After years battling to assert the Kremlin’s power on the international stage, Vladimir Putin is now on what seems like a victory lap of the Middle East.
On Tuesday, Kremlin-backed forces further stepped up to fill the vacuum left in northern Syria by the US. Russian military police units patrolled the contact line between Syrian and Turkish forces, while Putin-backed Bashar al-Assad troops gained full control of the town of Manbij and surrounding areas, according to a Russian defense ministry statement published on its website.
The fast-shifting geopolitical sands have already handed huge territorial gains to the pro-Moscow Assad government who opportunistically forged a new alliance with US-abandoned Kurds over the weekend.
The unfolding events in northern Syria come after Moscow stayed the course with its ally Assad despite international criticism and sanctions, leaving it as the only force willing and able to protect the Syrian Kurds from a Turkish onslaught. With the US withdrawal increasingly seen as a betrayal of the Kurds, it is the Russians who look like the only reliable allies in this fight.
It was against this backdrop that Putin toured the capitals of two key Gulf states — the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and Saudi Arabia on Monday.
In Saudi — one of America’s closest allies — the Russian president received a warm welcome during his first visit to the kingdom in over a decade. The Kremlin called it a “return visit” after Saudi’s King Salman visited Moscow in 2017 to broaden the key oil producers’ relationship.
It is a “natural partnership,” one Russian official told me ahead of this week’s state visit. The “world’s biggest oil exporters cooperating to stabilize the markets”.
But the significance of this burgeoning Russia-Saudi friendship should not be understated or limited to just conversations about oil.
Russia is, after all, a close ally of Saudi’s most implacable foe — Iran. It fights alongside Iranian forces in Syria, and has close diplomatic and economic ties with the Islamic Republic.
Speaking after the meeting, King Salman said he appreciated “Russia’s effective role in the region and around the world,” according to remarks reported by Saudi state media.
The statement underlines that this state visit was a well-timed diplomatic coup, placing Putin at the center of the region’s geopolitics.
It’s what Putin has been pushing for all along.
But the warmness of Saudi’s embrace of Russia can also be seen as a warning from the kingdom to the US.
There is growing criticism among US lawmakers of Saudi conduct, like the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which the kingdom blames on rogue operatives.
There’s also alarm at the alleged targeting of civilians by Saudi-led forces in its war on Houthi rebels in Yemen, which the kingdom denies. US Congress even tried to cut off arms sales, on which Saudi Arabia depends, over the issue.
Of course, Saudi Arabia remains a staunch US ally with strong American protection. In fact, in the past month the US has announced the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops to the country to bolster defenses amid growing tensions with Iran.
But criticism and concern about US commitment to the region is causing Saudi Arabia to look elsewhere, perhaps to more reliable and less judgmental friends.
The “days of a single strategic partner for the kingdom,” one senior Saudi official told me, “are already gone”.
And just like in northern Syria, Russia is ready and willing to step in.