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The combined pressure from all of the above will create opportunities for Russia that cannot be clearly foreseen at this time. On the other hand, the future of Ukraine’s economic development, nationalism, military capability, and pro-Moscow leadership is not predictable either. In short, Ukraine remains in play.
Russia’s Far Abroad
Afghanistan: Russia has no interest in seeing the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, having sponsored the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance prior to America’s invasion. Its reasons for supporting a non-fundamentalist Afghan government remain the same now as in 2000.
Drug Trade: An estimated 30,000 Russians die each year as a result of overdosing on heroin imported from Afghanistan. Countless more lead non-productive or criminal lives because of Afghani heroin. Current and past Russian/U.S. cooperation on the Afghan war has always been accompanied by Russian pressure to stop the drug trade.
Export of Extremism: If the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, Russians believe (correctly) that this will lead to greater fundamentalist efforts to subvert the governments of Central Asia and Russia proper. Very little is more important to Russia than stopping such a scenario.
China: On one level, the relationship between China and Russia is strong. The border issue that once brought the USSR and China to the brink of war is settled — at least for the foreseeable future. Diplomatic cooperation — often against the U.S. — has become the order of the day. But every year, as China gets militarily, politically, and economically stronger, a proud Russia will increasingly be forced to play the unwanted role of junior partner. This trend is not likely to change, and Russia’s importance to China is increasingly as a source of raw materials, not as a supplier of sophisticated military equipment or other types of manufactured goods. Still, Russian strategic weapons would dominate in any possible confrontation with China in the near term and, as long as that is the case, Moscow’s opinion will count at the table with China. In the long run, Moscow understands things may change and Putin himself has told citizens in Russia’s rapidly depopulating Far East that if they don’t get their act together, one day they will be speaking an Asian language. He did not mention China by name, but everyone in Russia’s Far East knows that this territory was part of China until 1858-1860, when Russia made a land grab from a then-weak China.
Iran: Perhaps no other Russian national security issue generates more internal division than Moscow’s policy toward Iran. On the plus side, after years of postponing their contracted sale of S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran, Putin last June announced that the missiles would not be delivered. This is important because Israel has reportedly served notice that it will attack Iran rather than permit any S-300 systems to become operational. Also on the plus side, after years of strong opposition to sanctions against Iran, Moscow supported the successful June 9, 2010, UN vote to sanction Iran — albeit after using their influence to weaken the sanctions.
On the negative side, after many delays, Iran’s Russian-built nuclear power station in Bushehr should be in operation very soon, if it isn’t already by the time you read this.
What are the main ideas influencing Moscow’s Iranian policy? Russians make at least four arguments in favor of cooperation with Iran:
1. An accommodation with Iran postpones the day the Islamic Republic will use its resources to stir up the Muslim populations of Central Asia or — even worse — Russia proper.
2. If a serious crisis occurs with the West, oil prices will go up dramatically — an event that will help Russia.
3. The West’s continuing problems with Iran reduce America’s appetite and capability for playing a role in Ukraine, Georgia, and other parts of the former USSR.
4. Russia profits from reactor and arms sales. Apart from the pending sales, Moscow worries about its credibility with other buyers if the Iran contracts are not met.
The counter-arguments, which are ascendant, include:
1. If Iran gets the nuclear bomb, other unstable and unfriendly Muslim states will also get the bomb. This is dangerous for Russia.
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