Moscow’s view of the upcoming meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in Hanoi could be described as one of cautious optimism.
In a broader Russian foreign policy context, the manner in which the Kremlin views any North Korea-U.S. dialogue depends on two factors: the DPRK’s position in Russia-U.S. relations, and how Pyongyang fits into Moscow’s regional-level interests in East Asia.
Moscow, once an ally of the DPRK, is now keen to regenerate its stagnant ties with Pyongyang, while Moscow-Washington relations have cooled immensely.
From the Russian perspective, the continued diplomatic trajectory of DPRK-U.S. relations, while not a clear-cut boon to the Kremlin, does entail several benefits to the Russian Federation’s foreign policy ambitions.
BRINGING MOSCOW AND WASHINGTON TOGETHER
The occasion of a second meeting between the American and North Korean leadership has been a source of demonstrable Russian goodwill in an otherwise tense Russia-U.S. relationship.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, Mark Lambert, the U.S. State Department’s director for Korea Policy, visited Moscow for consultations with Russian officials and Korea experts.
Around the time of Lambert’s visit, the Russian foreign ministry expressed its best wishes for the success of the second Kim-Trump gathering. Additionally, it opined that “our cooperation with the Americans is growing stronger” regarding the Korean Peninsula.
Sentiments from the Russian legislature (a body that has had a critical role in the development of DPRK-Russia ties) have been more weighted in nature.
Russian officials have also insinuated that American bad faith could derail progress in diplomatic talks
Following a meeting with Kim Hyun Joong, the DPRK’s ambassador to Moscow, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, declared that the Russian government would be watching the development of the Hanoi meeting closely.
Kosachev also iterated an essential Russian policy position that a political (i.e. diplomatic) course of action to resolving the ongoing standoff was the only one acceptable to Moscow.
Other official statements in the Russian capital, while not condemning the United States’ actions on the Korean peninsula, seemed only to praise the DPRK’s efforts in maintaining dialogue.
Speaking at a reception at the North Korean embassy in Moscow, Georgy Zinoviev, head of the Russian foreign ministry’s Asia-Pacific bureau, specifically singled out Pyongyang in a complimentary manner.
To be fair, its possible Zinoviev felt that praising the DPRK’s arch nemesis in its own embassy would be diplomatic bad form.
Nevertheless, other Russian officials have also insinuated that American bad faith could derail progress in diplomatic talks. Oleg Burmistrov, the Kremlin’s special envoy for nuclear affairs, recently stated that Kim Jong Un’s own commitment to denuclearization is only one aspect of the equation — part of the onus is on the United States as well to continue building trust with Pyongyang and ensuring the DPRK continues to have incentive to disarm.
As for official American views of the Kremlin’s contributions leading up to the Hanoi summit, the White House expressed positive views of Russian cooperation with the U.S. Russia-based RIA Novosti reported that President Trump, speaking at a press conference, described Moscow’s efforts in cooperating with the U.S. as helpful.
The American president’s comments are a marked departure from just over a year ago when he accused the Russian Federation of assisting the DPRK in sanctions evasion.
The question of how the Russian Federation assesses North Korea in terms of Moscow’s relations with the U.S. is the subject of various viewpoints.
A united Korea under a pro-American government would be akin to having NATO on the Russian Federation’s eastern periphery
Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy, has argued that the Kremlin has been backing North Korea in order to restore Russia’s position as a great power.
Indeed, a successful and constructive role in Korea has two main implications for Moscow’s ties with Washington, and for the Kremlin to have a significant hand in the outcome of the Korean security crisis would certainly raise Russia’s prestige in the Asia-Pacific.
Concurrently, advancing Russian interests on the Korean peninsula could partially displace Washington’s influence in the region. Last year Alexander Zhebin of the Russian Academy of Sciences expressed concern that a united Korea under a pro-American government would be akin to having NATO on the Russian Federation’s eastern periphery.
Denuclearization and reunification are two distinct, if related issues in Korean politics. Yet Zhebin’s sentiment underscores the essential Russian interest in seeing the United States’ influence on the Korean Peninsula diminish.
This does not necessarily mean, however that Russia is game for picking a direct geopolitical fight with Washington over the Korean peninsula.
