Russian media roundup: How did the Russian media react to North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test and increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

An Iranian worshipper holds up a poster showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric who was executed by Saudi Arabia, as she shows victory sign while attending an anti-Saudi protest rally after the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8. Photo: AP

Conflict keeps brewing in the Middle East, this time between two major regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, tensions in Asia were ratcheted up when North Korea purportedly tested a hydrogen bomb on Jan. 6. Heading into the first month of the year, then, Russian diplomats are already facing the prospect of new tensions in two different regions where they might be forced to pick sides.

The worsening situation for Saudi Arabia and Iran

The situation involving Saudi Arabia and Iran spiraled out of control on Jan. 2, when the Saudis executed Shiite sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, defender of the interests of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia. In response, Tehran has vowed “divine retribution” and Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked.

On Jan. 3, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. The exchange of unfriendly gestures continued all week, gradually also drawing other countries in the region into the conflict.

The independent media outlet Meduza looked at the conflict between the two powers through the lens of historical perspective. Adhering to two different branches of Islam, the two countries have been at odds for many years, going through periods of cooperation and confrontation.

The current conflict is the first severe exacerbation in relations in the past 30 years, and against the backdrop of other dangerous processes in the Middle East, it must be treated with the utmost seriousness.

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Gevorg Mirzayan, a staff-writer for Expert, an analytical media outlet, tried to present the position of Russia in this escalating conflict. At first glance, Russia obviously seems obligated to support one of its main allies in the region – Iran. However, analysts say that things are not that simple. For the Kremlin, the best option might be to “take a bag of popcorn, sit back... and watch as Saudi Arabia and Iran engage in a long and protracted cold war of attrition.”

There are many reasons for Moscow to adopt such a position. This is not just due to some banal unwillingness to get involved in yet another conflict, and thus risk spoiling Russia’s relations with other countries of the region, but also due to the very important religious factor. Russia is already considered part of the “Shiite Axis” and Moscow has no wish to once again confirm that this dubious title is true.

The business newspaper Vedomosti also reminded its readers that the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been going on for a long time, and often, Iran has been “baited” by Saudi provocations, which is what happened this time around as well.

Tehran’s reaction, in the eyes of the international community, only proves that Iran is an “unreliable and unpredictable partner,” which is something the Saudis sought to demonstrate ahead of the difficult negotiations on the settlement of the Syrian conflict, in which Iran has been assigned an important role.

Hydrogen bomb test by North Korea

North Korea’s supposed test of a new hydrogen bomb resonated widely in the Russian media; however, not everyone believes that North Korea possesses true nuclear capabilities. For example, the business newspaper Kommersant, as before, still expresses strong doubts that North Korea actually exploded a hydrogen bomb.

The publication refers to experts at Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CNTBTO), who are claiming that North Korea had indeed tested just a common nuclear bomb, only of a higher power than the previous ones. Kommersant also noted that, in terms of international politics, North Korea itself has not suffered the most from this test, but rather China, which has been massively criticized for its support of the North Korean communist regime.

Kirill Martynov, political columnist at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes that Russia is being surrounded by more and more “troubled friends.” The prospect of cooperation with these nations is becoming rather difficult, he suggests.

The North Korean test, which Martynov believes is more likely mere propaganda than a real event, will hit China and Russia the hardest, because these two countries will now have to face huge international pressure on the “North Korean issue.” It remains to be seen whether Moscow will have enough resources to protect its many troubled friends around the world – from Iran to North Korea, and what all this could mean for Russia.

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The pro-government Channel One criticized the holding of the test. However, it does not believe that North Korea possesses fusion technologies.

Referring to Russian experts, the TV channel claims that the North has detonated a nuclear warhead of a higher power, but the real purpose of this test was political, and simply propaganda, with the North Korean leadership counting on it having an impact both inside the country and abroad.

The TV channel also noted that this time around, all countries and relevant international organizations have unanimously condemned the actions of the North Korean regime.

Germany’s problems with migrants

New Year’s Eve celebrations for residents of the German city of Cologne were marred, with the police receiving about 200 complaints from women alleging physical attacks, including two rapes. The German press reported that the attackers, mainly migrants from Africa and the Middle East, were organized into groups and attacked women in the heart of Cologne, where festive celebrations were being held.

