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Putin met with leaders from Turkey and Iran

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ever since the war in Ukraine began, the West has been trying to consolidate opposition to Russia. Well today, Russian President Vladimir Putin worked to marshal his own base of international support. In Tehran, he met with the presidents of Iran and Turkey. These are countries that don't always align with Russia or with each other.

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul joins us to parse the diplomacy. Good to have you back.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: It seems like most of the public statements coming out of these meetings focus on Syria, not Ukraine. So how central do you think Ukraine was to Putin deciding to make this trip to Iran?

MCFAUL: Well, formally, the three countries were meeting because they have for several years to try to manage the crisis, the war in Syria - not very effectively, but they do that from time to time. So that's the reason why they're meeting. But I think the big issue on the table, of course, was Ukraine. And in two ways, it's very striking. On the one hand, Putin is getting military assistance from Iran. That's the reverse of what it usually is. And on the other hand, he's meeting with Mr. Erdogan, the head of Turkey, who on the one hand is talking to Putin about issues related to Ukraine and, on the other hand, is providing military assistance to Ukraine at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Given that Turkey is a member of NATO, what are we to make of President Erdogan's involvement in these meetings?

MCFAUL: It's very complicated because on the one hand, he is a member of NATO. He is providing very effective drones to the Ukrainian military. On the other hand, he's not supporting sanctions, and he's talking directly to Mr. Putin. I just saw their press spray, and they sound very cordial. And he is trying to play a mediating role, particularly with respect to the export of Ukrainian grain and Russian grain to the outside world. And maybe - we don't know for sure, but they may have achieved a breakthrough on that front.

SHAPIRO: Do you think it's coincidence that Putin visited Iran just after Biden went to Saudi Arabia?

MCFAUL: Not a coincidence. I mean, it's very striking. I mean, it's only - it's his second trip abroad since the war - let me rephrase that - since his invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. We should remember he invaded Ukraine. It wasn't just the Russia-Ukrainian war. But I think coming in the wake of President Biden's visit and shoring up our relationship with our partners in the Middle East, Putin is now doing the same.

You know, it reminds me a bit of the Cold War - East versus West, the naval bloc, the European bloc. The democratic bloc in Europe is stronger and tighter than ever before. But you also see Putin strengthening his relationships with China and Iran on this trip with a couple countries like Turkey in between.

SHAPIRO: The NATO alliance has been a clear, strong, stable alliance for a long time, with some changes around the edges. How new is this kind of Russia-Iran-China axis that is forming?

MCFAUL: Well, first, NATO's been around for a long time, but Putin has done a ton to strengthen it since he invaded Ukraine. Two new members, more solidarity than ever before - and as a result of that, he is seeking deeper ties with countries like China and Iran. That troika of autocracies has been together for a long time. They've done military exercises. But as a result of this war, I see things coalescing to a much greater degree - the liberal democracies on the one hand and these dictatorships on the other.

SHAPIRO: There's a big economic piece of this puzzle as the West puts sanctions on Russia. Russia and Iran are both oil-producing countries. How do the Western sanctions affect the dynamics here?

MCFAUL: Well, now you have Iran and Russia both being the most sanctioned countries by Western democracies in the world. They share military ties together that have gotten deeper since Putin's invasion of Ukraine. And the idea that Iran will send drones - armed drones to Russia deepens that alliance in a, you know, bilateral way back and forth where - it used to be that Russia just gave Iran arms. Now that Iran is giving Russia arms, that's a new dimension.

But the big play here is between Russia and China as Russia faces increased sanctions on all dimensions of its economic relations with Europe. You've already seen it - closer ties to China. And my prediction is that is going to grow over the years where you're really de facto going to see two economic blocs with Russia closely tied to China and virtually cut off from Europe and the United States.

SHAPIRO: That's former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. He's now at Stanford University. Thanks so much for your time.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.