MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia undertook a whirlwind tour to his new allies in the Middle East on Monday, underscoring the extension of Russia’s influence in the region and the continuing shrinkage of the United States’ role.
Mr. Putin touched down in rapid succession in Syria and Egypt, where he met briefly with their leaders, and planned to head later in the day for Turkey.
His excursion came as anger at the United States was running high over President Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, as the capital of Israel. That decision has helped isolate the United States and Israel, angering allies in Europe and the Arab world while helping to convince the Arab public that the United States is solidly anti-Muslim.
In Brussels on Monday, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was firmly rebuffed when he encouraged the European Union to “recognize the facts” and endorse Mr. Trump’s action.
Mr. Putin’s trip had domestic implications as well, showcasing his role as a global statesman just as he embarks on a campaign for another presidential term, his fifth and possibly last.
At each stop, there was some accomplishment or friendship to trumpet.
In a brief visit to a Russian air base in Syria, where he was greeted by President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Putin again said that Russia’s military had achieved its mission and would head home, a pledge he first made in March 2016 and has broken repeatedly in the past.
In Egypt, Mr. Putin and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi discussed several issues that reflected Moscow’s expanding role, including a potential agreement for the Russian air force to use Egyptian military bases. They confirmed at a news conference that Russia had agreed to resume direct tourist flights to Egypt, suspended after the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula in 2015, but which could restore billions of dollars in revenue. And they appeared to confirm the signing of a contract for Russia to build a $30 billion nuclear plant, Egypt’s first.
The trip to Turkey was the last scheduled for the day, with the agenda focused on political talks to end the war in Syria and the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defense system to Ankara, something that Russia has in the past refused to do.
Russia has taken full advantage of the American reluctance to engage in various Middle East conflicts, especially Syria, to reconstruct relations with various capitals like Cairo, which expelled the Soviets in the early 1970s after years of close military cooperation.
Mr. Putin with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt in Cairo on Monday, during a trip showcasing Moscow’s global influence.CreditAlexander Zemlianichenko/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Although Mr. Putin is assured of victory in the 2018 presidential election in March, he is seeking a record turnout and a record level of support, according to reports in the Russian news media.
To do that, he needs both to generate excitement in a lackluster campaign and at least appear focused on domestic issues, according to various analysts, even if he personally seems far more animated when discussing foreign policy than fixing roads. Hence, he wants to significantly reduce the Russian role in Syria before campaigning begins in earnest in February.
“People are not that much concerned about Syria, it is a faraway land that people do not know much about,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a political analyst and talk show host on independent television. If Russians think about it at all, he and other analysts said, they typically wonder why the Kremlin is spending money in a region long peopled by savages bent on killing one another.
In Syria, Mr. Putin repeated that Russian forces had defeated the threat from Islamic militants that they had come to confront two years ago, although many believe that the real purpose was to shore up Mr. Assad, at the time Russia’s last ally in the region.
“In two years, the Russian armed forces, together with the Syrian Army have defeated the most combat-capable group of international terrorists,” Mr. Putin said in a speech at the Hmeimim air base in Syria. “In connection with this, I have made a decision: A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia.”
As usual, Mr. Putin left himself plenty of wiggle room by saying that “a significant part” of the troops would come home. He also noted that Russia established a permanent presence, with the Hmeimim base and an expanded naval station at Tartus, Syria.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, was even more equivocal, saying that there was no specific timetable for the withdrawal. “It is clear that it is not a matter of a day,” he said.
Some analysts said that Mr. Putin’s visit and announcement of the withdrawal could be seen in part as an effort to pressure Mr. Assad, who up to now has shown remarkable willingness to defy Russia’s stated goal of a substantive political process despite his deep reliance on Russian power.
Russia has not only propped up Mr. Assad’s beleaguered army, but has also helped push international peace talks away from an earlier consensus that Mr. Assad step down before any transition could be negotiated.
But Moscow does not want to indefinitely support a weakened Syrian state with questionable legitimacy. Russia has lost hundreds of military personnel in the fighting, and is spending heavily on the war effort and on propping up the government. And Mr. Putin is eager to declare victory, not only militarily but to cement his leadership of an international diplomatic effort that he sees as crowning Russia’s return to the world stage as an equal to the United States.
Neil MacFarquhar reported from Moscow and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Cairo.
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Source: NYT EUROPE