The rise of new Saudi-Iranian tensions and North Korea’s alleged nuclear test were the focus of Russian foreign policy during the first week of January.
A Shi'ite Muslim girl holds a picture of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed along with others in Saudi Arabia, as she takes part in a protest rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 8, 2016. Photo: Reuters
Last week saw increased international security concerns as North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb and the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran took another turn for the worse. However, there has been no credible evidence that North Korea actually did test such a device, and even if it did, little is known of the weapon's characteristics. Similarly, Saudi Arabia's provocative behavior could be nothing more than a show of force. Even so, Russia cannot ignore either of these events and the risks that they bring.
The balance of power in the Middle East
Officially, the Kremlin has taken a neutral position, calling on Saudi Arabia and Iran to show restraint and negotiate. In all likelihood, however, their future model of behavior has not been fully developed, and even the involvement of a majority of regional players will not solve such a dilemma.
For Moscow, Iran is one of its most important partners in the Middle East. Both countries are fighting terrorists together in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, because terrorism represents an existential threat to both states, they could cooperate against terrorism and other areas as well, such as in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
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On the other hand, Saudi Arabia stands in opposition to Russia in Syria, is said to be one of the key sponsors of international terrorism, and supports the sharp fall in energy prices that has blown a hole in the Russian budget.
At the same time, realistically it is just such a neutral position that Moscow needs to take. Firstly, taking part in the conflict directly on Iran's side would seriously complicate Russia's relations with other Arab states, primarily those that, like Egypt, have decided not to support Saudi Arabia's position and have not broken off relations with Iran.
Secondly, Iran does not need Russia's help in its conflict with Saudi Arabia. It is clear that if current trends in the region continue, Riyadh would lose a war of attrition.
Thirdly, Moscow is not interested in seeing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia suddenly and rapidly collapse, as this would strengthen Iran too much. And the Kremlin needs a balance of power in the region. However, taking a position of neutrality certainly does not mean ignoring and keeping out of the conflict.
Even so, there is not going to be a major armed conflict between the two regional powers in the near future. Saudi Arabia's aggression should be seen not as the prologue to a major regional war, but as actions aimed at building a wider anti-Iranian coalition in the region.
North Korea's nuclear tests
North Korea has announced its latest nuclear test – this time a hydrogen device that, according to the North Korean authorities, brings the country's capabilities to “a new level.” Internationally, this move has not been applauded; in fact, the test has been called a serious provocation and North Korea has been threatened with sanctions. The UN Security Council and individual countries (e.g. the U.S. and South Korea) are already discussing how to respond.
However, the sanctions route does not normally show rapid and hoped-for results. Yes, North Korea should be punished. However, given North Korea's typical pattern of behavior, sanctions would only exacerbate the situation: North Korea's leader simply has to meet aggression with aggression, otherwise he loses face and authority. Pressure on North Korea can have some effect only if Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. consolidate their efforts and take a common position, leaving Pyongyang no room for maneuver.
Such an approach is unlikely, however – China has long been tired of North Korea's actions, but Beijing has absolutely no interest in either the further radicalization or the collapse of the North Korean regime, which is located right on China's borders. Nor would Russia be willing to associate itself with a tough resolution against North Korea.
The Kremlin understands that the gradual evolution of the North Korean regime through reforms, the gradual transformation of North Korea from a dictatorship to an authoritarian state, and the emergence of the country from international isolation could be the only chance of resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. This is not something that will happen quickly, so the world will have to live with a nuclear North Korea for some time yet.
Russia's pivot to Asia
Russia is increasing its activities in the Asia-Pacific region, where the U.S. and China are now practically rivals. On Jan. 8, Russia's Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, returned from a visit to Indonesia. The talks covered future projects in railroad construction, mining, civil aviation, the metals industry, shipbuilding, nuclear power, the arms trade and various other areas.
During the visit, the Russian Minister noted that the Eurasian Economic Union and Indonesia could start negotiations on establishing a free trade zone.
The sanctions war between Europe and Russia gives Indonesia considerable scope for increasing its food exports to Russia. For its part, Russia is ready to increase its exports of high-tech products and services, and in December of last year, both sides signed a memorandum of cooperation on the construction of a major nuclear power plant and in other areas of nuclear energy.
Russia's pivot to Asia may be happening slowly, and may hardly have produced the results hoped for by those overseeing it, but this long-term program is being implemented. Its ultimate goal is to balance Russia's ties with Western countries with relations comparable in scope with Asian countries.