During a January 11 meeting with the editors of major Russian print media outlets, President Vladimir Putin praised the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, as a mature and “absolutely learned politician.” According to Putin, Kim “has, without a doubt, won the game and achieved his strategic goal—he has a nuclear weapon and a missile that can reach any target on the territory of his probable adversary—and now is interested in defusing and consolidating the situation.” The term “probable adversary” (veroyatny protivnik) was regularly used during the Cold War by the Soviet military to refer indirectly to the United States and its allies. The expression went out of use after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed; but today, with the arrival of a new cold war and a renewed global standoff with the US, veroyatny protivnik is apparently back and it means exactly the same as before (Kremlin.ru, January 11, 2018).
On December 22, 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to impose additional sanctions on North Korea (officially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—DPRK), including an almost 90 percent cut in oil and fuel imports in response to a successful DPRK test-launch of a new more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15. Pyongyang denounced the new UN sanctions as an “act of war,” but as 2018 began, the government dramatically changed its rhetoric and began a “charm offensive” with the South (the Republic of Korea—ROK). North Korea resumed talks at the demilitarized zone and announced it would send a big delegation of officials, athletes and artists to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month (Interfax, January 7, 2018). The DPRK’s peaceful overtures have been welcomed in the South, while Putin and commentators in Moscow have interpreted them as a decisive DPRK “victory.” By dramatically shifting from war talk to peace propaganda, Kim Jong Un may consolidate the DPRK as a de facto nuclear state with ICBM capability, while somehow wiggling out of sanctions as the entire Korean nuclear problem is deferred to lengthy multilevel talks to seek “denuclearization” that will most likely never arrive. According to Putin, a “denuclearization of Korea is hardly achievable,” but further action may come only through “very cautious” dialogue and by providing the DPRK with security guarantees (Vz.ru, January 11, 2018).
Moscow and Pyongyang share the same veroyatny protivnk, but that does not make them direct allies. Russia accepts some local trans-border trade with the DPRK; and semi-slave North Korean workers are logging and doing other manual work in the thinly populated Russian Far East, earning money for Pyongyang—a practice that must end in two years under new UN sanctions. Some oil has been arriving in the DPRK from Russia, but Pyongyang’s main trading partner is still Beijing. Russian officials, including Putin, habitually denounce North Korean nuclear ambitions more as public lip service; and even then, they tend to pile the blame for the developing Korean nuclear crisis on the US. Moscow has, time and again, announced that more UN sanctions will choke North Korea and must be stopped. Last September, at a regional economic forum in Vladivostok, Putin told the leaders of Japan and South Korea that it was the US and its allies who provoked Pyongyang into developing nuclear weapons. Only prolonged, patient negotiations, as well as economic development, investment and the integration of the DPRK into the regional economy may stabilize the situation, he asserted (Kremlin.ru, September 7, 2017).
The Russian military and the Kremlin do not seem to perceive the DPRK’s limited nuclear/ICBM potential as a serious threat. Moreover, Kim Jong Un’s apparent successful disregard of US pressure is admired in Moscow. Nevertheless, time and again in 2017, up to December 22, Moscow—which rarely shies away from using its veto power at the UN—voted to support more and more punishing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. Russian diplomats have been denouncing the UN sanctions and expressing distress because Washington and Beijing unilaterally agreed to pass new resolutions, more or less forcing Moscow’s arm into voting for them (Militarynews.ru, December 23, 2017). With US-Russian relations on a Cold War–like footing, Moscow needs Beijing as a solid partner more than ever and has been, in effect, sidelined on the Korean issue, playing second fiddle to the Chinese and more or less ignored by Washington. A frustrated Russian foreign ministry has been seeking ways to somehow get back in play on Korea (Interfax, January 2).
Tentative mutual Beijing-Washington coordination and understanding on Korea (or on anything) is most likely the Kremlin’s worst nightmare. Moscow was tremendously relieved when China and Russia joined ranks to together denounce the recent Vancouver meeting on North Korea, co-hosted by Canada and the United States. Neither Moscow nor Beijing were invited to Vancouver, and the two denounced the ministerial meeting as a “Cold War manifestation.” In addition to South Korea, the other 17 countries represented in Vancouver had all supported the UN military effort during the 1950–1953 Korean war; whereas China and Russia (then as the Soviet Union) participated in the conflict on the side of the DPRK (rbc.ru, January 17).
Russian diplomats insist on no more additional sanctions against Pyongyang and would be delighted if Beijing concurs. But the possible rift between Washington and Beijing after Vancouver is much more important to Moscow than the Korean issue per se. On January 18, Russia announced it has begun deliveries of the advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems ordered by China. Until now, China has been buying similar but older Russian weapons: In 2010, a massive deal was completed to deliver 15 batteries or “divisions” of S-300PMU-2 anti-aircraft missiles with four command-and-control SU 83М6Е2 centers, to provide China with a strategic anti-aircraft defense system covering its major cities. This massive deal effectively halted for several years the delivery of any new major anti-aircraft missile systems to the Russian military as all production capacity was devoted to work on the Chinese order. No official Russian publications reported on this S-300 deal as it progressed. The story is quite different today—the start of the S-400 delivery to China is being hailed by Russian official media as a major breakthrough (Militarynews.ru, January 18). This announcement is important beyond the direct military/commercial significance of the S-400 deal: It is meant to signal that the Moscow-Beijing axis is going strong.