According to research by Jacqueline Westermann of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Kremlin does not consider North Korea to be enough of a strategic priority to warrant upsetting relations with Washington any more than they already are.
For Russia, which came to regret its neglect of the Korean peninsula in the years following the Cold War, the priority is restoring its voice in peninsular affairs. If Russia can do this without directly antagonizing the U.S., so much the better for Moscow.
The Kremlin thus hardly views American influence on the Korean peninsula in a constructive light, as continued American influence in Korea contradicts the Russian Federation’s great power ambitions.
With the Russian Federation’s consistent push towards a multilateral solution to the Korean security crisis, dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington increases the chances for the Kremlin’s continued marginalization in Korean affairs.
If Pyongyang and Washington are in direct dialogue (with Kim Jong Un traveling to China for consultations prior to major meetings with other world leaders), then the opportunities for Moscow to enact a constructive role are limited.
THE QUESTION OF SANCTIONS
Yet particularly, though not exclusively, at the Northeast Asia sub-regional level, any movement in a trajectory away from the prospect of armed conflict between North Korea and the U.S. (namely, inter-state dialogue) is a welcome prospect for Russia.
Specific to the ongoing outreach between the North Korean and American top leadership, the Russian government is no doubt pleased to see a diplomatic track being pursued, even as Russian officials belabor Moscow’s position that sanctions against the DPRK ought to be dropped.
The U.S. government for its part has made clear that it is not yet open to such a course of action, even as Washington is desirous to pursue any courses of action that will build trust between itself and Pyongyang.
From the Russian vantage point, the primary threat to its security regarding North Korea is not necessarily a direct North Korean threat against Russian territory or interests.
Rather, the Korean security crisis entails a major risk of armed conflict involving the United States and the DPRK. Any conflict on the Korean peninsula would have serious blowback for one of Russia’s most economically underdeveloped regions, the Russian Far East.
While Moscow’s attitude toward the summit could reasonably be described as being soberly optimistic, the Kremlin’s point man in Pyongyang, ambassador Alexander Matsegora, appears hopeful over the prospects of the U.S.’s principle goal regarding North Korea – denuclearization.
Speaking to Russian media outlet Interfax, Moscow’s envoy to the DPRK expressed good faith that Kim Jong Un would maintain a commitment to disarmament, stating there was no reason not to believe the North Korean leadership would continue working toward that coveted goal.
Moscow’s attitude toward the summit could reasonably be described as being soberly optimistic
A glance beyond the immediacy of the Hanoi meeting, however underscores a key difference between Washington and Moscow vis-à-vis Korea.
Where Russia and the United States may not be in overt geopolitical contest over Korea, the Kremlin and Washington do significantly differ in their long-term visions for the wider Northeast Asia sub-region.
Denuclearization is Washington’s primary objective for the DPRK; the Russian Federation’s line of thinking however, while inclusive of disarmament, is somewhat more long-term.
This is understandable, given the direct and inescapable effects developments political and security developments in Northeast Asia can exert on Russia (due to Russia’s geographic proximity to Korea).
Alexander Matsegora, in another recent interview with Russian media, brought up a long-standing policy goal for the Russian Federation, namely the creation of a regional security mechanism in Northeast Asia.
Matsegora declared that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was not an end-all-be-all to regional security, but rather was one step in a strategic vision that entails many more developments.
The U.S., for its part, is unlikely to support creating a security mechanism as Russia envisions, as such an institution would clash with the United States’ decades-old alliance system in Northeast Asia.
The time is not right, however to break out the champagne bottles in the Kremlin
Furthermore, even if a regional security organization were multilateral in nature, Washington would likely be suspicious of Russian attempts at displacing American influence, with specific reference to groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Holding a follow-up meeting to last June’s convocation between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump bodes well for the Russian Federation’s insistence on the pursuit of dialogue and diplomacy in resolving the Korean security crisis.
The time is not right, however to break out the champagne bottles in the Kremlin. For Moscow’s journey of a thousand miles in its Korea policy, Hanoi constitutes one large step, but only a step.
In the aftermath of the second Trump-Kim meeting, Vladimir Putin, who has been instrumental in reviving Russia’s post-Cold War Korea policy, will be asking himself: “How can I help keep these two talking, without getting pushed to the sidelines myself?”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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