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As China-North Korea ties cool, Russia looks to benefit
Nyshka Chandran

---Recent bilateral projects indicate Russia and North Korea are deepening their relationship
---The closer ties could have significant implications for the West's nuclear standoff with Pyongyang

Moscow may be looking to take advantage of the nuclear standoff between Pyongyang and the international community. As cracks deepen in the decades-old friendship between China and North Korea amid increasing U.S. pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin stands ready to fill Beijing's shoes.

"Russia (has) begun quietly laying the groundwork that would strengthen its ties to North Korea, thus increasing its global political leverage should it need it," analysts at political intelligence firm Stratfor explained in a May 5 report, referring to Putin's strained ties with the West.

Both countries share a long history of ideological and economic relations — in 2014, Moscow wrote off 90 percent of Pyongyang's $11 billion debt from the Soviet-era — but recent projects indicate an even cozier relationship.

A new ferry service between Rajin and Vladivostok is due to begin on May 8 that's expected to carry up to 200 passengers and 1,000 ton of cargo six times a month. Meanwhile in April, Russian military hardware was seen transported to the country's border with North Korea but the Kremlin claimed the action was part of pre-planned military exercises, Reuters reported.

"There is little doubt that Russia is making sincere attempts at building a partnership with North Korea," Russia-Korea analyst Anthony Rinna said in an April 14 note published on the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. "The idea that Russia is once again superseding China as North Korea's major international patron bodes well when viewed through the prism of North Korea's Cold War-era tactics of playing China and the USSR off of each other."

In March, officials also agreed to expand North Korean labor immigration to Russia. Tens of thousands North Koreans are believed to be living in the Eurasian country, many of whom are forced laborers sent to bring in overseas revenue for Kim Jong-un's regime, according to human rights groups.

Meanwhile, executives from state-owned Russian Railways visited the pariah state in January to propose enhancing railroad cooperation, which includes a railway from Rajin to Khasan and a program to train North Korean students at Russian universities.

Moreover, "when China recently threatened to cut off fuel exports to North Korea if it conducted its sixth nuclear weapons test, Russia hinted it could replace at least some of that supply," Stratfor's report said.

Moscow's potential influence on the North Korean situation could give Putin a certain degree of leverage in the West as he deals with accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election as well as his country's role in the Syria and Ukraine conflicts, Stratfor explained.

"Though Russia alone cannot solve the North Korean problem, it could move the dial just enough to either play spoiler or ally to any efforts by the West to solve it."

Putin's strengthened bilateral relationship with Kim Jong-un comes as Beijing, North Korea's largest trading partner and chief benefactor, takes a harsher stance against its ally in compliance with President Donald Trump's requests — Washington wants China to help cease Kim's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And in response to Beijing's toughened attitude, which includes a suspension of North Korean coal imports, Pyongyang state media has accused Chinese politicians of outright "betrayal."

In a sign of the changing geopolitical dynamics, Russia topped the rogue nation's list of friendly countries this year, with China in second place.

While Russia can never entirely replace China's influence over North Korea, it could interfere with measures employed by China, the U.S. or their allies to try to pressure Pyongyang, Stratfor continued.

"It is in Russia's interests to maintain North Korea as a buffer state between it and Western-allied South Korea and Japan."

Political leverage aside, there are other reasons driving Putin's interest in the isolated nation.

"Russia's main purpose in its ties with the DPRK are driven more by a Russian desire to develop and securitize its Far Eastern regions," noted Rinna. "Russia values its geographic access to North Korea as a way to reach broader global markets."

In the past, Putin's administration has criticized North Korea's nuclear weapons program and participated in 2014 sanctions but it's not clear if Moscow will continue down that path.

"As with the rest of the world, North Korea's nuclear proliferation concerns Russia, particularly since the North's nuclear weapons test site sits just 200 miles from Vladivostok," Stratfor explained.

Russia has secretly deployed a cruise missile that US says violates an arms treaty, report says
Jacob Pramuk

Russia has secretly deployed a missile that American officials argue violates a key arms treaty, presenting a new foreign policy test for President Donald Trump, The New York Times reported Tuesday, citing administration officials.

The development would pose another diplomatic challenge for the president in the early days of his administration. Trump has pledged to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The report comes only hours after a key foreign policy official, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, resigned following revelations that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with Russian officials. Some lawmakers have called for a deeper investigation into Flynn's ties with Moscow.

