Caspian Region

Putin’s First Foreign Trip Since the Start of the Ukraine War

The Caspian Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his first official visit overseas since the start of his country’s invasion of Ukraine. His destinations of choice were Dushanbe, Tajikistan and then Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Previously, his last known foreign visit was in February to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.


Putin in Tajikistan

In Dushanbe, Putin was met on the tarmac by President Emomali Rahmon, the longest-serving ruler of a post-Soviet country and often described as a ‘close Russian ally.’ No documents were apparently signed, but the two leaders are thought to have discussed security issues: around 7000 Russian troops are stationed in Tajikistan, which shares a 1357km border with strife-plagued Afghanistan.  It is rumoured that Russia might want to redeploy some of its forces to Ukraine. Yet, the situation in Afghanistan has become ever more unstable with an Islamic State sub-group firing rockets into Tajikistan in May and some anti-Taliban forces – mostly ethnic Tajiks - still attempting to resist Taliban rule. During Putin’s stay in Dushanbe, he reassured Tajikistan that Russia supported the idea of an Afghanistan run by all ethnic groups.


Putin Flies on to Turkmenistan

The next day (June 29), Putin descended a Turkmen carpet at Ashgabat airport with its remarkable bird-shaped terminal. One of his first engagements was to wish happy birthday to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Turkmenistan’s former president, who stepped down in March, allowing his son Serdar to win a snap election and become his successor. Judging from this (and other meetings with heads of state), Berdimuhamedov Senior appears to remain very close to the perceived reigns of Turkmen power. 


However, the main event in Ashgabat was the 6th Caspian Summit, a meeting of the heads of state of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, as well as Russia and host Turkmenistan. The main meeting started in ‘restricted attendance’ mode allowing relatively frank five-way conversations between the leaders before broadening. 


On paper, the main business of the meeting was to consolidate the significant achievements of the 5th Caspian Summit in Aktau, 2018, at which a key agreement had finally been reached on the legal status of the Caspian Sea after years of negotiations.


Overall, the treaty appears to have been a success regarding regional cooperation, environment and trade issues. Iran, which will host the 7th summit, optimistically suggests that the Caspian could now be seen as a ‘sea of cooperation.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, the upbeat tone of the 2018 meeting, reflected in jolly press photos showing the five leaders smiling hand in hand, was not replicated in the 2022 versions. This year’s photos appear comparatively pensive, with the leaders well distanced from one another. Perhaps a degree of discomfort was not surprising given that Russia is currently embroiled in a major conflict and that President Putin will undoubtedly have hoped to coax other leaders into a more pro-Moscow position on Ukraine. Russia will also have been keen to dissuade Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan from proceeding with plans for a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, which would help buffer Europe from sanction-induced Russian supply problems, albeit over the longer term. 


These will have been among many subjects covered in a broad series of bilateral negotiations on the sidelines of the summit, a relatively rare chance for face-to-face meetings between leaders in various arrangements. For example, Presidents Raisi of Iran and Aliyev of Azerbaijan had at least a brief chance to talk about their countries’ recent roller-coaster relations, while Raisi and Putin were able to have a more personal chat than the big BRICS+ video conference five days earlier. Raisi was last in Moscow back in January at what was then described as a positive ‘turning point’ meeting for cooperation, a situation since somewhat complicated by the Ukraine invasion.   


Image courtesy of «Turkmenistan: Golden age»