Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

In a move apparently aimed both at demonstrating the independence of Russia’s foreign policy and at countering U.S. missile defense plans, the Kremlin has announced in recent days that President Vladimir Putin will meet this spring with the leaders of Iran and North Korea. The meetings are significant because they continue the Kremlin’s policy of building ties with so-called rogue states, some of which were also closely aligned with Moscow during the Soviet period. With respect to Iran and North Korea in particular, that policy also touches on Russian objections to the Bush administration’s vigorous push to deploy a U.S. ballistic missile defense system.

American supporters of the system have justified it by citing a growing missile threat from Iran and North Korea. Moscow, by contrast, has accused the United States of exaggerating the threat, arguing that diplomatic measures are likely to better serve the security interests of both the United States and the international community. That point was underlined by Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov in Munich last week, when he told a gathering of defense chiefs and experts that: “Restraining the so-called rogue nations… may be carried out more effectively from the standpoint of both cost and effectiveness by means of a common political effort. The situation in North Korea is the obvious example, which a year ago seemed much worse than it does today” (New York Times News Service, February 6).

Russia’s relations with Iran are likely to concern the Bush administration from more than just a missile defense perspective, however. President Mohammad Khatami’s planned visit to Moscow sometime in March reflects a distinct warming in Russian-Iranian ties which has become ever more pronounced since Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency. These improved ties were evidenced last fall when Moscow announced that it would withdraw from an informal Russian-U.S. agreement limiting Russian arms sales to Iran, and that the Russian government intended to negotiate another. Then, late last month, Moscow punctuated its intention to ignore U.S. objections to improved Russian-Iranian ties when Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry announced that it had begun work on a second nuclear reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran (see the Monitor, January 25). Under the Clinton administration, the United States had objected strongly–albeit in vain–to the Russian-Iranian decision to proceed with construction of the first reactor at the Bushehr plant. The decision to build the second reactor is sure to intensify American concerns that the Bushehr projects could further Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Russian-Iranian arms talks, meanwhile, also appear to be moving forward. Following discussions in Tehran earlier this week, a top Russian arms export official told reporters that the two countries could sign a deal on military-technical cooperation before the end of this year. According to Viktor Komardin, deputy director of the Russian state arms trading company Rosoboroneksport, Russian arms sales to Tehran could eventually total up to US$300 million per year. Komardin said that his visit was a follow-up to high profile talks that took place in Iran this past December between Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Iranian defense officials. Sergeev was careful at that time to make it clear that no specific arms deals between Russia and Iran were currently on the table, and Komardin too had few specifics to offer. But some arms export officials in Moscow have suggested that the Iranian government, flush with oil revenues, could purchase some US$7-8 billion in arms from Moscow in the coming years (Reuters, February 11; Russian agencies, February 12; see the Monitor, January 2).

Moscow will presumably have multiple goals in mind as well when Putin holds talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sometime in April. As is the case with the Putin-Khatami meeting, few details concerning the anticipated discussion agenda have been released as of yet. Russian diplomatic sources have said that Putin and Kim will discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula, the rapprochement between North and South Korea, and bilateral Russian-North Korean ties. What they have not said directly is that the Kremlin undoubtedly hopes a visit by the reclusive Kim will help Russia to carve a niche for itself in negotiations over the future of the Korean Peninsula. Moscow has largely been cut out of those deliberations until now, but is hoping to use its Soviet-era ties to Pyongyang to change that situation (AFP, February 9).

Moscow will undoubtedly also use the Kim visit to push its claim that U.S. missile defense is unnecessary–and will likely get some help from Kim in making that point. Putin made a groundbreaking visit to North Korea last July, after which the Russian president claimed to have negotiated with Kim an understanding of sorts under which Pyongyang would give up its ballistic missile development program in exchange for access to Western missile launches. Putin was never able to fill in the details of the deal, however, and Kim himself cast some doubt on its seriousness when he told visiting South Korean businessmen that his proposal had been made only in a “joking” fashion (see the Monitor, August 30, 2000).

Indeed, Pyongyang appeared in the latter part of last year to retreat a bit more generally from its rapprochement with Moscow, and there were hints of problems in scheduling the North Korean leader’s visit to Russia. That the Putin-Kim meeting has now been set may reflect concern in Pyongyang over the Bush Administration’s announced intention to proceed with development of a national or global ballistic missile defense system (as well as a possible theater defense system in Asia), and over suggestions from Washington that the new U.S. administration will take a harder line toward North Korea more generally. Increased tensions between Pyongyang and Washington could open up some fresh diplomatic opportunities for Moscow, particularly if another meeting–this one between Putin and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung at the end of this month–goes well for the Russian leader.