Moscow plays it cool on the North Korean nuclear crisis

The following is an extract from an op-ed by Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The article was originally published in Global Times, May 14, 2017 and appears here courtesy of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Seen from Moscow, a number of conflicts around the world — notably Ukraine or Syria — command more attention than another nuclear scare over North Korea. However, looking from Vladivostok, Russia’s small metropolis on the Pacific, few threats are as serious, or real, as military conflicts between North Korea and the US and its allies. Russia shares a few dozen kilometers of common border with North Korea, and already experienced a missile alert several years ago when a malfunctioning North Korean missile fell within Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

Moscow, of course, is no ally of Pyongyang. It finds the Kim family headstrong and difficult. President Vladimir Putin learned this first-hand as he travelled to meet with Kim Jong-Il in 2000, just ahead of a G8 summit in Japan. Russia’s mediation attempts between North Korea and the US were not particularly successful. The Russians, however, do not regard the North Korean leaders as irrational: The opposite is likely to be true. They understand that to Pyongyang nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee of regime survival. The ruling Kims have certainly learned this from the fate of both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

In Moscow’s realpolitik-ordered world, North Korea is considered to be of prime geopolitical importance to China. Having established a stable partnership, a sort of major-power entente with Beijing, Moscow would be foolish to try to undercut China in a region of secondary importance to itself.

Working at cross purposes with Beijing, in order to please the US, Japan or South Korea, is simply not an option, given the current confrontation between Moscow and Washington. Russia will not necessarily follow China every step of the way on North Korea, but will certainly abstain from doing anything against China’s interest.

Russia has played it cool in the current crisis, convinced that the spike in tensions will soon subside. Moscow, however, is under no illusion: The security situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to deteriorate and the next alert is just around the corner. As elsewhere across Eurasia, Russia wants to be seen as an indispensable player in Northeast Asia.


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