Un­der the radar, Rus­sia plays a dou­ble game in tense Korean cri­sis

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY TODD WOOD ● L. Todd Wood is a for­mer spe­cial op­er­a­tions he­li­copter pi­lot and Wall Street debt trader, and has con­trib­uted to Fox Busi­ness, The Moscow Times, Na­tional Re­view, the New York Post and many other pub­li­ca­tions. He can be reached through his

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.

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