The Obama administration said in 2014 that the cruise missile in question had been tested and violated a 1987 treaty that helped to end the Cold War, according to the Times.

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Read the full New York Times report here.

Russia Risks a Showdown With Israel over Hezbollah in Syria
by Jonathan Schanzer, Newsweek

Back in 1967, Moscow shrugged when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting shipping routes to the Israeli port of Eilat—Israel’s only one in the Red Sea. Egyptian and Syrian troop movements on the Israeli border — coupled with Nasser’s fiery rhetoric threatening mass slaughter — paved the way for war. All the while, Moscow fed the Egyptians and Syrians erroneous information about Israeli troop movements.

The Israelis put an end to all of it with a blitzkrieg that neutralized Russia’s Arab clients in six days, and in the process seized the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and much of the Golan Heights.

Fifty years later and history looks set to repeat itself. Russia’s allies are again provoking the Israelis, who may ultimately see little choice but to strike first. The ensuing war, Israel warns, could, like the Six Day War in 1967, fundamentally change the region.

The theater this time is Syria, but the precipitating factor for the next conflict — believe it or not — isn’t Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It is Iran’s most lethal proxy, Hezbollah.

Tehran dispatched Hezbollah to buttress Assad’s beleaguered Syrian troops. The first Arab child of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization have deployed thousands of fighters to Syria, who are now gaining valuable experience from the war.

Iran is also arming Hezbollah in preparation for the next conflict with Israel. In fall 2015, Israel’s military assessed that Hezbollah had increased its rocket arsenal from an estimated 100,000 to roughly 150,000 since the Syrian war began.

Later that year, the Russians began to carry out airstrikes against rebel groups fighting to oust Assad from Syria. Moscow had long provided Assad with arms and other provisions via its Mediterranean naval facility in Tartus. But the Russians soon deployed ground and air forces, intelligence assets, and heavy hardware to protect the Assad regime, making it clear that Syria was part of its ever-expanding sphere of influence.

Russia soon established fusion centers so that it could coordinate its war effort with Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime. Hezbollah has benefited from Russian air cover, and even fought alongside Russian forces against Syrian rebels.

Meanwhile Iran and its Lebanese proxy have tried to exploit both the Russian presence and the fog of war to move what Israelis have called “game-changing weapons” from the war zone to Lebanon. Israeli officials say the weapons they are attempting to acquire include long-range and high payload rockets, lethal anti-ship missiles, and perhaps even sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.

These weapons have prompted a distinct sense of alarm inside Israel’s Kiriya, their Pentagon. Officials say the hardware would reduce the Israeli edge significantly when the next war erupts, which is why Israel has so far launched some three-dozen airstrikes throughout Syria, according to one senior Israel official

It’s unclear if these sorties represent the entirety of the Israeli effort. But we do know that the drama came into full focus in March when the Syrian army fired anti-aircraft weapons at Israeli aircraft after they struck what was believed to be yet another Hezbollah weapons convoy inside Syria. The anti-aircraft missile hurtled toward Israeli territory, prompting the Israelis to use its medium-range Arrow missile defense system.

The Arrow incident has led to an escalation in the war of words. Damascus has threatened that future incursions will prompt Scud attacks, and even warned that Russia will come to their aid if the Israelis strike again.

It is doubtful that Russia would fire on an Israeli aircraft, especially given that the Israelis have paid multiple visits to Moscow to ensure that their air force can continue to strike Iranian and Hezbollah assets when required.

The longer Iran and Hezbollah have to perfect their weapons smuggling infrastructure, the higher the likelihood of a successful transfer of “game changing weapons.” Hezbollah already has tens of thousands of rockets but a successful transfer of more advanced weapons would be a red line for Israel, prompting a pre-emptive strike before those weapons can be deployed.

The Israelis have warned repeatedly that the next war with Hezbollah could be one in which Israel will seek nothing less than total defeat and ousting of Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Vladimir Putin’s foray into Syria has been described as an attempt to resurrect Russia’s past. But Soviet actions in the Middle East contributed inexorably to the Six Day War and its own weakening in the region. Russia risks repeating the mistakes it made a half century ago, mistakes that still have a profound impact on the region today.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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