscow by acquiescing to the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO membership. Of perhaps greater concern for the Kremlin, Turkey has provided Ukraine with the TB-2 Bayraktar armed drone. For many in the Kremlin, this decision implies Turkish military alignment with Ukraine. Furthering the divide, Iran and Russia support the Assad regime, whereas Turkey has backed the Syrian opposition. Turkey does not want the anti-Assad opposition enclave along its border to collapse, lest hundreds of thousands of Syrians be forced to flee across the border into Turkey. During the trilateral summit, both Russia and Iran again urged Erdogan not to proceed with a threatened further incursion into northern Syria to push back Kurdish factions, including the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), elements of which are Kurdish. Ankara considers Syrian Kurdish groups as terrorist organizations working to undermine Turkey’s government. A week prior to Putin’s trip, U.S. Defense Department officials joined those arguing against a Turkish move further into northern Syria, arguing that such a military operation would cause SDF forces to withdraw from prisons and other locations guarding captured members of Islamic State and their families, presumably enabling many IS fighters to escape. At the same time, the Tehran meetings enabled Erdogan to continue advancing Turkey’s position as a mediator in the Ukraine war, and to propose potential solutions that would enable the resumption of Ukrainian grain and other exports through the Black Sea. Whether President Putin’s trip furthered any of his key objectives in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere remains to be seen, however, the Russian leader was able to demonstrate that U.S. efforts to ostracize and isolate him in the region have been unsuccessful (TSC).