On a recent Wednesday, under the escort of four Su-35 fighter jets, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a one-day lightning visit to the Middle East, stopping in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Amid heavy Western sanctions, Russia is gradually breaking through. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is no longer the sole headline, as the Israel-Palestine conflict now tops Western mainstream media. The EU's comprehensive sanctions against Russia have reached the 11th round, last updated half a year ago. In mid-last month, the European Commission proposed the 12th round of sanctions, hoping to reach a consensus by the end of the year. As the Middle East and Ukraine situations remain stagnant, the U.S. Congress is embroiled in debates over aid funding for both countries.
Despite occasional news of "Russian representatives speaking, Western representatives leaving," Russia's international interactions are increasing outside Western arenas, with Putin appearing more frequently in neutral countries in the Middle East and Asia.
In the UAE, Putin's first stop in the Middle East, he received high-level treatment. Upon landing in Abu Dhabi, a full cavalry escort accompanied Putin to the Presidential Palace, where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and UAE military planes trailing smoke in the colors of the Russian flag.
"Our relationship has reached an unprecedented level," Putin told UAE President Mohammed and invited him to next year's BRICS summit in Kazan. Mohammed called Putin a "dear friend."
Hours later, Putin headed to another Gulf nation, Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, he held a three-hour meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and dined together that evening.
In a video released by Russian television, Putin invited bin Salman to visit Russia. "We should meet in Moscow next time," Putin said, adding, "Nothing can stop the development of our friendly relations." Bin Salman responded, "Of course, ready to do so."
"Putin's speech is now undoubtedly more confident than at any time since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict," observed Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Russia Today called Putin's visit "one of the most important international political events at the end of 2023."
After a whirlwind day of visits, Putin immediately returned to Russia. On Thursday, he met with Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, another significant diplomatic event.
In a day and a half, three highly influential international activities were held, and the Kremlin was ready to "focus fire." According to the Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian Presidential Aide Ushakov said the visits were not only important for developing bilateral relations but also crucial for "sending a signal to the international community."
Western media also captured this signal. Bloomberg noted that even as the U.S. and Europe try to isolate Putin on the global stage, his Middle East trip shows Russia's ability to connect with other regions of the world, demonstrating resilience. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have maintained close business ties with Russia, their warm welcome of Putin on the red carpet, as long-time partners of the U.S., "seems to signal a shift in favor of Russia."
As of press time, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have not disclosed specific outcomes of the visit. However, both sides publicly stated that energy, trade cooperation, and regional conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, and Syria were among the topics discussed by the leaders. Russian media reported that accompanying Putin were senior officials and business leaders in the fields of oil, economy, diplomacy, aerospace, and nuclear energy. At the meeting in Saudi Arabia, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov was also spotted accompanying the group.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stayed in the Middle East until Saturday, continuing to open diplomatic fronts for Russia. Lavrov's job might be getting easier. Last week, he was invited to a security conference in North Macedonia attended by the U.S. and Europe. Considering he was banned from attending the conference a year ago, some European media described this as "a sign of a change of times."