Vladimir Putin made a rare trip to the Middle East today in an attempt to invigorate his relationship with select Gulf nations. He first stopped in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and all along the way his Il-96PU jet was escorted by Russian Su-35S Flankers.
Trips outside of Russia, and especially far from its borders, have been rare for Putin since his all-out invasion of Ukraine kicked off nearly two years ago and a subsequent arrest warrant was filed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against him. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has signed the Rome Statute, the international agreement that underpins the ICC, but has not ratified it. Saudi Arabia, which Putin also visited today, has neither signed nor ratified it.
The armed Su-35 escort can be seen as a sign of the paranoia surrounding his movements abroad, as well as a show of force to the region, and, potentially, a sales tactic, too. The four Su-35s were armed with R-77 and R-73 air-to-air missiles for the mission and touched down in Abu Dhabi along with the presidential Il-96.
Russia has provided fighter escort for VVIP moving over tense areas before, and has even used its fighters to work as infrared decoys against potentially heat-seeking missile attacks for Putin's arrival in Syria. But sending four fighters to a foreign country via multiple sovereign airspaces with Putin's Il-96 is new.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated the following about the Su-35's escort mission:
"During the flight of the presidential airplane to the landing in Abu Dhabi, the head of state was escorted by four Su-35S fighter jets of the Russian Aerospace Forces. These fighters carried standard armament of various classes. The Su-35S took off from an operational airfield in Russia in difficult weather conditions with heavy rain and gusty winds. The fighters were piloted by top-tier pilots."
Special permission for the armed escort flight was obtained to fly into the airspace of countries along the route, which included time over the Capsian Sea and Iran, according to Russian media.
The Su-35S is Russia's most advanced Flanker derivative and is seen as a top potential export within its tactical aircraft catalog. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular, has shown interest in the Su-35, with talk of a deal being close to purchase the type for years, although that has not materialized. The UAE has drastically upgraded its air arm, starting in the mid-2000s with the F-16E/F Desert Falcon deliveries and then moving on to purchases of the Dassault Rafale. Today, upgraded Mirage 2000-9s round out the country's fighter inventory.
Factoring all this in, the grand arrival of Su-35s alongside Putin definitely had an arms export facet to it as well as a security one. Still, U.S. sanctions that target buyers of Russian weapons would make a sale of Su-35s to the UAE troublesome. There are also major issues with sourcing parts for Russian aircraft around the globe as the country's war in Ukraine is sucking up many of them and separate sanctions against Russia's defense and aviation industries are making it harder for the country to produce new parts. The severity of this situation differs from weapon system to weapon system though.
It's also worth noting that Iran, which does not have to worry about U.S. sanctions for buying Russian military hardware, still seems set to receive its own Su-35s soon. This would mark the arrival of the type in the region on a permanent basis and would represent the most capable aircraft in Iranian service by a huge margin.
As for Putin's reception in the UAE and then in Saudi Arabia, in a post-Ukraine all-out invasion reality, it was very warm. Among the pomp, the UAE greeted Putin with a flyover by the country's Fursan aerobatic team, with their Italian-made MB-339A jet trainers spewing the colors of the Russian flag. Russian flags lined the route Putin's limo took with a full state guard reception along the way. It's worth noting that the UAE is currently hosting the COP climate change conference. Putin did not attend that United Nations-sponsored event and the timing of his visit was certainly suspect.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud received Putin in a very warm manner, too, to say the least.
https://x.com/clashreport/status/1732457865019814283?s=20We will have to wait and see if the Su-35 escort becomes a staple of future travel as Putin spreads his wings after nearly two years of limited travel abroad.
It's now confirmed that Su-35s also escorted Putin's Il-96 to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Based on the video now circulating, they took off in formation at night from Abu Dhabi. It's worth noting that available video shows three of the four airframes departing. It's not clear if the fourth departed separately or was left behind.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com