The news from Germany caused a real shock in the Russian media. Thus, Alexander Mineev, special correspondent in Brussels for the opposition Novaya Gazeta, with reference to a leading German publication, called this attack on women a form of true barbarism, which the prosperous city of Cologne had not seen since the Middle Ages.

Mineev expressed his doubts that Merkel’s cabinet was pursuing the correct course when it comes to the issue of migrants, because Germany today does not have sufficient resources to “digest” such a large number of foreigners. For the Germans, the current problem is real and palpable: “In a group of a million migrants, the percentage of criminal, or prone to crime elements, is greater than in that of a million people who have grown up in a prosperous and tolerant European environment,” emphasizes the correspondent.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta was surprised by the slow and confused reaction of the German authorities. The newspaper strongly believes that the government and the media had tried to downplay the news on this problem, because it is too serious a blow to Merkel’s cabinet, and its policies towards refugees coming from the Middle East.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta also wrote about the atmosphere of chaos and panic in German cities after the events in Cologne, which led to numerous spontaneous protests breaking out in the country. It is high time Germany gave more thought to its own citizens, and not strangers, otherwise the consequences could become unpredictable, concludes the newspaper.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets adhered to the conspiratorial view of events. According to the newspaper, the actions of migrants were well organized and coordinated, and the attacks were not limited to Cologne: similar attacks were recorded in other German cities, as well as in several cities in Austria and Switzerland. The publication also noted that the German authorities had tried to hush up the issue, but failed in this endeavor. Moskovsky Komsomolets strongly believes that the problems facing Europe, with its millions of new Arab refugees, are just beginning.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station aired the opinions of a resident of Cologne, Jeanne Spitkovskaya, who is perturbed by the lack of action on the part of not only the city, but also the national authorities.

The “open door policy for migrants” is already starting to cause panic among the population, but only a few dare to speak out openly about this, because such a person could easily be branded a fascist or a Nazi, even if he or she is simply acting to protect his family or home. Moreover, Spitkovskaya stressed that it is unlikely that the perpetrators will be punished.

Stock market woes

Falling share prices on stock exchanges around the world during the first week of January led to concerns about global financial stability. Neither Asian nor American indices could resist this trend, and posted record drops.

The Russian exchanges were “saved” by the holidays (the first working day in Russia was Jan. 11, with some trading being carried out only on Jan. 4-6), but nonetheless, the general negative background, including falling oil prices, raised serious concerns in the Russian media.

Dmitry Gavrilenko, observer at Expert, the analytical publication, sees a very frightening trend in the world economy in 2016: the world no longer has any “safe havens” and now all countries and regions are prone to a new crisis, the scale of which people are only beginning to understand.

The expert believes that, in some cases, this drop of this “overheated market” may even be good for the global economy, and yet in the current difficult situation, we can expect further deterioration, because the declining prices for resources are having an impact on the real sector of manufacturing.

The business newspaper Vedomosti called the first seven days of 2016 a “black week”, because stocks in different parts of the world lost 5-10 percent of their value, while oil prices dropped a full 10 percent. The publication says that, to a large part, China is to blame for this, given that the nation’s financial problems became apparent already during last year. The Chinese economy is going through a period of emergency braking, which is creating problems for the global markets.

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However, international experts interviewed by the newspaper stress that we should not judge the upcoming year by events during the first week – the stock exchanges have ample opportunities to win back what they lost.

However, the price of oil is quite another thing, and Russia should not expect any pleasant surprises to occur in this area. On the contrary, according to experts, the price of oil has not yet reached its bottom. How far we must go to hit the true bottom remains an open question on the oil market.

Quotes of the week:

A senior U.S. State Department official about the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran: “The Secretary [of State John Kerry] is very concerned with the direction this thing is going. It’s very unsettling to him that so many nations are choosing not to engage. With so much turmoil in the region, the last thing we need is for people not to be having conversations.”

Political analyst Vladimir Sazhin on the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran: “Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis have existed for 14 centuries, but in peacetime it was not that important who you had for a neighbor. Now the conflict is primarily political, with the two dominant players in the region wanting to show who’s the boss.”

Mayor of Cologne Henriette Reker about numerous physical attacks on German women: “There’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length – that is to say, to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship.”

North Korea’s statement on its hydrogen bomb tests: “These measures are designed to protect the country’s sovereignty and the rights of its citizens to life in conditions of a nuclear war threat.”