Russian leader Vladimir Putin travels to Saudi Arabia, a traditional U.S. ally, Monday, offering to act as a peacemaker between Riyadh and Tehran in a diplomatic offensive aimed at balancing Moscow’s relations across the Middle East.
His second aim, say analysts, is to needle Washington. While courting Iran, Russia’s ally in Syria, the Kremlin has also been wooing Tehran’s top foes, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as other major powers in the region like Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance.
Putin’s visit coincides with a Pentagon announcement that it is dispatching 3000 additional troops and two squadrons of fighter jets to the Gulf kingdom in an effort, U.S. officials say, to deter Iranian aggression following the drone and Cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities last month, which rattled global energy markets and added to war tensions in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S., as well as other Western powers, blame Iran for the attack.
In recent months, Russia’s president has been assiduously courting Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a move which has been compared by some analysts to trolling the U.S. in the Gulf. The Crown Prince hasn't discouraged the attention — as much a warning, some analysts say, to Western powers and as a rebuff of their criticism for his human rights record.
At the G-20 summit last year in Buenos Aires, just weeks after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Putin was pictured laughing heartily with the Saudi ruler over a shared joke and giving him a high-five. The bonhomie between the pair stood in marked contrast with the shunning by other World leaders and dignitaries of the Crown Prince, who’s widely blamed, despite his denials, for the macabre killing of the journalist, a U.S. resident, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“The Russian government declined to criticize the Saudi authorities over the killing [of Khashoggi], and over the last year has made steady progress in offering itself as a new, reliable friend,” says Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, an independent advocacy organization based in the U.S..
Saudi and Russian officials are scheduled to announce more than two billion dollars-worth of Saudi investment in Russia during Putin’s visit, his first to the kingdom since 2007. The head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Kirill Dmitriev, said Moscow and Riyadh will sign ten major agreements covering agriculture, transport, railways, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and industrial intelligence.
The RDIF opened an office in Saudi Arabia four days ago, its first ever foreign office. The move is being seen by some as a maneuver by the Kremlin to make up for the reduction in Western foreign investment in the wake of sanctions imposed initially on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“I am convinced that the Russia-Saudi summit will give further strong impetus to our multifaceted partnership, contribute to its qualitative growth and strengthen mutual understanding between the two peoples,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week.
Speaking to broadcasters Saturday ahead of his trip, Putin decried attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, no matter who was behind them. He also urged Iran's neighbors to “respect” the interests of Iran, a country that has “existed on its territory for thousands of years.” But at the same time he praised increasing cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
During the interview the Russian leader offered, once again, to sell the Saudis advanced Russian-made air defense systems, either the S-300 which Turkey has purchased, or the S-400, bought by Iran. Last month, during a press conference in Ankara alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin tauntingly suggested Riyadh should do the same and buy from Russia.
“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia to protect their people,” Putin said. “And they need to make one clever decision as Iran did, buying our S-300, and as Mr. Erdogan did by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 Triumph air defense systems from Russia. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” he added.
His remarks prompted chortles from the Iranian delegation.
U.S. defense experts say it would be against Saudi Arabia’s defense and diplomatic interests to be lured by Putin into buying a Russian system. If Saudi Arabia did decide to purchase the S-400 or S-300, it would likely be denied access to the best U.S. defense technologies and military training and the purchase would also prompt a likely withdrawal of all U.S. military aircraft based in the Gulf kingdom, leaving Saudi Arabia reliant on Russia for its defense.
Pentagon officials say intelligence-collection capabilities of the S-400 would endanger U.S. planes operating in the vicinity.
When Turkey acquired the S-400, the White House immediately canceled plans to supply the NATO ally U.S. F-35 strike fighters. They also say the S-400 would be a poison pill for Saudi Arabia — the system would likely rely on Russian operatives and codes to identify unfriendly warplanes and as Iran has the most advanced Russian system, it would know its weaknesses and ways to trick the technology.
Despite Putin’s offers of a surface-to-air missile system, the Russians appear to be marketing harder their new anti-drone system, the Pantsir, an anti-UAV system Rosoboronexport, the export agency, is scheduled to put on display at the Dubai Airshow in November.
“Recent events in the world have shown that the effective fight against reconnaissance and strike UAVs, as well as other air attack weapons, is becoming increasingly important to ensure the protection of high-priority facilities,” Rosoboronexport said in a press release issued days after the Saudi attacks.
However, the Russian UAV system is likely to be redundant with the U.S. dispatching more air-defense capabilities to Saudi Arabia. On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the dispatch to the Gulf kingdom of “additional Patriot and THAAD [terminal high altitude area defense] air and missile defense batteries.”
“In response to Iranian provocation since May, the U.S. has deployed an array of additional capabilities to the region, including airborne early warning aircraft squadrons, maritime patrol aircraft squadrons, Patriot air and missile defense batteries, B-52 bombers, a carrier strike group, amphibious transport dock, unmanned aircraft, and engineering and support personnel,” he said.
Defense purchases aside, Putin’s trip is an historic one, which the Kremlin has been keen to play up at a time Washington is embroiled in domestic political wars and its focus on the Gulf diminished.