Update: This article was updated at 7.54am KT to correct an attributional error
Since the announcement of United Nations Security Resolution 2371, which included a range of sector-wide measures that could seriously impact Pyongyang’s foreign currency earning capabilities, Russia has made it increasingly clear that it is opposed to further sanctions against the North.
Immediately after the sanctions package was revealed, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN stated Russia was not interested in measures that would economically asphyxiate the North. Then last week, after North Korea’s Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile launch over Japan, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the prospect of additional sanctions was “counterproductive and dangerous”.
And President Vladimir Putin said – even after Sunday’s sixth nuclear test – that sanctions are “useless and ineffective,” that dialogue and diplomacy are key, and that ongoing “military hysteria” may result in “planetary catastrophe.”
But while strident Russian opposition to more sanctions is clear – and the fact that Moscow wants Washington to seriously consider its joint proposal with Beijing to show mutual restraint with Pyongyang – it appears a gulf could be starting to emerge on the Security Council as to ways forward with the North.
Instead, interest in pursuing a very different approach is rising among countries like the U.S. and South Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in – currently in Vladivostok for a summit conversation with Putin prior to the Eastern Economic Forum – said Tuesday that recent developments in the North mean that it’s time for the UN to identify ways to cut Pyongyang’s foreign sources of currency, “including a halt to oil supplies to the North and a ban on its exportation of laborers.”
Strident Russian opposition to more sanctions is clear
Moon’s position reflects that of the U.S., too, which has been calling for increasingly stringent sanctions against the North, despite the fact little time has passed for UNSC 2371 to show any effect.
At an emergency meeting of the UN on Monday, for example, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for the “strongest possible measures” to respond to the North’s sixth test and said her team would promptly circulate a draft resolution for consideration.
As such, it appears Washington may, this week, be hungry to push at the UN for measures like an oil embargo, a possible ban on the hiring of overseas laborers, as well as increases in air and maritime restrictions. But given Russia’s clear opposition to such measures to date, how will Moscow approach these UNSC negations?
“I don’t think Russia would allow much of new sanctions, certainly not for the workers,” said Professor Georgy Toloraya, a former Russian diplomat with decades of experience working in the two Koreas. “(But) maybe we could be flexible on something concerning crude oil which comes from China.”
“And there was an idea to look at textile exports, but I am not sure how much we can do on that – we don’t import much of them,” he continued.
OTHER INTERESTS AT PLAY
Regardless of the Korea issue, there is a geopolitical motivation for Moscow to avoid going too far in satisfying U.S. requests for any subsequent UNSC resolution at this time.
On the receiving end of increasing U.S. sanctions and a diplomatic spat with Washington that recently led to the closure of Russia’s consulate in San Francisco and annexes in New York and Washington, Moscow on Sunday denounced the U.S. as taking a “blatantly hostile act” which violated international law.
And in August the U.S. Congress sanctioned Russia in a bill which also included the North and Iran in the same text, something which didn’t go unnoticed.
“President Putin said yesterday in an interview that it’s ridiculous that the U.S. puts Russia and North Korea on the same sanctions list, then comes to Russia and says “Please help us with sanctions” — this is just strange,” said Toloraya.
Russia, furthermore, has a new ambassador at the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, another factor which could additionally complicate things.
“One thing we have to remember is that this is a time for Russia’s new ambassador to prove himself and set the tone of his tenure as a strong negotiator,” said Anthony Rinna, a specialist in Korea-Russia relations at Sino-NK.
But other experts familiar with Russian affairs are nevertheless skeptical that Moscow would use a veto to prevent the UN from implementing new sanctions when it comes to the North.
“This is a time for Russia’s new ambassador to prove himself”
“Frankly, I don’t expect a Russian veto, exactly because such a thing would be unprecedented,” said Dr. Andrei Lankov, a director at Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News.
Indeed, the UNSC has long worked from a common position as far as the North Korea WMD issue goes. Though resolutions have sometimes taken long periods of negotiation, problems have been few and far between, partly because of consensus towards the common objective.
“Russia, in spite of many caveats, is not happy about North Korea’s nuclear program,” said Lankov.
THE BEIJING FACTOR
But another Russian specialist said that might not be the case.
“I think the probability of Russian veto is rather high,” said Dr. Alexander Zhebin, Director of the Center for Korean Studies. “At the same time Russia is likely to take into consideration China’s position.”
“Russia may support a new resolution with limited additional sanctions in case it will include strong appeal to the parties concerned, especially the USA and the DPRK, to resume a dialogue and for USA to refrain from unilateral sanctions against North Korea,” Zhebin said. “It is highly probable that the same position will be taken by China.”
But that doesn’t mean Moscow doesn’t have tactics up its sleeve for the pending UNSC negotiations.
“What I expect, however, is Russia working together with China – perhaps under Beijing’s guidance – in order to try to make the common resolution as moderate and toothless as is possible,” Lankov said.
“I think Russia will definitely get into more aggressive negotiations over sanctions, but I hesitate to say for certain if they will veto… (something which could) possibly split the council and set a chilling tone,” said Rinna.
Toloroya, the former diplomat, agreed: “I think that we should find some solution together with China and have some discussions,” he said. “I wouldn’t be happy if we have to use veto power.”
“I don’t know if it will be pleasant for the U.S. side…(but) we will try and find some compromise,” he continued. “It may be a symbolic gesture, some additional sanctions are possible, but not the radical ones the U.S. has in mind.”
Still, some risks could remain.
“If Americans and other key countries are not going to be particularly willing to cooperate, I would expect that Russia would threaten its veto — but I don’t think it’s going to get to the point where Russia will actually use its veto power,” Lankov said.
All of this could be part of a strategy for Russia to reassert its role on the Korean peninsula, it appears.
Privately, according to the Washington Post, Russia is simultaneously working to involve itself in back-channel diplomacy with the North, inviting the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, Ambassador Joe Yun, to come to Russia for discussions about resuming dialogue.
And though that negotiation is currently on ice, the Post reported that Russia also invited Choe Son Hui, deputy director of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ North America department to visit and “feel out Pyongyang as to a possible resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea.”
But in face of another pending test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the North, it’s unclear whether even progress in Russian discussions with Choe would be of interest for Washington at this time, which will likely feel even more compelled to pursue further sanctions.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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