On March 8, South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong delivered a statement at the White House announcing that U.S. President Donald Trump would meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un before the end of the May. The statement’s release prompted mixed reactions across the world, but Russia swiftly emerged as one of the strongest international supporters of a Trump-Kim bilateral meeting.
In a statement to reporters in Ethiopia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the proposed Trump-Kim meeting as a “step in the right direction” and a major breakthrough in the international community’s efforts to normalize the situation in the Korean Peninsula.
Russia’s official display of enthusiasm about the impending Trump-Kim meeting is unsurprising. On December 7 of last year, Lavrov had informed then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that North Korea was willing to talk with the United States, making the Trump administration’s willingness to accept Kim’s meeting request a rare point of convergence between Washington and Moscow on North Korea.
Despite the public display of optimism in Moscow surrounding Trump’s meeting with Kim, a closer examination of Russia’s North Korea strategy suggests that Moscow does not expect these talks to successfully defuse the Korea crisis. Two points of disagreement between U.S. and Russian efforts explain Moscow’s skeptical outlook.
The first reason for the Russian government’s skepticism is the contrast between Moscow and Washington’s opinions on the effectiveness of extremely tight sanctions against North Korea. Russia views the United States’ continued enforcement of non-UN approved sanctions, like the March 7 sanctions related to the murder of Kim Jong-nam and punitive measures associated with North Korea’s state sponsor of terrorism designation, as obstacles to peace.
Much to the frustration of Moscow, the Trump administration has ruled out lifting these sanctions against North Korea unless Pyongyang makes tangible progress toward dismantling its nuclear arsenal. As Russia believes that North Korea’s nuclear program is principally a defensive measure against a U.S.-backed regime change mission, influential Russian analysts, like Artyom Lukin, fear that retaining non-UN approved sanctions will cause Kim Jong-un to resist U.S. pressure to disarm. As Trump wants to completely destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Russian policymakers believe that the retention of stiff punitive measures could impede his goals.
The second reason for Russia’s skepticism about the impact of North Korea’s outreach to Trump is rooted in Moscow’s opposition to the United States’ decision to resume military drills with South Korea after a hiatus during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In a marked break from Pyongyang’s increasingly conciliatory posturing in recent weeks, the North Korean government released an official statement on March 3 vowing to retaliate against future U.S. military exercises with South Korea.
As Lavrov has repeatedly stated that a permanent freeze of U.S. joint military drills with South Korea could trigger a reciprocal compromise from North Korea on its nuclear program, Russian policymakers likely view Trump’s decision to revive these drills as an obstacle to the peaceful resolution of the Korea crisis.
Russian state media outlets, like RT and Sputnik, have repeatedly highlighted the negative repercussions of these drills in recent weeks. These negative reports have been accompanied by soundbites of hawkish statements from Republican lawmakers. A recent statement by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham describing a potential U.S. war with North Korea as “worth it” has been used by Kremlin-backed media outlets to highlight Washington’s contribution to the current state of tension on the Korean Peninsula.
Russia has also taken steps to enhance its influence on the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks, angling for a major role in resolving the standoff if the Trump-Kim meeting fails to defuse tensions. To further cement its partnership with the North Korean government, Russia has resisted international pressure to suspend coal shipments from the eastern Siberian city of Kholmsk to North Korea, and has openly opposed additional sanctions proposed by hawks within South Korea’s security establishment.
In addition, Russia has stepped up its dialogues with South Korean officials on the resolution of the North Korean crisis. On March 12, Lavrov met with Chung Eui-yong to discuss the progress of inter-Korean normalization efforts. After this meeting, Chung praised Moscow for playing a “constructive role in inviting North Korea to dialogue,” and called for an expansion of future cooperation with Moscow on resolving the North Korean crisis.
If Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un ultimately backfires, Russia will likely be able to cooperate with China on creating a new multilateral framework to resolve the North Korea crisis. The Chinese government has sought to assuage domestic concerns about being marginalized in the North Korean peace process by highlighting the collective security benefits associated with a successful U.S.-led denuclearization initiative. However, as Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, noted in her recent article for NPR, concerns about marginalization continue to be voiced by many influential Beijing-based experts on Asia-Pacific affairs.
Even though Russia’s strategy to resolve the North Korean crisis requires Chinese backing, by vocally opposing excessive sanctions against North Korea and strengthening diplomatic ties with South Korea, Moscow will be able to re-enter new multilateral negotiations on the Korea crisis from a position of strength. This will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to be respected as a great power in the Asia-Pacific region, redressing Moscow’s prior frustrations about being a junior partner to China during the erstwhile Six Party Talks.
Even though the Russian government has expressed official support for the Trump-Kim negotiations, Kremlin policymakers do not expect this meeting to result in a major diplomatic breakthrough. This skeptical view has caused Russia to position itself as a leading arbiter within an alternative multilateral framework, should the Trump-Kim meeting fail to defuse tensions. Regardless of the success or failure of the Trump-Kim meeting, Russia’s diplomatic involvement in North Korea will be a major thorn in the side of the Trump administration for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2, and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.