This past week’s big and still developing story is the sharp escalation of confrontation on the Korean peninsula. But Russia, which has made itself a key actor to many current global dramas, from the French elections to the civil war in Libya, is not a part of it. Given that Russia is a direct neighbor to North Korea—the distance from the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to Vladivostok is shorter than to Pyongyang—this abstention is rather surprising. On April 14, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) held an “informal” meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but the main issue for discussion there was the election of a new secretary general (Kommersant, April 18). And Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a meeting of his Security Council last Friday (April 21), but the agenda included mostly domestic economic issues and Syria (Kremlin.ru, April 21). Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed only a vague expectation that the United States government would carefully examine the North Korean problem before taking action (RIA Novosti, April 19).
The Russian leadership has not even tried to engage the Donald Trump administration regarding the management of this crisis. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on April 21 and found it opportune to mention a minor problem related to Russian diplomatic property—but not the subject of North Korea (Mid.ru, April 21). Russian experts have been discussing the new parameters of the missile threats and counter threats on the Korean peninsula, but the mainstream media took a remarkably light tone when reporting on the military parade in Pyongyang, which featured several new missile designs (Carnegie.ru, April 17; Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 19). Much confusion is certainly swirling in Moscow, as in many other capitals, about the US strategy of applying military pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un, which may or may not be “deterrable” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 18). In addition, there is the understanding that expressing any solidarity with this authoritarian government is out of the question. Still, options for partnering with the US, which were entertained a few months ago, have now also been discarded by Russia (Gazeta.ru, April 18). The best side effect of this crisis for Moscow is that it has taken attention away from the various investigations and hearings in Washington regarding the Trump team’s “Russian connections”; but more incriminating evidence may be uncovered in the weeks ahead.
Perhaps most upsetting for the Kremlin is that the main format for managing the North Korean crisis was established at the recent meeting in Mar-a-Lago between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping; and Beijing has shown no inclination to discuss these matters with its “strategic partner” Moscow (Republic.ru, April 21). Putin has not seen Xi since last November and has not spoken with him on the phone for months; neither Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev nor Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have had any recent contacts with their Chinese counterparts. Lavrov met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week, but the official transcript contains no mention of North Korea (Mid.ru, April 21). Russian officials claim that the high-level partnership has reached an “unprecedented level,” but in reality a deep lull in Russia-China relations is obvious. And Beijing is growing more convinced that Moscow has nothing to contribute to the containment of the potentially catastrophic North Korean threat (TASS, April 12).
The results of Moscow’s emphatically proclaimed “turn to the East” has, to date, been rather humble. Nonetheless, Russia has recently tried flexing what military muscle it has in the Asia-Pacific region: the cruiser Varyag showed its flag in Manila, the Philippines, and President Rodrigo Duterte inspected its Bazalt anti-ship missiles (RBC, April 21). Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense made a rather odd announcement rejecting obscure claims about a concentration of its forces on the border with North Korea and explaining away Russian troop movements there as part of pre-planned exercises (Newsru.com, April 21). Moreover, Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers made four flights in one week near Alaska, a much higher frequency than their usual pattern of patrols (RIA Novosti, April 19). The 35-year-old Varyag might soon require an even longer maintenance overhaul than the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, after the latter’s combat deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean late last year (see EDM, October 27, 2016); and the aging Bear bombers are prone to accidents. Therefore, Russia’s East Asian neighbors were unlikely to have been particularly impressed with these demonstrations (Gazeta, April 22).
Moscow cannot quite grasp how mutual trade concessions can facilitate the United States’ newly conceived cooperation with China to compel the North Korean regime to behave (Vedomosti, April 13). The Russian leadership expected that the US missile strike on Syria, executed while Xi was a guest at Mar-a-Lago, would be taken by Beijing as a major insult—but it cannot see any outward signs of such resentment (RBC, April 13). In fact, the main impact of that strike was to undermine the credibility of Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which had to move most of its air force assets closer to the Russian base near Latakia, where they could be safer from new strikes (Newsru.com, April 20). Promises to strengthen Syria’s air defense system are still only talk; there has been no increase in Russian military deployments, while casualties continue to mount (Kommersant, April 21; RBC, April 20). Perhaps the most upsetting political development for Russia was China’s abstention in the vote at the United Nations Security Council on a draft resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria; thus, Moscow was forced to exercise its veto right alone (Svobodnaya Pressa, April 13).
This subtle signal from Beijing indicated that Moscow cannot compensate for its weakness in geopolitical maneuvering around the North Korean crisis by playing on its presumed strength in the Syrian war zone. Russia also has to acknowledge that backing the ostracized al-Assad has become as damaging for its international reputation as any expression of “understanding” of the recklessness of the North Korean regime would have been. The Kremlin may not quite conceive that by characterizing sanctions against North Korea as “irrational and unhelpful,” it is in fact criticizing China (RBC, April 19). The Russian government may also not fully comprehend that its international isolation reached a new low last week, and Moscow continues to dig this hole. This keeps the Russian military busy and Moscow’s various propagandists gainfully employed. But the damage to Russia’s global standing quickly grows.