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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit (SCO) in Qingdao, China June 9, 2018. .(Photo by: SPUTNIK/SERGEI GUNEEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
The Russians are coming, to the Persian Gulf
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
03/05/2019
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on a trip to Gulf countries this week to bolster ties between Moscow and a variety of countries in the Middle East
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on a trip to Gulf countries this week to bolster ties between Moscow and a variety of countries in the Middle East. The visit will pave the way for a high-level trip by Russian President Vladimir Putin that comes at an important time for Russia’s role in the region.

According to a report at Russia’s TASS news agency, Lavrov began his trip discussing bilateral trade and also issues relating to Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The details of discussions about Israel were not revealed in the reports. This comes in the wake of a visit by Netanyahu to Moscow in which he had also discussed Syria with the Russian president.

In Doha, the Russian minister met the Emir and other officials. “Doha sees huge prospects for partnership in agriculture and cyber technology,” the report notes. The Qataris are eagerly awaiting Putin’s apparent visit in the near future. After Qatar, Lavrov held talks in Saudi Arabia on March 4. Lavrov is also scheduled to visit Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are still in a diplomatic row with Qatar and TASS reported that progress was not expected in repairing diplomatic relations, but that there had been “some advances.” Saudi Arabia even expressed concern that Lavrov flew from Qatar to Saudi Arabia, preferring that he not fly directly. This is an important indication that the Gulf countries, traditional US allies, now view Russia as a key partner as well, even in discussing relations amongst each other. The Saudi King Salman visited Russia in 2017. Riyadh has invested up to $2.5 billion in projects in Russia.

Saudi Arabia has held talks with Russia on purchasing its S-400 missile defense system. According to reports, the last round of talks were on February 17. Qatar has also discussed the S-400 with Moscow, according to Al-Jazeera. This is a key inroad Moscow seeks to make into a US ally and its defense market. Russia has already concluded a deal with Turkey to sell the S-400 to Ankara and the system may be delivered this year. This is a major challenge to NATO and the US since Turkey is supposed to be receiving the F-35 from the US this year as well.

If Russia can also get Riyadh to buy the S-400 – when Riyadh already has Patriot missiles that successfully defend it against ballistic missile threats from Yemen – it will show that the US is declining in influence in the region. In general, the hint that Moscow and the Gulf States discussed Yemen, Libya and Syria show that Russia believes it can work with them on these key areas of instability and conflict. Nonplussed with the US inability to end these conflicts, Russia is positioning itself as the main broker of deconfliction across the region. It already did this with Iran and Turkey in the Astana talks, pushing the Americans aside on Syria issues. If Russia can continue its track record of successes and moving into influential spaces usually dominated by the Americans, it will not be welcome news in Washington. Lavrov’s trip appears to pave the way for this Russian play.
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