On Monday, the UN Security Council (USNC) is expected to vote on a draft resolution introducing additional sanctions on North Korea. Likely policies to be included in the draft include an oil embargo, bans on North Korean textile exports, and prohibitions on hiring North Korean laborers abroad.
But recent speculation has dealt with a question: will Russia veto the resolution? Signals are mixed, and to answer this question, one should understand the inner logic of Russia’s policy, as well as Russia’s interests and stakes in the Korean issue.
THE VIEW FROM MOSCOW
It is not an easy task, given that in recent years Russia has become a ‘bad boy’ of Western – especially American – media. Every reader of the Economist or the New York Times knows that Vladimir Putin is an evil dictator, hell bent on undermining Western democracy and ready to support every anti-Western tyrant.
This author is frequently asked how safe it is to say something bad about Putin online. I reply that a friend of mine regularly – every month or two – goes to anti-government rallies in Moscow, to happily march under posters saying that Putin and his party is a “clique of crooks and thieves,” before the next day going to his highly prestigious and powerful job.
This is not to say that Russian domestic policy does not have pronounced authoritarian tendencies – but these tendencies are not as strong and, at any rate, are often very different from what the Western public imagines.
This is also not to say that Russia’s foreign policy does not tend to be problematic. However, in most cases, this policy is driven by the rational understanding of Russia’s own geopolitical interests, not ideology.
And what are Russia’s interests when it comes to North Korea? In essence, Russia’s strategic goals are similar to those of China. Like China, Russia’s first and most important goal is to maintain stability, its second is to preserve Korea’s division, and its third is to advance denuclearization.
The goals are presented in order of significance, and are important – indeed, decisive – for understanding what one should and shouldn’t expect from Moscow.
Policy is driven by the rational understanding of Russia’s own geopolitical interests
THE NUCLEAR ISSUE
To make things clear, Russia does not want North Korea going nuclear. One of five officially recognized nuclear powers, Russia enjoys a great deal of implicit privileges under the current international system, and it does not want these privileges to be eroded by nuclear proliferation.
Even though the North Korean nuclear program clearly targets the U.S., it constitutes an indirect threat to Russia: it might inspire copy-cat behavior from other countries or, in the worst case scenario, trigger a nuclear ‘domino effect’ in East Asia.
We should not forget, that of all the “legally nuclear” nations, Russia has the smallest GDP (yes, it is smaller than the GDP of France and the UK, let alone China and U.S.)
This means that the “right to carry nuclear weapons,” the great leveler of world politics, is more vital for Russia than for the other four members of the nuclear club: being economically weaker, Russia is still equal or superior in terms of sheer military might, and wants it to remain this way.
As a result, the proliferation of nuclear technologies is an anathema to the Russian government – and this is exactly the reason why Russia has always supported UNSC resolutions condemning North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and supported sanctions against Pyongyang.
The era of ‘strangulating’ sanctions is about to begin
However, there are limits to such support. No matter how much Russia dislikes a nuclear North Korea, it dislikes a serious disruption of the status quo even more.
There is a difference between supporting sanctions aimed at limiting North Korea’s approach to vital military technologies (and also creating some discomfort for the elite,) and supporting much tougher sanctions likely to trigger a grave economic crisis.
HOW FAR IS TOO FAR?
Now, with an oil embargo and similar measures being discussed, the era of ‘strangulating’ sanctions is about to begin.
For Russia, such sanctions are not acceptable because one of the possible outcome of such a crisis is the collapse of the North Korean regime in a violent and bloody revolution.
No matter how much Russia dislikes a nuclear North Korea, it dislikes a serious disruption of the status quo even more
Vladimir Putin was right when he recently said that even if North Koreans have to eat grass, they will not surrender nuclear weapons (of course, in North Korea the people who make decisions on nuclear weapons are far removed from the people who would have no choice but to eat grass).
However, there is the probability that a really harsh sanctions regime will eventually provoke a grave political crisis and revolution in North Korea: instead of eating grass, the people will rebel.
For American observers, who will watch enthusiastic TV reports about a North Korean revolution in safety, this development, as long as it does not trigger a region-wide war, will be welcome. After all, regime collapse will bring about the complete solution of the North Korean nuclear issue, the U.S.’s overwhelming concern.
However, Russia and China, inconveniently located on the border with North Korea, have reasons to be unenthusiastic about prospects of a Syria-like or Libya-like situation, anarchy and civil war in a nuclear-armed country nearby. For Moscow – and, for that matter, for Beijing – a collapsing North Korea is a greater threat than a nuclear one, however bad a nuclear North Korea is.
The likely long-term outcome of such crisis is not good, either. Sooner or later, the bloody revolutionary mess will be sorted out, and the situation in North Korea will be again taken under control, either by a (presumably, reluctant) Chinese intervention or by a unification with the victorious South.
Neither option is good for Russia. Russia does not want a pro-Chinese satellite regime to control the northern part of the Korean peninsula, and the prospect of a unified, Seoul-dominated, nationalistic and, likely American ally, is not encouraging either. Admittedly, a Seoul- or Beijing-controlled North Korea is better than one in a state of chaos, but the status quo is still best of all options.
As it is easy to see, the above-described Russian concerns are shared by China. Combined with the current quasi-alliance of these two nations, this creates conditions for joint action, in the Security Council or elsewhere.
However, it is China which is bound to take lead on the North Korean issue, due to the simple reason that the Chinese stakes, while qualitatively similar to those of Russia, are much higher.
Thus, now the top Russian diplomats face a major problem: when do they draw the red line and say that “enough is enough”?
If attempts to soften the resolution up do not succeed, Russian diplomacy will probably resort to a veto
It might be that we have already arrived at this point, especially given the sorry state of U.S.-Russia relations. Had relations been good, the Russian side would perhaps agree to make concessions, on the implicit assumption that such concessions will be eventually reciprocated by the U.S. side somewhere else.
However, in the current climate, this does not appear likely, and the tense state of relations might further contribute to the Russian stance on the issue.
Does this mean that Russia will use its veto power to block a very harsh resolution at the UNSC? Perhaps, even though such a veto would be bad for the maintenance of the nonproliferation regime, which is important for Russia.
Therefore, it appears likely that the Russian diplomats will first do what they can to soften the resolution using their veto potential as leverage. For example, they could accept the textile ban, but it is less likely that they will support oil embargo and labor export ban.
If attempts to soften the resolution up do not succeed, Russian diplomacy will probably resort to a veto. Even if it does not happen now, U.S. diplomacy should not count on Russia’s support if, in future, they decide to increase the current level of pressure much further.
It is not a result of Mr. Putin’s alleged “mischievous nature”: even under a more liberal and pro-Western leader, Russia would probably do the same. It has to take into account its own interests, after all.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
On Monday, the UN Security Council (USNC) is expected to vote on a draft resolution introducing additional sanctions on North Korea. Likely policies to be included in the draft include an oil embargo, bans on North Korean textile exports, and prohibitions on hiring North Korean laborers abroad.But recent speculation has dealt with a question: will Russia veto the resolution? Signals are mixed,
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.