Russia: Strange alliances

With problematic consequences.

There are clear and perhaps understandable Slavic cultural reasons for Russia's age-old friendship with Serbia. Both countries share a dominant Orthadox Christian religion, Cyrillic language scripts and linguistic familiarities. Russia supports Serbia's position on its breakaway province of Kosovo. 

And I'm sure that there are Asian regional power-play considerations for Russia's ongoing friendship with India as both share long borders with China. India buys helicopters and fighter aircraft from Russia. 

Of course, Cuba was employed as a proxy for Soviet ambitions in Africa during the Cold War. This year the Miami Herald reported the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Cuba and Russia "will strengthen their mutual cooperation in economic, trade and investment areas". 

Russia's fraternal relationship with Vietnam developed during the 1960s and '70s, and continues to this day, I suspect. Vietnam's past flare-ups on its border with China are reason enough for Hanoi's need to maintain links with Moscow.  

But of late, Venezuela, that Latin with the wayward, vehemently anti-American Hugo Ch├ívez as president, has cosied up close to Moscow. Venezuela has allegedly been buying Russian arms supplies. 

And Russia's friendship with Iran appears unwavering, despite diametrically opposed religious differences between them. A new buzz-word has reportedly been circulating around Washington: "Virus", or the alliance between Venezuela, Iran and Russia which is feared will "threaten Western order", according to The Telegraph. 

Now Syria. As fast as international pressure is piled on the Bashar al-Assad regime from King Abdullah of Jordan (calling for Bashar's resignation), the Arab League (suspending Syrian membership) as well as the US and EU (stepping up sanctions), Russia protects its friends in Damascus. Along with China, Russia vetoed a UN Resolution last month on Syria which had proposed tougher sanctions, by calling instead for dialogue. Moscow stonewalls the Syrian Opposition, too. As the head of the Syrian National Council, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, asked Russia to join the international community in pressurising al-Assad to resign, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "said Assad's opponents should hold talks with the government to end months of bloodshed" reports Reuters. 

What strategy is Russia pursuing here? As Russia's economy gets bigger and its political influence returns, the Russian government appears to be positioning itself, not for the first time in history, as the champion or guardian of countries with anti-Western leanings.  

The West, it seems, is far from blameless as it persists in its protection and encouragement of Israel, for example.  

So by supporting Iran, the Palestinians and the Ba-athist regime in Damascus, Russia is diametrically opposed to Washington's stance.

Why should it care, if in eyes of the Muslim world, radicals, liberals and others, Moscow is on the right side of history, at least as far as the Palestinian question is concerned?  

But Russia's apparent support of the theocratic regime in Tehran places it in a more invidious position, surely?  The Ahmadinedjad government and agencies' alleged nuclear arms policy (according to International Atomic Energy Authority suspicions) poses a threat to Middle East peace. A real problem looms which might not be solved by diplomatic manoevering alone. 

Maybe Iran's avoidance of involvement in or support of separatist rebellions in Chechnya or neighbouring North Caucuses republics like Dagestan, are reasons enough for Russia to offer a firm hand of friendship to Tehran.

But as Bashar al-Assad continues to use arms to butcher his own people, and Iran stokes the ire of Riyadh by attempting to launch an alleged yet thwarted attack on the Saudi embassy in Washington, Russia's position becomes less easy to justify for Moscow's political elite, I would have thought. Iran's latest alleged ploy to remove the already wobbly Al Khalifa regime in Manama is further cause for concern. The Bahraini government claimed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was behind a recently foiled plot by Shia Bahraini terrorists to blow up the causeway connecting Bahrain with the Saudi peninsular, as well as other strategic sites like the Saudi embassy in Manama, according to The Guardian. 

All a bit worrying for the powers that be in the Kremlin. As Russia entices western businesses to Moscow, an increasingly attractive destination for ambitious corporates, and the Russian Federation joins the World Trade Organisation after a tortuously protracted twenty year negotiation, these foreign relationships may come under increasing strain. 

Enhanced trade has usually been a great reducer of international tensions. So, perhaps the Ba'athists of Damascus and the Mullahs of Qom or Tehran are sleeping less easily these days.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, likely to replace Dmitry Medvedev as president after elections in March 2012, has stressed his desire to create a Euro-Asian Union to rival the EU. The new bloc would have Russia joined by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan. Such an economic union would enable Russia to perhaps feel more insulated from any buffeting by adverse economic conditions blasting in from Europe or North America. 

Such a union might just bolster Russia's economy and give it more clout in its dealings with China, Germany, Japan, India and the US. Whether Russia will alter its singularly individualistic foreign policy is uncertain. It appears to have always pursued a distinct path, one which enables it to maintain its global status and not become reliant on any other world power. However, its choice of certain friends is highly questionable.

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