As the powder keg situation between United States president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un nears a boiling point, some outside observers have suggested that Russia could step in and play a helpful, moderating role. North Korea, they argue, should be one of the few issues on which Washington and Moscow can find common ground, and Russia has repeatedly brought up the idea of peace talks as a resolution.
The fact is, though, the Trump administration should not look to Moscow for any serious help in dealing with North Korea. Not only does Russia have even less influence over Pyongyang than China does, but Russia has shown that it uses its influence in ways that undermine the international sanctions against the regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin views the North Korea situation, as with other international issues, always looking to see what he can gain. For instance, if American standing in a particular region is under stress, Russia will attempt to enhance its position accordingly. Similarly, if Beijing gets tougher with North Korea, Moscow might look to step in and fill any void left by China. Putin is not interested in seeing the conflict explode into war, but he is willing to exploit every advantage at the expense of Beijing and Washington, even as the situation grows increasingly worrisome.
That is why calls to look to Moscow for help with North Korea should be viewed very skeptically.
Russia’s elite’s zero-sum thinking sees a deteriorating situation between Washington and Pyongyang as an opportunity for Moscow as Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, argued recently in the Financial Times.
“The North Korean nuclear missile crisis has no easy solution, but managing it is both possible and necessary. And if Russia does this skillfully it will strengthen its position in Asia-Pacific and mark another step away from U.S. hegemony in international affairs.”
“The Kremlin understands the North Korean psychology,” Lukyanov continued, “since Russia’s leaders have historically also felt besieged. For North Korea, it is not about bargaining, but survival — Kim Jong Un knows the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi and sees nuclear missiles as his life insurance.”
In other words, Lukyanov suggests, Moscow feels Pyongyang’s pain.
Lukyanov was also channeling the opinion of his president, Putin, who earlier this month claimed that North Korea “would rather eat grass than give up their nuclear weapons program unless they feel secure.”
With his own country under sanctions, it is hard to imagine Putin being interested in seeing sanctions work anywhere else.
For the record, Russian officials have been consistent in condemning both the increased sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang as well as the rhetoric coming out of Washington.
They have been much more passive with their comments on North Korea, characterizing their missile launches as “provocative.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not take too kindly to Trump’s comments last week at the U.N., threatening to destroy North Korea.
Trump followed those comments up with a Twitter post that re-emphasized his point.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
That post was a follow-up to a threat made on Twitter the previous day, aimed directly at the leader of North Korea.
Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017
Meanwhile, Sergey Lavrov, unhappy with the direction the situation was going, gave an indication of how aggressive Russia will be in doing what it feels it should.
“If you simply condemn and threaten, then we’re going to antagonize countries over whom we want to exert influence.”
Furthermore, Lavrov condemned Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, comparing them to young children in light of their spat, all the while insisting that peacefulness is the best way to resolve the issue.
“Together with China we’ll continue to strive for a reasonable approach and not an emotional one like when children in a kindergarten start fighting and no-one can stop them.”
At the U.N., Russia, along with China, managed to water down the sanctions imposed by the Security Council. As Hannah Thoburn has argued, Russia is not interested in getting tougher with Kim Jong-un’s regime because it has certain economic interests to protect.
Following the U.N. Assembly session last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sounded unconvinced that Russia could be of assistance to America.
“If Russia wants to restore its role as a credible actor in resolving the situation with North Korea, it can prove its good intentions by upholding its commitments to established international efforts on nuclear security and arms control.”
Tillerson has every right to be skeptical. Even where Moscow could conceivably be helpful on the margins, it has instead opted for the opposite tack. An example of this would be what took place this past spring. Despite U.S. calls for countries to downgrade relations with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile-testing programs, a ferry link was opened between North Korea and Russia.
A number of recent reports, including one in the Washington Post, detailed how Russia has been defying internationally agreed-upon sanctions on North Korea.
“Russian smugglers are scurrying to the aid of North Korea with shipments of petroleum and other vital supplies that could help that country weather harsh new economic sanctions.”
The article goes on to cite an increase in activity involving North Korean ports and the Russian far east city of Vladivostok, as Russian traders are allegedly trying to exploit openings as China and others seek to tighten the economic screws on Pyongyang. Russia, in other words, is stepping in where China might be stepping aside in bringing some assistance to North Korea through the provision of energy and other goods.
The time is now for the Trump administration’s high level of frustration with Beijing over North Korea to be extended to include aggravation with Moscow for its increasingly unhelpful role.
[Featured Image by Evan Vucci/AP Images]