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Putin picks Iran for his first trip outside of former USSR since the war with Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's president has made only a few trips outside his country in the last few years. The most notable to date was his trip to China back in February for the Winter Olympics. Now Vladimir Putin is going to Iran. He is meeting with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So what is Russia's strategy with Iran and the broader Middle East? Joining me now is Anna Borshchevskaya. She's a Russia expert with a DC-based think tank, the Washington Institute. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

ANNA BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So President Putin's trip to Tehran comes coincidentally right after President Biden's visit to the Middle East. Is there a message here to the U.S.?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: There is indeed a message. And when it comes to Vladimir Putin, all of these trips carry a certain message. The fact of the matter is, since Putin invaded Ukraine, the fact that he's going to the Middle East - basically this is his first trip outside the former Soviet Union since the invasion of Ukraine - in and of itself signifies how important the Middle East is for Putin right now.

MARTIN: What does he want from Iran?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: He wants to - well, first he wants to show globally that he's not isolated by the West. So it is in part symbolism. It is in part message. But it's also reality. He genuinely wants to improve ties with Iran. The fact of the matter is, Putin is at this stage betting on the global South, given his isolation. So it's Iran, China, India and so forth.

MARTIN: And I suppose some of this is commiseration. I mean, both these countries, Iran and Russia, now have this shared experience as two countries that are both big oil producers and are both now under U.S. sanctions.

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: That's right. That's exactly right. And in fact, that point, Rachel, in and of itself highlights a long-standing trajectory of Russia and Iran sharing major strategic goals when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to the West, when it comes to their shared grievances against the West, their mostly - their resentment of the U.S.-led global order, even as they have tactical disagreements.

MARTIN: So this is a meeting - we should say it's a big deal that he's also meeting with the supreme leader, right?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Yeah.

MARTIN: But Turkey is there as well. What is Turkey's play in this moment, specifically President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? What does he want out of this?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Well, it looks as if they're - we're once again facing a possibility of another Turkish incursion into northern Syria. And certainly that is - that issue is about to be one of the topics on the agenda. Syria is important for Iran and Russia. And, of course, the Ukraine war, again, will stand in the backdrop of this discussion. So that's simply something else to watch out for, is are Russia and Iran going to allow a Turkish incursion into northern Syria?

MARTIN: Just yesterday, Turkey's leader started changing his tone towards Sweden and Finland's accession to NATO. This is something he had originally objected to. What does that say about Russia's influence?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Well, it once again - first it - first his - Erdogan's statements highlight the more transactional role that he tends to play when it comes to the war in Ukraine. This comes across as, again, posturing and sort of trying to see what kind of deal he could make in exchange for his support for efforts to isolate Vladimir Putin. What it also says is that when it comes to NATO and Russia, Turkey remains a weak link in Putin's efforts to divide the NATO alliance.

MARTIN: You've alluded to this, but U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not take a stand against Russia over the war in Ukraine. Does Putin see a larger opportunity in the region?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Yeah, he absolutely does. And again, this has to do with first efforts that Putin had put over the years into cultivating not only American adversaries but also American allies. It also has to do with how allies perceive the war in Ukraine, in Russia.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Right? And so where we see things in more black and white terms, they see them in sort of grey terms. And frankly, they're not sure how the war is going to end. They continue to see Russia as a permanent feature of allied politics.

MARTIN: Anna Borshchevskaya with The Washington Institute, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 18, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous introduction to this interview misspelled Anna Borshchevskaya's first name as Anya. Also, a previous headline incorrectly said it was President Putin's first trip outside of Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. It is his first trip outside of the former Soviet Union.