Putin aims a weaponized barb at Trump over Saudi attack – and hits the mark
President Donald Trump's manner with Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in contrast to the anger he flashed at NATO allies. (AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

Russian President Vladimir Putin joked this week about selling defense systems to Riyadh following weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The gag was aimed at US President Donald Trump and it hit the mark with the precision of a guided weapon.

It was a masterful piece of trolling by the czar of trolls  a snide, disparaging jibe with an element of truth twisted into absurdity for maximum effect and laughs. At a joint press conference with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts in Ankara on Monday, Putin cast his bait into the volatile Persian Gulf region just days after devastating attacks on Saudi oil facilities exposed the limits of the Gulf kingdom’s expensive defense systems.

“We’re ready to help Saudi Arabia to protect their people,” said Putin, flanked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani. Ensconced in a front-row seat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s jovial foreign minister, grinned expectantly, waiting for a weaponised Russian joke.

Zarif was not to be disappointed.

Referring to the Saudis, Putin continued: “And they need to make a clever decision, as Iran did by buying our S-300, and as Mr. Erdogan did by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 Triumph air defense systems from Russia,” he added with a smirk.

“These kind of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” finished Putin, as Rouhani convulsed with giggles and even the normally dour Erdogan broke into a smile.

As a ripple of laughter erupted across the room, Rouhani jokingly asked Putin which system would he recommend, the S-300 or the S-400? “They can choose,” he replied.

Putin’s barb was aimed at multiple targets, including the failure of the US security shield, President Donald Trump’s policies in the region and Washington’s reputation as an undependable ally.

It hit the mark with the precision of a guided weapon, which analysts and observers were quick to note on Twitter.

Amazing   in a summit with two of Saudi Arabia’s archrivals in the region, Putin says Riyadh should buy Russia [sic] air defense to protect its infrastructure against any attacks. All while the Iranian foreign minister & president are giggling,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror”.

Casting doubts on US weapons systems

The weekend attacks on Abqaiq – the world’s largest oil-processing facility – and the Khurais field in eastern Saudi Arabia were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Washington has dismissed the Houthi claim and blamed Iran for the attack, with unnamed US officials telling reporters the attack involved cruise missiles launched from Iranian soil. 

Saudi Arabia is firmly under the US military umbrella in a security-for-oil arrangement that has held throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and has even withstood the pressures of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Yemen war and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. 

But on Saturday, US defense systems failed to thwart an attack on Abqaiq, one of Saudi Arabia’s most strategic oil interests that has been targeted in the past, including a 2016 suicide bombing attempt by al Qaeda.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on US Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, which appear to have failed over the weekend. It wasn’t the first time the kingdom’s defense systems have failed, with rockets fired from Yemen hitting targets inside Saudi Arabia over the past year. But Saturday’s attack was the most serious to date.

Russian systems to US friends and foes

By specifically mentioning the S-300 and S-400 air defense missile systems, Putin was not only pooh-poohing American arms, he was also aiming a blow at the US failure to block the sale of the Russian system to Washington’s friends and foes.

In 2016, Russia completed delivery of the S-300 system to Iran, overcoming strenuous US objections. Two years later, Moscow announced the delivery of the same system to Syria in defiance of US and Israeli objections that the sale would escalate the Syrian conflict.

Russia’s recent sale of the S-400 system to Turkey, a NATO member, has been by far the most controversial, triggering US sanctions and the scrapping of an F-35 fighter jet deal between Washington and Ankara.

Erdogan may have risked US sanctions and fighter jet deliveries for the S-400, Putin implied, but “the most advanced” Russian defense system was worth it  militarily and diplomatically.

Russia-Turkey relations hit a low point in 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet brought down a Russian Sukhoi aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border. The S-400 sale has marked a major improvement in bilateral ties between the two countries.

Cumbersome allies

The lowest blow of the exchange, however, was aimed at Trump’s policies, which have earned the US troublesome foes and cumbersome allies in a volatile zone. Meanwhile, Moscow has been playing its cards carefully, adroitly keeping its doors open to all parties in a region plagued by direct and proxy wars.

Monday’s joint press conference capped a summit in the Turkish capital that brought Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani together under the Astana process aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. The push for peace was launched in January 2017 to bring Syrian regime-backers Russia and Iran to the table along with rebel-supporting Turkey. Over the past two years, the Astana track has effectively sidelined the US and its Western allies in the more than eight-year-long war.

The Astana troika on Monday agreed to ease tensions in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, the last remaining territory held by rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The presence of the three leaders at the Ankara summit underscored Putin’s effective diplomacy and outreach in the Middle East. Assad, Moscow’s man in Syria, has effectively won the brutal war in his country.

Moscow, meanwhile, has stuck by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, followed by crippling US sanctions against Tehran as well as on any country or entity doing business with Iran. At the same time, Russia maintains ties with Iran’s arch regional foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Trump, on the other hand, has succumbed to the advice of former and current hawks in his inner circle, drawing closer to Israel by upending longstanding US policies toward the Palestinians by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting US aid and assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” position on Iran has backed Washington into a corner, experts warn, with very little room for maneuver as Tehran responds asymmetrically to what it calls an "economic war” launched by the US.

“Mr. Trump’s decision to walk away from the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program and to apply crushing new sanctions has provoked Iran, inexcusably but predictably, to ratchet up that [Iran’s] aggression,” noted the Washington Post editorial Monday. “Mr. Trump risks compounding his strategic problems if he acts hastily or recklessly.

In recent weeks, Trump appears to be attempting a rapprochement, nudged by a French effort to broker a meeting between the US and Iranian presidents on the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting.

But it has also gone nowhere.

On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini reiterated Tehran’s position, declaring: “There will be no talks with the US at any level.”

Flawless ‘PR push’

As the international community braces for a likely US response to the attacks in Saudi Arabia, the war of words has been heating up, with Trump declaring the US was “locked and loaded”.

As Trump bumbles along in a tinderbox region, keeping allies on their toes and phones, Putin has been conducting a PR outreach to the Sunni Muslim world, where the Russian president is largely viewed as the chief backer of “the butcher of Damascus”, as Assad is known.

On Monday, Putin tried his hand at quoting lessons from the Koran, which earned him brownie points for attempting, if not mastering, his Islamic erudition. “Since we are here in Turkey, I cannot help but remember the words from the Koran,” said Putin. “The Koran says that any kind of violence is unacceptable except for one kind of violence: when you protect your people.”

The next day, as Russian Su-35 fighter jets roared through the Turkish skies at an Istanbul air show, journalists were giving the czar of trolls credit for a masterful performance during his Turkey visit.

“Whether it be buying Erdogan ice cream, reciting verses from the Quran at the Syria Summit or offering to send a Turkish astronaut to space in 2023 - Vladimir Putin and his team have studied the Turks very well,” tweeted journalist Yusuf Erim. “His Turkey communication and PR push is flawless.