Thursday, February 9, 2012

A pipeline from Russia to South Korea through North Korea have been given a nod of approval...

A pipeline from Russia to South Korea through North Korea have been given a nod of approval; grid-lines and railways on the Korean Peninsula (connecting to the trans-Siberian railway) to come forward as well....

The Russian winter of discontent....
By Yong Kwon

The Eurasian steppes historically represented a serious security dilemma for Russia's rulers; without natural barriers to hinder the advance of invaders, the flat Russian borderlands proved nearly impossible to defend using pre-modern means. In the post-Soviet era, the new Russian Federation no longer needs to fear steppe horsemen or Western European troops marching towards Moscow, but controlling the Eurasian landmass still represents a major administrative challenge.

In order to best maximize its own interests alongside other political heavyweights that hold stakes nearby, the Kremlin must create a coherent and cohesive foreign policy that spans several pivotal and conflict-ridden regions. With all things considered, it is only natural that Moscow's foreign policy has evolved to be pragmatic with a long-term outlook.

Looking out at the world from inside the Kremlin helps explain quite a few things about Russia's foreign policy behavior that is not so obvious from outside its walls. For example, Professor Daniel Drezner asked in a Foreign Policy blog in January why Russia is "freaking out" when the Barack Obama administration has done so much towards the "reset". [1] In particular, the article probes why China is not being as rhetorically aggressive as Russia when the administration's "pivot" appears to be directly confronting Beijing's foreign policy.

Drezner forwards several hypotheses ranging from Russia's diplomatic style to internal weakness stemming from institutional dysfunction and demographic decay. While these conditions may all be peripherally valid, the article fails on one basic presumption: that there actually has been a Russia-US reset.

Listening to Washington's rhetoric on relations with Russia, it sounds as though the Obama administration went to great lengths to appease Moscow. In reality, the most significant step the current White House took in improving relations with the Kremlin has been the ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). While an important landmark in US-Russian relations, significant portions of the treaty were already formulated under the George W Bush Administration; in other words, it does not symbolize the "reset" that President Barack Obama forwarded when he came into office.

What the Russian leadership expects (or rather expected) from a "reset" is a change from the Bush-era policy of unilateralism and showing "commitment to the notion that Russia can be a viable and trustworthy partner to the United States regardless of the state of Russia's domestic affairs". [2]

Considering the events of 2011, the Obama administration has not executed foreign policy in ways that would appear to be fundamentally different from the preceding administration nor has it refrained from commenting publicly on Russia's domestic conditions (albeit in reaction to Moscow's own statements).

From presidential candidate Putin's perspective, the Libyan bombing campaign was a repetition of "Western" unilateralism under president George W Bush, even if the US managed to get an endorsement from the United Nations. Since an abstention on Libya was clearly not strong enough of a message to Washington, is it any wonder then that Moscow is so firmly against (alongside Beijing) any signs that may indicate Russian approval of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Syria? The Russian leadership is not "freaking out" as Drezner suggests, it is simply reacting to past experience.

Ultimately, the US has no leverage over Russia because Washington has become a superfluous constant in areas where Moscow feels the need to expend greater attention. A key example is Northeast Asia.

Putin has long looked to the Far East as a key area of engagement for the Russian Federation. The giant Eurasian state's reorientation towards Northeast Asia is not only a natural response to the rapid economic growth in the region, but also an economic necessity as gas fields in Western Siberia become slowly depleted. Since Russia will not be able to easily extract the resources under the East Siberian permafrost without international investment and cooperation, relations with key economic players in the area must be vastly improved.

Naturally China is at the center of Russia's attention. Both as a partner in development, but also as a key market for the mineral wealth soon to be excavated. Therefore, standing with Beijing on key areas on contention such as Iran and Syria plays a dual role of securing Russia's long standing goal of balancing the influence of the United States in the Middle East and securing channels for further cooperation with the People's Republic of China.

However, Moscow does not want to be overly dependent on exports to China; ties with South Korea and Japan also need to be developed. Even here, among the closest allies of the US in the region, the Russian leadership does not need to mind the state of its relationship with Washington. Both Japan and South Korea are increasingly anxious about their over reliance on Middle Eastern oil being delivered over contentious sea lanes.

In particular, the widening of sanctions on Iran and rising tensions on the Straits of Hormuz have rattled both countries (See
East Asian energy dilemma over Iran Asia Times Online, January 24, 2012 ). Unsurprisingly, Moscow's plans to develop infrastructure for the extraction of mineral resources in the Russian Far East have already created "conspicuous fixation for Russian suppliers". [3]

In fact, plans to develop a pipeline to South Korea through North Korea have been given a nod of approval by Kim Jong-eun and will proceed as planned. [4] Once the pipeline is established, one can expect more concrete plans for the construction of gridlines and railways on the Korean Peninsula (connecting to the trans-Siberian railway) to come forward as well. Such development would open South Korea to overland shipping to Europe, significantly cutting the cost of exports.

The key piece of the puzzle is North Korea. Since the mid-1990s, Moscow had looked to Washington's leadership to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula and coax Pyongyang into negotiations. However, the US has simply opted out of that role by giving China the chance to develop closer ties with North Korea through economic cooperation and providing aid.

This is despite Pyongyang's acceptance of negotiations on its nuclear project with Washington alongside talks for food aid. Recent reports suggest that China has delivered 500,000 tons of food aid to North Korea. [5] If true, Washington's already diminished leverage over Pyongyang, alongside America's importance to Russia's development strategy, has been further reduced.

In terms of developing ties with Japan, Tokyo already wants to find a resolution to the Kurile Island dispute in order to re-orient its defense posture from facing Russia to develop naval and air power to better confront China. The necessary conditions for a resolution favorable to Moscow have already been laid down.

As evident in these key areas, Russia does see the need to link its interests to that of the United States as it had during the 1990s and the early 2000s. More than a reflection of Moscow's insecurities, recent developments actually show how much Washington's policies have reduced its position in the world.

At the same time, Russia's policies are largely reactive and not based on irreversible misgivings about the United States. As such, specific policy alterations on key issues such as Iran or North Korea could change the Russian Federation's outlook and rhetoric towards the United States.

For now, as the unusually frosty cold front blows over Eurasia, the Russians have come boldly forward against the United States for very pragmatic reasons. Considering how synonymous the Russian winter is with the myth of indomitable Russia, one must wonder whether it will favor Moscow once again.

1. Daniel W Drezner.
Why is Russia freaking out more than China? Foreign Policy, January 19, 2012.
2. VolodymyrDubovyk.
The US-Russia Reset. New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia Memo No. 171, 2011.
3. Adam N. Stulberg.
Russia's Energy Security Dilemmas in Northeast Asia. New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia Memo No. 170, 2011.
4. Henry Meyer.
North Korean Leader Kim Backs Natural-Gas Pipeline, Russia Says. Bloomberg Businessweek, February 3, 2012. 5. South Korean activists say North Korea has received food aid from China. Voice of America, January 31, 2012.

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