Putin makes rare foreign visit to UAE as Ukraine war grinds on

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said relations with the United Arab Emirates were at an all-time high during his first visit to the Middle East since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.

Putin praised cooperation between the two countries as he met President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi Wednesday, describing the UAE as “Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world.”

He is later scheduled to visit Riyadh to meet Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as part of a whistlestop tour in which Moscow hopes to flaunt and continue to foster its close ties with Gulf states as wars rage in the Middle East and Europe.

The visit marked a rare foreign trip for Putin since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have not ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute and so are not obliged to arrest the Russian president.

The ICC’s arrest warrant has placed significant restrictions on Putin’s ability to travel internationally. He did not attend in person the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August, since South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute.

Putin enjoys good relations with both Gulf states, which have remained neutral over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, despite Western pressure for them to join sanctions against Russia.

A cavalry escort accompanied Putin to the main entrance of the Qasr al-Watan Palace where he was received by his UAE counterpart, Russian state media TASS reported. The palace played the anthems of both countries before the presidents walked along a guard of honor.

Stressing the historical ties between Russia and the UAE, Putin said the Soviet Union was one of the first countries to recognize the UAE as a sovereign state in 1971.

The two leaders would use the visit to discuss issues ranging from oil and trade to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the Israel-Hamas war, Putin said ahead of the talks.

After the Abu Dhabi delegation, Putin will travel to Riyadh, Moscow’s main partner in OPEC+, a group of the world’s major oil producers to whose ranks Russia was admitted in 2016.

The two Gulf states have also helped Russia to facilitate recent prisoner swaps.

Saudi Arabia’s MBS played a key role in brokering a deal last September that helped release nearly 300 people, including 10 foreigners and commanders who led the Ukrainian defense of Mariupol.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also involved in the agreement which saw US basketball star Brittney Griner swapped for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout at Abu Dhabi airport almost exactly a year ago, the two countries said at the time.

Responding to the report on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti: “We do not discuss this topic publicly.”

Despite the Biden administration’s continuous efforts to bring home Whelan and Gershkovich, both of whom have been officially recognized as wrongfully detained by the State Department, there has been no success.

Monday marked the 250th day of Gershkovich’s imprisonment, while Whelan is entering his fifth year in Russian detention this month.

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