Moscow’s muted reaction to North Korea’s missile launches on July 4 comes as somewhat of a surprise. North Korea endangered Russian commercial vessels, the Russian Navy in the Sea of Japan, and Russian citizens in the Far East. Its calm response to the missile tests seems atypical for a state that just authorized its intelligence agencies to go to the ends of the earth to kill the people who murdered its diplomats in Iraq (see EDM, July 3).
Moscow did everything that formally it should do regarding the Korean launches. It complained to North Korea that it had not notified Russia or anyone else of the missile tests, which is a standard rule of international conduct in such cases, and it called these tests provocative actions. Moscow also described the tests as unhelpful and as potential threats that were contrary to the cause of peace and nonproliferation, which are allegedly the international community’s goals for the Korean peninsula. Even after calling in the North Korean ambassador for a meeting, normally a sign of a tense situation that indicates substantial displeasure on the part of the host country, Russia did not seem unduly upset. Indeed the North Korean ambassador even said that it was a very friendly meeting and promised to inform Russia of any future missile launches. Yet only two weeks earlier, the ambassador had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry and warned that any tests would be opposed by Russia, which regarded them as a threat to regional stability (see EDM, June 23).
And even though the Foreign Ministry’s official statement registered Moscow’s “serious concern” about these tests, Russian President Vladimir Putin could only say that Moscow was disappointed and that, in any case, North Korea’s missiles are not targeted against Russia. While this is cold comfort for residents of the Russian Far East who were placed at risk by these tests and whose local media showed a natural alarm, the government once again ultimately seemed nonchalant about the tests. At the UN Security Council, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called on members to restrain their passions and not get too worked up about these tests even though all of its interlocutors had asked North Korea to refrain from them. And he also indicated that, despite these tests, Moscow still opposed the imposition of sanctions upon North Korea. In any case Russian analysts profess to believe that sanctions would have no effect on Pyongyang and are injurious to the cause of peace, a rather strange attitude for a government that imposes sanctions on CIS members at the drop of a hat.
Meanwhile the General Staff calculated that 10 missiles were tested. Russian experts suggested that while this was an unwelcome development, the results of these tests showed the deficiencies and backwardness of North Korea’s missile programs. Ultimately the conclusion that emerges from these assessments is again that while North Korea is an unpredictable and difficult negotiating partner, Russia really need not take its antics too seriously.
Yet given the circumstances and risks to Russian interests here, this is an amazing response. What makes it all the more interesting is Russia’s stated position that Russia will not provide North Korea with energy, a goal that ranks rather high in Russian foreign policy, unless it returns to the “relevant nonproliferation regime” of the nonproliferation treaty and the IAEA inspection regime that is attached to it. Pyongyang’s behavior, with its calculated insult to Washington on U.S. Independence Day and wanton disregard for the most elementary interests of its interlocutors, would clearly appear to put Russia’s goal — and its own hopes of receiving energy — at risk. But Moscow once again turned the other cheek, not a typical characteristic of Russian behavior in world affairs, and counseled others to refrain from punishing North Korea for violating the most basic of international courtesies and protocols.
Moscow’s temperate reaction to these events occurred on the same day that Putin again repeated his opinion that Iran should not be sanctioned under any circumstances for its nuclear program, even though he is clearly not happy that Tehran is stalling on answering the six-power proposal of May 31 and putting the success of the G-8 meeting he is hosting next week in doubt. Taken together, it appears that Russia and China, whose public reaction was no less measured than Moscow’s even though it should logically be even angrier than Russia, will not “go to the mat” to stop North Korea or Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Whatever the risks either or both of these contingencies might generate for Moscow and Beijing, they are apparently outweighed by the fact that they threaten U.S. interests more and that the balance of risks and benefits from friendly ties with these states tilts in favor of supporting them even if they behave rashly and go ahead with nuclear weapons programs and reckless missile tests. Moscow appears to believe that when it comes to proliferation issues, the main problem is Washington — not the proliferating states.
(Itar-Tass, September 19, 2005, July 5, 6; Interfax-AVN, July 5, 6; Interfax, July 5, 6; Channel One TV, July 5; RIA-Novosti, July 5, 6; Moscow Times.com, July 6; Ekho Moskvy, July 5)