Russian President Vladimir Putin had long requested a meeting with North Korea’s youngish leader, Kim Jong-un, but it was only in mid-April that Russian diplomatic persuasion started to show promise. And a good-neighborly handshake between the two men finally took place in Vladivostok last week (April 25). Kim needed to expand his space for maneuver after the unexpectedly unsuccessful summit with United States President Donald Trump in Hanoi in late February; thus, the reopened Russian connection came in handy. Putin, on the other hand, had resented Russia’s exclusion from the crucial talks and was eager to grasp an opportunity to play even a symbolic role. The North Korean dictator played the usual diva, arriving 40 minutes late for the meeting and departing from Vladivostok half a day ahead of schedule. But he prolonged the planned 50-minute face-to-face with Putin by almost another hour, and that was what mattered (Meduza, April 25). The content of their conversation was not publicized, but Putin is now able to repeat with due gravitas the banality that North Korea needs security guarantees to progress with denuclearization (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 25).
Perhaps even more than Kim, Putin wanted to impress Trump, who—in the interpretation of mainstream Moscow experts—desperately needs to make his promised third summit with the North Korean dictator a big success (Russiancouncil.ru, April 15). By contributing to this success vis-à-vis North Korea, the Kremlin likely believes it will encourage Trump to return to bilateral talks with Russia on strategic stability, which, for Moscow, are a crucially important confirmation of its global status (Newsru.com, April 26). However, one conflicting interest may stand in the way: By encouraging Kim to stick to his defiant stance, Putin seeks to prove that sanctions do not work and cannot compel any country to change its policy (RBC, April 26). This stance is underpinned by the impact of sanctions on Russia’s own economy, which has been stuck in stagnation that no amount of presidential orders can break (Moscow Echo, April 23). This economic feebleness, marked by contracting individual incomes, undermines Russian pretenses to equal status in relations to China, with which it is trying to cultivate a crucially important strategic partnership.
From Vladivostok, Putin traveled to Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum, which was supposed to demonstrate that this major initiative of President Xi Jinping is progressing smoothly and strongly (RIA Novosti, April 26). Russia is not a party to this initiative, so Putin sought simultaneously to show support for it and to emphasize that Russia engages in partnership with China on a higher level (Izvestia, April 26). In fact, Moscow has serious reservations regarding this colossal program designed to make China’s wider neighborhood more dependent upon the inflow of Chinese investments and duly attentive to political signals from Beijing (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 22). Moscow has little understanding of the content of the trade negotiations between the US and China, but there is a firm belief in the inevitable geostrategic conflict between these two competing centers of power. The Kremlin resents being excluded from this pivotal geopolitical interaction, and Putin hopes to use the recent meeting with Kim as a means of reconnecting with it (Republic, April 25).
Xi presumably sees right through this Russian maneuvering. Thus, he sought to satisfy Putin’s vanity by awarding the Russian leader an honorary degree from Tsinghua University, all the while restraining the Kremlin’s ambitions for a more meaningful role in the region (Kommersant, April 27). The Russian–North Korean talks in Vladivostok were of little significance for Beijing; but if in the complicated bargaining with the US, China finds it suddenly useful to weaken the sanctions regime against North Korea, Russia would be only too happy to oblige with barely hidden and deniable violations (Rosbalt, April 25). Moscow is presumably not satisfied with the subservient position it now finds itself in, and Putin had sought to gain some freedom of choice by signaling to Japan his interest in resolving the long-deadlocked conflict around the South Kurile Islands (see EDM, January 24, March 19). Predictably, this intrigue arrived to a fruitless end earlier this spring, much to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s disappointment. And now, Russian diplomacy seeks to impress sovereignty-sensitive East Asian states with the firm rejection of any option involving the transfer of ownership of even the smallest islets to Tokyo (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 12).
All Russian talk about the “pivot” to the East notwithstanding, what is clear for Russia’s Asian neighbors is its predominant occupation with conflicts and engagements in the European theater. Indeed, what animated Putin most at the press conference following his meeting with Kim (who preferred not to bother with journalists) was the issue of relations with Ukraine (Kommersant, April 26). The crushing defeat of incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the recent presidential elections brought much joy to the Kremlin (see EDM, April 23, 25); but at the same time, the victory of youthful and open-minded Vladimir Zelensky constitutes a huge problem for the aging and corrupt Putin court (Novaya Gazeta, April 23). The first signal of animosity was Putin’s refusal to congratulate Zelensky on his election (Kommersant, April 24). The follow-up was far more consequential: Putin signed a decree on granting, with few formalities, Russian citizenship to the people living in the “rebel”-controlled enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (RBC, April 25; see EDM, April 25). Zelensky’s response was strong and dignified, but Putin’s provocative step undercuts the prospects for a new start in managing the Donbas conflict and may trigger a renewed escalation (Moscow Echo, April 26).
Putin probably does not understand that crude pressure on Ukraine effectively annuls his three main goals in Russia’s Asian policy: to establish rapport with Kim, to further his friendship with Xi, and to prove his relevance to Trump. But the North Koreans have perhaps already figured out that Putin cannot be a useful mediator; the US is preparing new sanctions, and the Chinese need to ensure that they stay clear of Russia’s confrontation with the West. Greater engagement with the dynamic states of the Asia-Pacific may be a sound strategy for Russia, but its execution invariably stumbles because of economic underperformance and oversized geopolitical ambitions. Military force remains the instrument of choice for Moscow’s policymaking, but there is hardly any opportunity for applying it in the Far East. Russia is growing weaker in the tough competition for power and influence in the broader Indo-Pacific, and Putin’s occasional exercises of high-level summitry will not alter this trend.