Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Explaining Russian and Chinese Policy: From Communists to Super-Capitalist Merchants

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By Barry Rubin
China is very much motivated toward development rather than ideology or geopolitical ambition. It wants to get along with everyone as much as possible and make lots of money. (Quite a change from the days of the Little Red Book and the Cultural Revolution!). So they are ready to sell arms to everyone. They are all over Africa especially doing deals with anyone who can pay.

To get cash, the Chinese will do anything. For example, they have allowed secret flights from North Korea to Iran carrying weapons and nuclear technology. When U.S. forces arrived in Iraq, they found that China had sold Saddam advanced anti-aircraft guns.

They believe they have two big vulnerabilities. One is fear of being isolated, as happened during much of the Cold War. Whenever anyone speaks of sanctions and pressures, the Chinese think: What if this would be used against us some day. So they tend to be against such things everywhere (Yugoslavia, Iran). Since they want to make money selling to these countries that's another reason to reject sanctions (and cheat when possible on them).

The even bigger vulnerability is China's vast need for oil and gas. They don' want to alienate any of the suppliers and they don't like the idea of a crisis disrupting the supply. So they like trading with Israel because it has useful hi-tech and other such products and with the Arabs to buy oil and gas, and sell items to them.

Finally, they are very much against all the climate control proposals because these would hurt them and slow down their development. (And they can, after all, say: you in the West became rich through pollution and now you want to force us to give up advancing as fast as we can?)

Russia is quite different in political terms but also is desperate for money. Its current regime has lots of ambitions and a big chip on its shoulder. Whether it’s true or not, they are angry that the West—and especially the United States—didn’t do more to help them after Communism. They also feel as if they are weak and way behind. When I was in Moscow I saw shops from every Western country selling luxury goods but nothing indigenously Russian. Putin wants to make Russia a great power, to regain parts of the Soviet empire and to have influence over much of the rest of the former USSR and satellite states.

In particular, Putin and the regime want to sabotage U.S. policy. They are more openly contemptuous of President Obama than virtually any other country in the world (and that includes Iran). In Europe, they want to keep the U.S. and NATO over the areas they formerly control. Russian companies are buying up resources in those countries wherever they can. Russia has attacked Georgia and is menacing a lot of other ex-victims, who are scared and doubtful they can depend on the United States right now.

In the Middle East, Russia views Iran as a friend (I thought of saying ally but that’s too strong). Iran has not supported Islamists in Russia which is very important for Moscow. It also supports Russia’s ally, Christian Armenia, even though it is fighting Muslim Azerbaijan. Moscow, like China, is after money, too, and Iran buys weapons both for itself and for its own Syrian ally.

Like China, Russia wants to have good relations with both Arab states and Israel. They don’t want to see Arab-Israeli wars. But they will pursue their own interests even if it means, for example, that Russia sells arms to Syria (paid for by Iran) which Syria turns over to Hizballah. The Russians don’t care. But so far they’ve recognized that selling advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran—which Israel sees as making even more difficult any future attack on Iranian nuclear facilities—is a red line for Israel.

Russia has opposed sanctions on Iran because they would cost it both money and Moscow's good current relationship with Iran.. Both countries would like to see a diplomatic solution, though not necessarily one that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. In a recent statement a Russian diplomatic source has said that the country will join any consensus on sanctions. This may or may not signal some policy change. But clearly Russia even if it did go along with something new, the Russian government would set the level of new sanctions lower as the price for its participation and might not observe them even then.

One can argue that these policies are shortsighted; that spreading radical Islamism will hit Russia and China as well; and that resulting regional stability will hurt even their economic interests. Those are good arguments but are not persuading Russian and Chinese leaders.

In short, while things have greatly improved since the Cold War, neither Russia nor China supports Western policy in the Middle East. President Obama is not going to change these realities.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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