Russia: Hedging Its Bets and Drinking Less Cognac

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Russia's geopolitical position has been historically vulnerable - its history shows succession of challenges and opponents that eventually led to a military confrontation with Moscow. So its not surprising that from time to time, Russia would hedge its bets and try to burn candles at both ends in order to keep its neighbors in check. The strategy worked well in the Middle East - Russia is seen as a key player and power broker for both Israel and its Arab and Iranian neighbors.

When it comes to China, Moscow has been developing a strong military-economic relationship with its giant neighbor for the past two decades, seeking to avoid any major internal or external component to jeopardize these ties. So its comes as a surprise that Russia has had a hand in the development of a third generation advanced fighter jet for the Republic of Taiwan - mainland China's official opponent. This was reported recently by Agence France-Presse, referring to the Chinese edition of The China Times. The information source argues that technology for the fifth generation F-35 Lightning II, which is currently being developed by the American corporation Lockheed Martin for the United States and its allies, was used in creating the Taiwanese fighter.

According to The China Times, Taiwan has begun work on a new military aircraft after appeals to the U.S. with a request for the sale of 66 fighter aircraft F-16C/D. Washington, as previously reported, denied this request, not wanting to spoil relations with Beijing. Chinese journalists also point out that the plane, developed by a public company Taiwan Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), has two engines and has a short take-off capability. Its development, according to The China Times, was completed only after Russia sent its experts to Taiwan - the source did not specify what Russian organization or company they represented.

This is certainly a new turn for the Russian defense industry and presents a dilemma for the United States. Washington and Taipei have a very close defense relationship, even if certain military hardware is not sold to the ROC from time to time. Taiwan is one of the high-tech sources for a great deal of technology that powers high-tech American industry, as well as American military developments. Russians were always keen on seeing first hand how far Western - and US in particular - military development has advanced, since at this time, Moscow can only watch on the sidelines as America and her allies implement next- generation high-tech military gear. Did the Russians get a chance to see first hand the advanced technology that Washington sold to Taipei, and did they take good notes to take back with them? An even larger question is what this news may do to the Moscow-Beijing military cooperation. Russia has sold a wide variety of advanced high-tech aircraft to mainland China recently, including Su-27 multi-role fighter bomber. China, making sure it was able to level the playing field, quickly reverse-engineered the Russian plane and began its indigenous production under J-11 designation.

Russians recently expressed concern that China is making plans to produce its own version of an even more advanced plane that Russia sold to Beijing about 8 years ago - Su-30 Flanker multirole fighter, a more advanced version of Su-27. Since all of Taiwan's military aircraft are designed and fielded against mainland China, Russian know-how now is part of ROC's high-tech air force pointed at the mainland. One has to wonder what Beijing thinks about all this, and whether Moscow's action was a pay back of sorts for China deciding to copy Russian technology.

Russia and Belarus announced their join military exercises to take place later this year. Designated "West 2009", the strategic exercise will take place in autumn 2009, and will consist of a series of defensive drills. Russian and Belorussian General Staff of the Armed Forces in their respected Ministries of Defense recently completed the planning. The main arena of exercises will be Obuz-Lesnovsky site on the territory of Belarus, where the maneuvers will begin on September 30, 2009. The exercises will include aircraft landing with arms and military equipment for up to 600 people.

At around the same time, from September 27 - 28, there will be a separate exercise developed by the Russian General Staff that will include approximately 13,000 troops, with about seven thousand troops from Belarus, and six thousand from Russia.

On June 16, ITAR-TASS news agency, citing the Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Makarov, reported that the tensions between Moscow and Minsk on other issues (such as previously reported arguments over the official union between two countries) will not affect plans for the "West 2009" exercise: "I think politics is politics and the military must do their job, and not confuse one with another", - stressed the Russian general.

While military issues give major headaches to many Russian officials, one of the best ways to get rid of such discomfort - not to mention the need to be in a good mood - was high-quality Armenian cognac. Armenia - and her neighbor Georgia - are some of the oldest wine and liqueur producing regions in the world, with local development dating back thousands of years. For resource-poor Armenia, export of its wine and cognac was a significant source of much-needed income. But the global economic slowdown has affected even the seemingly endless Russian appetites for strong alcohol - production of cognac in Armenia in 2009 will decline by 55-60 percent, according to the assessment of the Union of Armenian Winemakers. The drop in sales volumes is due to reduced consumption of cognac in Russia, the principal market for this products. According to the Union Chairman Avag Arutiunian, between January and April of this year, the decline in the production of brandy was 45.3 percent. Arutiunian added that such a drop in sales could result in a reduction of 20-40 per cent of Armenian grape preparation, putting many of the country''s wineries in a difficult situation. Production of cognac in Armenia grew steadily since 1999, resulting in global recognition and demand for "Ararat" and "Noah" brands.

And while Russians may drink less Armenian brandy, they certainly keep their neighbors guessing over the next Russian Ambassador to Ukraine. According to several sources, among the candidates for the post of Ambassador is Mikhail Zurabov, described by recently removed former Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdyn as a "normal, young, dark-haired and ministerial." The Press Secretary of Russian President Natalia Timakova refused to comment on the possibility of appointing Zurabov. "We are guessing", - said Oleg Grishin, the press secretary of Ambassador Chernomyrdin, noting that Zurabov is mentioned as the first on the short list of possible candidates. The source close to the presidential administration said that the former minister has long been applied to the important diplomatic work, and is noted as the key team member of Vladimir Putin's cabinet. Zurabov worked as the Minister of Health until the fall of 2007, and has been serving as the Adviser to President Medvedev on issues of social reforms.

Yevgeny Bendersky is the Senior Strategic Advisor for International Operations at Jenkins Hill International, LLC and a RealClearWorld contributor.
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