Putin won't criticize Saudis on Khashoggi killing. Why not?

Halting weapons sales, downgrading diplomatic and commercial ties, withdrawing visas, freezing business deal...

Posted: Oct 25, 2018 4:16 PM
Updated: Oct 25, 2018 4:16 PM

Halting weapons sales, downgrading diplomatic and commercial ties, withdrawing visas, freezing business deals -- just some of the measures being considered by Saudi Arabia's Western allies, including the United States, amid the outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But one country notably absent from the Kingdom's lengthening list of critics is Russia.

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Even as more grisly allegations are made about how the Washington Post columnist died, criticism from the Kremlin has been nonexistent.

"First of all we should wait for the results of the investigation," cautioned Russian President Vladimir Putin as news of the killing by Saudi officials sank in.

"How can we, Russia, start spoiling our relations with Saudi Arabia without knowing what in fact happened there?" Putin reasoned.

Even Saudi Arabia is now acknowledging though, that Khashoggi's killing was premeditated, Attorney General Shaikh Suood bin Abdullah Al Mo'jab said on Thursday.

Riyadh has maintained that neither Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman nor his father, King Salman, knew of the operation to target Khashoggi. US officials have said a mission to persuade Khashoggi to return from Istanbul to Saudi Arabia -- including 15 men sent from Riyadh -- could not have been carried out without the authorization of bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler.

Dozens of journalists killed

Despite this, Moscow continues to downplay the significance of Khashoggi's death. "We heard an official statement from Riyadh in which it is said that representatives of the royal family were not involved in the incident, we took this into account," the Kremlin pointed out recently.

Critics of the Kremlin have suggested Russia's reluctance to pass judgment is hardly surprising, given its own appalling record on silencing dissent.

Human rights groups say dozens of Russian journalists have been killed for their work in the country, including Anna Politkovskaya, one of its most prominent investigative reporters, gunned down by an assassin in her apartment building in 2006.

Russia is also accused of carrying out its own assassinations abroad, including most recently an attempt to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence agent turned British spy, in the English city of Salisbury in March.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any connection with these incidents.

But there is also a big commercial factor driving Russia's somewhat forgiving stance toward Riyadh.

The two energy giants, who have been traditional rivals, are currently experiencing steadily improving political and economic ties and Moscow wants to ensure it says nothing to jeopardize that.

It's a strategy that is already paying off handsomely. Earlier this week, as the Turkish authorities called for Saudi officials who ordered the killing to be brought to account, Russia announced that Saudi Arabia was investing $5 billion in a natural gas project in the Russian Arctic.

Bigger slice of the Russian pie

There are, perhaps, some in the West who wish their governments were as morally unencumbered as Russia.

A troublesome journalist may have been brutally killed, but why sanction the Saudis and risk lucrative deals?

Others may have thought it, but as outrage over the Khashoggi killing ratcheted up, it was only US President Donald Trump who said it out loud.

"They made the largest order in the history of our country, for outside of our country, for weapons. ... $110 billion dollars they're purchasing. It's 500,000 jobs -- American jobs," Trump told Fox Business.

"So now people say we want to have you end that order. Aren't we just hurting our own country? Because here's what's going to happen. They're going to say hey, America won't sell us the missiles so we'll buy them from China or we'll buy them from Russia," he added.

Trump has since strengthened his comments on Saudia Arabia, but this remains a searing insight from the White House about the reality of Russia, a country that knows it will probably never replace the West as Saudi Arabia's main ally, but which would dearly love a slightly bigger slice of the Saudi pie.

With top global business leaders pulling out in droves from the Saudi Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh this week, or the so-called "Davos in the desert," Russia has sent an enhanced delegation to praise the Kingdom and to snatch lucrative deals.

"We believe it is important to support the transformation happening in Saudi Arabia," Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian sovereign wealth fund, told CNN ahead of the conference.

"The vision of a moderate Islam, of a new economy, is important, and we support that vision in Saudi Arabia," he added.

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