The fast-escalating crisis in East Asia, driven by the chain of nuclear and missile provocations by the North Korean regime, has upset the carefully prepared agendas of regional politics. In early September, North Korea cast a shadow over talks at the BRICS (a loose political grouping of major developing economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in China as well as the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. President Vladimir Putin sought to use both occasions to assert Russia’s profile in the turbulent but still peaceful Asia-Pacific but returned to Moscow with few achievements. His statement on the uselessness of sanctions against North Korea did attract attention; yet, it was clear that his objection was primarily motivated by an analogous concern over Western sanctions targeting Russia (RIA Novosti, September 5). His appeal not to push Pyongyang into a corner could have appeared prudent, but his insistence on a political solution was not translated into any tangible initiatives. As such, it merely betrays Putin’s irritation with the fact that Russia has no say in decision-making on managing this crisis (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 6). Indeed, the campaign of pressure on North Korea is being directed by United States President Donald Trump, who keeps close (albeit uneasy) contact with China’s President Xi Jinping; but the latter has not been informing Putin about these discussions (Valdai.ru, September 5).
Beijing has good reasons to expect Moscow would follow its lead when voting on the US-drafted resolution in the United Nations Security Council, as it invariably did in the past (RBC, September 6). Russia is directly exposed to the security risks emanating from the nuclear-maverick North Korea but lacks even minimally effective instruments for dealing with such threats (Republic.ru, September 4). While criticizing the US deployment of a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, Moscow has refrained from deploying in the Far East its newly developed and much-advertised S-400 air defense system, which has not in fact ever been tested against ballistic missiles (Kommersant FM, September 4). Moreover, Russia’s system of monitoring North Korean missile launches produces fault-prone data because neither Russian land-based radars nor its oft-failing satellites provide sufficient coverage (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, September 8). Taking a break from high-level decorum, Putin visited the newly commissioned Sovershenny-class corvette. However, the dilapidated Russian Pacific Fleet needs much more than this small ship to again become a force to be reckoned with in this fast-rearming neighborhood (RIA Novosti, September 6). In fact, Russia’s main military efforts are presently concentrated on the Western theater, where the large-scale Zapad 2017 exercises are being camouflaged as routine combat training (New Times, August 30).
At the Vladivostok Forum—attended by the leaders of Japan, Mongolia and South Korea, but politely ignored by China—Putin skipped over the uncomfortable regional security matter (Kommersant, September 8). His meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was long on reflections of the failed project for economic engagement of North Korea but short on assessments of new realities and interesting only in Putin’s reluctance to criticize the US policy (Gazeta.ru, September 7). The meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sough to put a friendly veneer over the two countries’ non-existent trust but failed to deliver even symbolic progress to the long-debated peace treaty, much to Abe’s consternation (Newsru.com, September 7). The main purpose of this strenuously promoted forum is to attract Asian investors into the chronically depressed Russian Far East. However, these political talk-sessions have repeatedly yielded poor results as business guests take their cues from Chinese companies, which show scant interest (Kommersant, September 8).
The only person who radiated genuine confidence was Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, who confirmed a deal on acquisition of some 14 percent of shares in this Russian oil giant by the private Chinese company CEFC China Energy (RBC, September 9). He sought to secure a Chinese partnership for a long time, engaging the Swiss trader Glencore and Qatar Investment Authority as a temporary solution in December 2016 (Kommersant, September 9). The only shadow on Sechin’s horizon is an odd court case in Moscow, in which Alexei Ulyukaev, a former minister of economic development, stands accused of receiving a $2 million bribe. Ulyukaev insists Sechin set him up (Moscow Echo, September 5). The transcript of their conversation refers to the bribe in quite elliptic terms but is direct in revealing Ulyukaev’s preference for a Japanese partner (instead of Chinese or Indian) in Rosneft’s privatization (Rosbalt. September 8). Sechin is, nevertheless, so confident in his position that he canceled the contract on constructing four tankers in the Vladivostok shipyard (which Rosneft was supposed to lease rather than own) just half an hour prior to Putin’s visit to that plant (Kommersant, September 9).
Another unpleasant surprise for Putin during his Eastern tour was an angry demonstration in Moscow and a huge rally in Grozny in support of the Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic group, who are under attack by government forces in Myanmar (Carnegie.ru, September 4). Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal ruler of Chechnya, used that pretext in order to demonstrate his capacity for mobilizing political power and projecting it to Moscow (Gazeta.ru, September 4). Demanding a shift in Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar, Kadyrov was also careful to pledge his total loyalty to Putin. Thus, the latter opted to treat this forceful challenge as a “normal” expression of a particular public opinion (Novaya Gazeta, September 5). This fits with Putin’s recent pattern of aloofness when it comes to arbitrating between elite quarrels. Those inter-elite squabbles continue to grow in intensity ahead of the forthcoming and pre-determined presidential elections. All in all, the situation increasingly signals a further erosion rather than consolidation of Putin’s over-centralized control (Republic.ru, September 7).
Feeling the pressure of multiple simultaneously developing conflicts, Putin apparently prefers a combination of denial and procrastination. This should allow him to ease into the next presidential term without any perturbances—from the Donbas war zone to the South Kuril Islands. Formal expressions of respect from Asian peers are quite satisfactory for him, even if he realizes that they are shrewdly assessing the consequences of Russia’s decline in this fast-moving region. Moscow’s deepening confrontation with Washington is a major factor in this decline. So the deadlock in the North Korean crisis actually reflects Putin’s preferences because if Trump’s attempts to shape the developments surrounding Korea backfire, it could damage the US’s international credibility. The deeper Washington commits to delivering a meaningful solution for the North Korean problem, the more incentives Moscow finds to throw up roadblocks.