Russian Far East Ill-Prepared for War in Korea, Expert Says

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 135

A russian border guard walking along the border of Russia and North Korea (Source: Reuters-Yuri Maltsev)

Instead of preparing for a military conflict on the Korean peninsula, Russian officials and the media dependent on them are urging residents of the Russian Far East to focus on attracting foreign investment and spending leisure time rather than taking the steps needed to prepare that region to assist North Korea, to accept mass refugees from that country, or even to protect themselves from possible armed attack. This charge was made recently by Vladivostok sociologist Igor Romanov, the editor of the Russian nationalist portal Bereg Rus (, October 21).

The former governor of the Far Eastern province of Primorski Krai, Vladimir Miklushevsky, whom President Vladimir Putin replaced several weeks ago (RBC, October 4), used to declare he had “a plan” in the event of a conflict. But the former provincial head never specified what that plan actually was, creating the impression that he and Moscow did not think a concrete plan of action was really needed. Miklushevsky’s recently imposed successor, Andrey Tarasenko, also has not mentioned any official preparations for a conflict. Instead, the Vladivostok sociologist notes, Tarasenko has focused only on the need to build more bridges and hotels and to attract more investment from abroad (, October 21).

As a result of their efforts, Romanov asserts, Russians in the Far East, if asked what they would do in the event of a war in Korea, say that “they do not think about this because it will not happen.” At the same time, according to the Bereg Rus editor, the few that are willing to entertain that possibility “say they hope to leave the region as quickly as possible but they do not know where they will go.” Such attitudes put the security not only of that region but of Russia as a whole at risk, Romanov argues, and he urges officials and the media to immediately change course before it is too late.

The situation will be truly dire if a conflict does occur, Romanov stresses. Bomb shelters from Soviet times have fallen into disrepair and some have simply been converted into parking garages. Border control is weak. And the system of civil defense training has collapsed. Russians in the Far East simply have no idea what they should do if a conflict does break out, and that situation will be something that refugees or the enemies of Russia may try to exploit at Russia’s expense.

The sociologist’s alarm notwithstanding, it is possible to rationalize the authorities’ position to some degree. Government officials do not want to be accused of spreading panic, and they are well aware that Russia has only 17 kilometers of land border and only 22.1 kilometers of sea border with North Korea—a relatively small space to defend or impose control over, were that to become necessary. Moreover, the authorities believe, there are sufficient Russian military forces in the region to do that (, October 21).

For months, Moscow has been promoting ties with Pyongyang: it has supplied critical oil and natural gas to North Korea and thus has demonstratively ignored Washington’s calls for a ban on such trade (, Interfax, May 18;, May 21). Additionally, Putin has made it clear that Russia will oppose any war on the Korean peninsula (Al Jazeera, September 5). Meanwhile, the United States Congress has included Russia with North Korea (and Iran) in new sanctions legislation (Kommersant, July 24). And yet, despite all of the above, there is now growing evidence that the Kremlin leader hopes he can manage to use the Korean crisis to try to improve ties with the US, as shown by Putin’s recent willingness to impose some relatively harmless sanctions on North Korea (, August 12;, October 17).

Consequently, it is important for the Kremlin that no one in Russia—or at least no one in power—take any steps suggesting an alternative scenario might be possible for the conflict between the West and Pyongyang. Such steps could easily further inflame the situation, Romanov argues. In particular, North Korea might conclude that Russia really does expect a war to break out and that it will be on Pyongyang’s side; moreover, the United States might conclude the same thing, an outcome that could lead to ever greater unpredictability (, October 21).

But Romanov’s complaint that nothing is being done to anticipate the situation is worrisome too. It suggests that ideology and the absence of funds may be driving Moscow’s policy more than hard-headed calculation. And it underscores the real risk that, even if Russians are not directly involved in a military clash in Northeast Asia, they may have to deal with serious refugee flows from across the border. Chinese controls on the North Korean border appear to be stronger than Russian ones, as reflected in the fact that Moscow’s decision, three years ago, to send North Korean refugees home does not appear to have stemmed the tide—existing refugee camps in the Russian Far East are still filling up (, July 10). If more North Koreans try to come in, it could create problems that, if Romanov is right, Moscow is failing to prepare for.