ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We begin this hour in Russia where President Vladimir Putin is working to build alliances with leaders the U.S. often distances itself from. On Monday, Putin hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yesterday, he held a mini-summit with the presidents of Turkey and Iran. And today, he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who's wanted internationally for genocide and war crimes. To find out what all of this activity is about, we're joined now by NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Why so many meetings with controversial leaders?
KIM: Well, I think Putin's big idea is really to restore Russia's place on the world stage. And he's trying to go to those places and talk to their leaders where the U.S. cannot or will not. And he's really taking advantage of that flexibility. At the same time, I'd be a bit careful about playing up these partnerships too much.
Just two years ago, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, Russian state media was calling Erdogan a backstabber. And I remember from a trip I took with Putin to Iran several years ago, Russian officials were complaining behind the scenes how hard it is to negotiate with Iranians. So I think a lot of these meetings and, you know, the declarations that come out of them, I think we need to take them with a chunk of salt because a lot of this is being done for effect.
SHAPIRO: If Putin is trying to put together some kind of a grand coalition of people the U.S. won't meet with, what's the purpose of it? Like, what are they actually talking about?
KIM: Well, it really depends on the leader. I mean, today, with Sudan, it was about trade, especially about arms trade. But Putin's main goal this week was really to take the lead on defining a post-conflict Syria together with Iran and Turkey because for the last couple of years, Russia has been actively intervening in that country militarily on behalf of Bashar al-Assad's government. And those efforts are actually starting to bear fruit.
There is a United Nations peace process. But earlier this year, Russia, together with Iran and Turkey, started sponsoring parallel peace talks. And I think the main result of the summit on Wednesday was that Putin is now inviting various Syrian political groups to Russia to come and discuss the country's future in December.
SHAPIRO: Does this represent an actual counterweight or threat to the alliances that the U.S. is usually a part of?
KIM: Well, not necessarily. I mean, they're not - it's not like they're forming some grand coalition. But I think the fact that he's meeting with all these leaders is a chance for Putin to show his own importance really - that he can talk to anybody. Right before the mini-summit on Syria, Putin was on the phone not only with President Trump but also the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt which is, you know, a pretty impressive list of leaders.
But I think, at the same time, you can say a lot of this is very ad hoc or, if you want to be nice, you can call it tactical. Putin knows that he can't compete with the U.S. on a global scale. But in strategic regions, like the Middle East, where the U.S. has been burnt and is maybe more reluctant, he has absolutely no qualms of just going in and seizing the initiative the way he's showing in Syria.
SHAPIRO: Is there any cost to Putin of reaching out to leaders like the Sudanese leader who is wanted for war crimes?
KIM: Putin just doesn't really care what the rest of the world thinks. And he knows he's not going to suffer because of it because Russia now has really positioned itself as an indispensable player in the Middle East. I think it's also important to understand that Putin very strongly believes in this idea that regime change of any kind is wrong, no matter how bad a leader is. He said it about Iraq. He said it about Libya. And now he's saying it about North Korea. For him, you know, a leader's record on democracy or human rights doesn't really count. It really matters if he's holding power.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lucian Kim speaking with us from Moscow. Thanks a lot.
KIM: Great to talk to you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.