The journey itself is an exclamation mark. If Vladimir Putin leaves the post-Soviet space for the first time since the start of his war of aggression against Ukraine, then it must be important to him. And that’s it.
On his trip to Iran, Russia’s President will not only meet his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, but also the Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So on Tuesday in Tehran, a NATO member met Turkey, NATO’s new main enemy.
That should be a satisfaction for Putin, since he can continue to work on driving a wedge in the alliance. Allianz, on the other hand, will see Erdogan’s willingness to talk as another affront to Ankara.
But the most important thing for the Turkish head of state is to coordinate with the other two autocrats. Because the three men have one goal in common: to maintain their own power, at best even to expand it. So they forge alliances. It’s about using the real political situation to your own advantage.
Syria plays a central role in this. The country, ravaged by war, destruction and poverty, is Russia’s gateway to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Years ago, Moscow rushed to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to quell the popular uprising. Since then, almost nothing has happened in the region without Putin’s consent.
But the campaign against Ukraine is tying up Russian forces, and soldiers and mercenaries stationed in Syria have been withdrawn to fight against Kyiv. That gets Tehran on the scene. The mullahs want to strengthen their position in Syria, which the Kremlin chief can hardly allow. Unless Iran is willing to offer him something. For example, armed drones that Putin could use in the Ukraine war or an expansion of the energy partnership.
Give and take is also the basis for talks with Erdogan. Because the interests of Turkey and Russia are partly opposed. This is how Moscow and Ankara faced each other two years ago in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, this is hidden in order to communicate on other issues.
Erdogan is determined to invade northern Syria to take action against the Kurds. Putin’s approval (and that of Iran) would be helpful for this. He, in turn, could demand that Erdogan shut down the delivery of Turkish combat drones to Ukraine.
Three powerful men hostile to the West are colluding – this must alarm America and its allies. But that doesn’t change the fact that their options for intervention are very limited. Putin, Raisi and Erdogan work together wherever it serves their interests.