On December 13, the vice director of Russia’s National Defense Command Center, Victor Kalganov, and three prominent Russian Ministry of Defense officials made an official visit to North Korea. Kalganov’s trip to Pyongyang came after United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for renewed DPRK-U.S. diplomacy, and underscored Moscow’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the North Korea crisis.
Since North Korea fired four ballistic missiles towards Japan on March 6, the Russian government has devoted considerable diplomatic resources to resolve the nuclear standoff. Many analysts have cited Russia’s desire to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region and alignment with the North Korean regime as rationales for its expanded diplomatic involvement in the Korean peninsula.
While these factors have shaped Russian policymakers’ perceptions of the DPRK crisis, the best explanation for Kremlin’s active role in resolving the standoff is Russia’s desire to showcase its great power status to both its domestic audience and the international community. To this end, Russian diplomats have rallied support from European and Asian leaders for a peaceful resolution to the North Korean crisis, and used a mixture of coercive diplomacy and back-channel negotiations to convince the DPRK to come to the bargaining table.
These diplomatic initiatives are principally aimed at preventing a war between the United States and North Korea. Much like how Russia’s successful diplomatic outreach to U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East on Syria helped soften Washington’s position on Assad’s removal, Kremlin policymakers believe that building an international consensus around the need to avoid war with North Korea will moderate U.S. President Donald Trump’s hawkish rhetoric towards Pyongyang. Enticing North Korea to the bargaining table would also assist this aim. If Russia can help successfully prevent a war, Moscow’s status as a conflict arbiter will increase tremendously, expanding Russia’s alliance network and Putin’s prestige at home and abroad.
An Increased Voice
Russian policymakers believe that revealing the chasm in perspectives between Trump administration’s hawkish rhetoric and the international community’s perceptions will cause the United States to de-escalate and align with the international consensus. To facilitate this effort, Russia is trying to convince U.S. allies to support its preferred solution to the DPRK crisis and pressure Trump to refrain from military action.
Since March, Russia has emerged as a leading international supporter of China’s dual freeze proposal, which calls for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in exchange for the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korea military drills on the DPRK’s borders. Even though the United States has rebuffed the dual freeze proposal, Russia has reached out diplomatically to U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region to convince them to endorse the plan and pressure Washington to follow suit.
For example, on August 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a bilateral dialogue with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel. Berlin’s subsequent expression of support for the dual freeze proposal gave Moscow’s position on North Korea critical legitimacy within the European Union.
The Russian government has also attempted to expand support for the dual freeze proposal in the ASEAN bloc. On August 9, Lavrov announced the creation of a permanent Russia-ASEAN mission to bolster security cooperation with Southeast Asia on North Korea and transnational terrorism. Public statements expressing solidarity with the Russian position on North Korea by ASEAN leaders like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte have also gained widespread coverage in the Russian state media, reaffirming the link between Moscow’s great power status aspirations and diplomatic involvement on the Korean peninsula.
In addition, Russian officials have leveraged improved relations with South Korea to shape Seoul’s perspective on the North Korea crisis. Moscow’s outreach to moderate members of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s inner circle has produced tangible results, as a group of Moon’s foreign policy advisors expressed tentative support for a dual freeze proposal on September 14.
If the Trump administration responds to Moscow-induced diplomatic pressure from U.S. allies by loosening its preconditions for diplomacy with North Korea and desisting from further military threats against Pyongyang, respect for Putin as a peacemaker will grow considerably. Such an outcome would help Putin consolidate his nationalist base ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, and bolster the credibility of Russia’s arbitration ventures in other regions.
Coercion and Co-option
To steer North Korea towards a peaceful course, Russia has combined coercive diplomacy with co-option. To highlight its displeasure with Kim Jong-Un’s brinkmanship, Russia supported the imposition of comprehensive UN sanctions against North Korea on September 12. As Russia has replaced China as North Korea’s most trusted international partner, according to the DPRK’s February 2017 ranking of international allies, Moscow hopes its expressions of displeasure with Pyongyang will resonate with North Korean policymakers.
Even though Russia remains officially committed to implementing the entire UN sanctions regime against North Korea, in practice, Russian policymakers have distinguished between “legitimate” punitive sanctions worthy of full compliance and “counter-productive” sanctions that threaten North Korea’s economic stability.
Russia routinely violates sanctions against the DPRK that it deems to be counter-productive, believing North Korean aggression is more likely if Kim Jong-Un faces internal instability. As such, in November 2017 Russia increased oil exports to North Korea aimed at preventing volatility and unpredictability associated with a potential collapse of the North Korean economy.
In exchange for this vital material support, Russian diplomats have held bilateral dialogues with North Korean officials aimed at convincing Pyongyang to accept diplomatic negotiations with the United States over its nuclear program. If Russia can convert the goodwill accrued from Putin’s post-2014 rapprochement with North Korea into a diplomatic breakthrough, Moscow will highlight its diplomatic independence from China and great power status in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Russian government’s efforts to steer the United States and North Korea towards a peaceful course has increased its credibility as a diplomatic stakeholder in the region. Arguably, based on its ability to maintain a line of communication with both North Korean officials and pro-engagement members of South Korea, Russia is presenting itself as a useful partner for U.S. policymakers seeking a peaceful resolution to the DPRK nuclear crisis.
As Washington’s current strategy of combining sanctions against North Korea with periodic engagement of China struggles to gain traction, the prospect of Russia as a go-between in the crisis may take on increased relevance.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.