NOEL KING, HOST:
Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is headed to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan has been busy. He sat down with Vice President Mike Pence last week and agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria after the Turkish military launched an offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. With the U.S. withdrawing from this region, it now looks like Russia's position as power broker is solidifying in some ways. NPR's Lucian Kim has been watching all of this from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So why is Erdogan visiting Putin? What's going on?
KIM: Well, Russia right now is playing the key role in Syria right now. The Russian Air Force has been fighting on the side of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for four years and basically saved his regime. So the reason Erdogan is visiting Russia is because Putin has very effectively inserted himself as a central player there.
That's also because the U.S., under both the Obama and Trump administrations, has been reluctant to get very involved in Syria. And Putin has really seized the initiative and partnered with Turkey as well as Iran. So it's in that format that Putin has invited Erdogan to Russia. And in some ways, it could be seen as a counterpunch to Vice President Pence's visit to Turkey last week.
KING: Oh, that's interesting. Let me ask you what we know about the dynamic in this meeting today. We've got Putin. We've got Erdogan. Who has the leverage?
KIM: Well, Putin is trying to project this image that he and Erdogan get along very well. This will be their eighth meeting already this year. But we have to remember that Russia and Turkey, despite all the friendliness, despite a major arms deal, have very different goals in Syria.
Four years ago, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the border with Syria. And a lot of people were afraid that war could break out between the two countries. So this is really a marriage of convenience. Erdogan and Putin both have their issues with the West, so they have kind of turned to each other. But Russia's not particularly happy about this Turkish military operation since it increases the danger that Syria and Turkey could clash and also that Russian forces on the ground could get caught in the crossfire.
KING: Well, let's talk about that. You mentioned that there are Russian forces on the ground. You mentioned the desire to avoid an all-out war between any two countries in the region. How has Russia been reacting directly to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria?
KIM: (Laughter) Well, just today, one of the top news items on Russian state television is that Russian Air Force helicopters have landed at a base in northern Syria where the U.S. military was stationed until very recently. So the U.S. withdrawal is a huge propaganda coup. It shows Americans on the run and Russians moving in as a stabilizing factor. Putin has always said he wants other foreign forces to leave Syria, especially the U.S.
But on the other hand, Russia is spread pretty thin in Syria. It's keeping a very light footprint there. And so the U.S. departure also means more responsibility for Russia. And it seems the Kremlin, at least, is very well-aware of those risks involved. I'm certainly not hearing a lot of triumphalism coming out of Russian officials.
KING: Just quickly, Putin was in Saudi Arabia and the UAE last week. What does Russia want in the Middle East?
KIM: Well, Putin is cultivating a lot of close personal relations with all the major players in the Middle East. He's picking up on some of the old Soviet alliances but also starting to court traditional U.S. allies. That's Egypt, Israel, Turkey. And that's exactly the reason why we have Erdogan coming to visit him today.
KING: NPR's Lucian came in Moscow. Lucian, thanks so much.
KIM: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL BOMAN'S "SLAVE TO THE VIBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.