Moscow Courts Allies Walking Uneasy Tightrope

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ss2083145605-Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin held a series of intense diplomatic meetings last week showcasing who his administration intends to rely on now that the West is pulling out all the stops to isolate Russia.

Not only did Putin meet with leaders of countries formerly part of the former Soviet Union (FSU) — Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — at two key summits in Astana, but he also held talks with the heads of Qatar, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority while in the Kazakh capital.

All these countries are performing a delicate balancing act between Russia and the West and are reluctant to choose sides. Their dilemma was clearly demonstrated in the United National General Assembly last week, when only Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria joined Russia in voting against a resolution condemning referendums in four Ukrainian regions on acceding to the Russian Federation. FSU countries either did not participate or abstained alongside China, India and African nations.

Moscow is well aware of its friends’ precarious situation, and analysts note that the arrival of leaders from Middle East countries — including United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan — in St. Petersburg last week for meetings with Putin was an important signal of their desire to maintain ties with Russia.

But while FSU states are still much dependent on Moscow politically and economically, the Middle East countries, as well as others, seem to be attracted by the idea, promoted by Russia and China, of a multipolar world free from US domination. True, economic ties often lag behind political relations, at least between Russia and the Middle East, but Moscow is keen on changing this and will seek more bilateral investments now that Western companies have departed Russia.

Saudi Subtleties

Saudi Arabia was notably absent at the Russian Energy Week Forum, although Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had promised Putin in a telephone conversation last month that the kingdom would have a high-level representation at the Moscow event. The no-show was viewed as an attempt by Riyadh to avoid further accusations of supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine, particularly after a 2 million barrel per day production cut decision at a recent Opec-plus meeting that incensed Washington.

Even without Saudi representation, the kingdom and Opec-plus were widely lauded by forum delegates and Russian officials, including Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, who emphasized the producer group's significant role in providing stability on global energy markets.

Envarbik Fazelyanov, a former Russian diplomat in the Middle East, said there is a demand for strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia on the “highest level.” At the same time, a dialogue within Opec-plus and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum — many members of which also participate in the alliance — should be expanded to forge a specific climate-related agenda for producers, he added.

A meeting of the Russian-Saudi intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation was supposed to take place in Moscow simultaneously with Russian Energy Week, and Novak failed to say when this might happen. He did say that Russian companies are interested in joint petrochemical projects both in Russia and Saudi Arabia. He stressed that relations between the two countries are dynamic, practically all areas of cooperation are under discussions, including energy, transportation, construction social sphere and agriculture.

According to Novak, Russian companies are ready to provide support for geological exploration in the kingdom, as well as construction of power stations and renewable energy development. And in a game-changing move for both countries, Russia nuclear state corporation Rosatom is preparing documents to participate in a tender for the kingdom's first nuclear power station, Novak said.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Ankara started working on ways to transform Turkey into a new gas hub, mainly by diverting Russian gas flows that used to be shipped to Europe via Nord Stream. Prices for gas to be further shipped to Europe would be set in Turkey, a role that Putin had offered Germany in the past.

Turkey has also become the biggest buyer of stranded Russian barrels, leaving behind China and India, a trend that Novak confirmed.

Details of talks with the leaders of the UAE and Qatar remain unknown. CEOs of two Russian champions, Gazprom and Rosneft, were present at talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The Qatar Investment Authority holds 18.46% in Rosneft and its representative chairs the oil producer’s board of directors, having replaced ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who left the Russian company in May because of sanctions.

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact >

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