Under the radar, Russia plays a double game in tense Korean crisis
President Trump has made a big deal since his election about his new relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, insisting Beijing is “working very hard” to pressure North Korea since the two leaders’ meetings at Mar-a-Lago earlier in the year. Mr. Trump seems to be combining China’s newfound sympathy to the U.S. position with a “big stick” — three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, which rotate off the North Korean coast.
While it remains to be seen if the strategy will work in the long run, in the short term, the results are hard to see. North Korea continues to carry out missile tests weekly and is not backing down from its confrontational behavior.
China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner, but what often gets overlooked is the double game Russia is playing in the crisis. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was the creator of the hermit regime on the northern end of the Korean peninsula. Today, Russia under Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to have it both ways as the rest of the international community tries to end the Pyongyang nightmare.
The Russian Federation went along with recent U.N. sanctions, which further isolated North Korea economically. However, as China publicly reduced its coal exports to the North, Russia has been quietly filling the gap. According to the Russian state-owned international news agency Sputnik, trade between North Korea and Moscow has increased 73 percent in the first two months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.
Russia is playing a key role in modernizing North Korean railways and other transportation links to Siberia. Moscow has invited hundreds of North Korean students to study at universities in the Russian Far East. Investstroytrest, a Russian ferry company, has opened a new line from Vladivostok to Ranjin on the North Korean coast.
Russia is also employing tens of thousands of North Korean laborers in Siberia on projects which provide lots of hard currency to Kim Jong-un’s regime. In short, as China backs away from North Korea, Russia is stepping up. The Kremlin may not be able to replace all of China’s trade, but it can sure alleviate a lot of the pain.
To repeat, Russia created North Korea, and there is a lot of residual sympathy for the regime. Many of those who supported the North under the USSR are in positions of power, Mr. Putin foremost among them. These elements will provide excuses for Mr. Kim’s behavior and blame everything on American “aggression.” After all, this fits their larger narrative about the competition between the West and Russia in conflicts from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.
One analyst I spoke with said that Russia has sent mixed signals over the North’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Moscow does not see this development as a threat to Russia. In fact, Russia is using North Korea as a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard, keeping the U.S. occupied militarily. Forcing the U.S. and its allies to spend precious resources containing Pyongyang is in Russia’s interests. Russia now sees economic sanctions not as a global tool to stop bad behavior, but as a Western tool employed to further Western interests. Moscow is not anxious to see further sanctions on its friends, even as Russians struggle with sanctions on their own industries.
In the new hybrid warfare model that Russia is developing, mixing cyber, economic, and, yes, hard military weapons, Russia sees the West trying to exploit the North Korean crisis, blocking economic opportunities for China and Russia while building up South Korea, its own ally in the conflict. The West, Russians believe, is tainted by ulterior motives and dirty hands in the North Korean conflict.
North Korea will develop an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear bomb. Russia doesn’t care. That only enhances Russia’s security and influence while frightening the West.
So Moscow may allow pinprick sanctions from the U.N. on minor figures in the North Korean regime, but it will keep selling coal and whatever else it can to North Korea because its real priority is to ensure the survival of Stalin’s creation.