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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking for New Business in Old Places

No sooner had President Vladimir Putin delivered a blunt assault on U.S. unilateralism in Munich on Saturday, than he was off round the Middle East chatting up some of the United States' closest allies, including Saudi Arabia. This is not a post-Cold War competition for allies in a new confrontation. It is about Russia wanting to be seen as a player once more on a wider stage.

It is also about business. Putin is touring the region with an entourage of business leaders -- not just from Gazprom, LUKoil and Rosneft, but from Russian Railways, AvtoVAZ and the nuclear energy industry, too.

Many of the headlines have been shouting about the threat of a new "gas OPEC" after Putin stopped off in Qatar. He has been happy to go along with the speculation, calling the idea "interesting." Even if it is never going to happen, he knows that his words will stir up a reaction.

Russia has been sounding out fellow energy suppliers for many months, and Putin seems to have two aims: to ensure that they do not undercut each other in any future buyers' market, and to promote closer ties between the emerging national energy giants, such as Russia's own Gazprom.

Last year, when Gazprom and Sonatrach, its Algerian equivalent, signed a memorandum of understanding, Brussels reacted with alarm. Just as the European Union was seeking to diversify its sources of gas supply away from Russia, Moscow seemed to be sewing up the market.

So far there is little evidence to suggest such collusion, but the relationship with Algeria is opaque. The government in Algiers is torn between ensuring its own lucrative markets in Spain, France and Italy, and preserving its relationship with the country that is its principal arms supplier.

"What Putin wants to do is move Russia from being merely a regional actor to being a player in areas which have been long neglected," says Bobo Lo, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, in London.

But that ignores the business. He talked to the Saudis about nuclear energy and about building a north-south railway. In Jordan, AvtoVAZ signed a deal to build a factory there.

Perhaps that is the bottom line. Putin is not really a new cold warrior, despite the Munich rhetoric. He is simply keen to do business.

A longer version of this comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.