The Russian wild card

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The Russian wild card


Michael Green

The historic symbol of Russia is the famous two-headed eagle, one looking to the West and one to the East. In reality, the head facing Europe has almost always been the more important one to the Kremlin. Russian policy toward East Asia has been particularly unfocused under Vladimir Putin, whose obsession with NATO and the West knows almost no bounds. This has made Russia a wild card in the Far East - sometimes helpful and sometimes a source of uncertainty. In the context of mounting tensions between Putin and the West over Ukraine, there may be new cause for concern about recent Russian behavior in East Asia.

Russia’s position on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has always been somewhat unpredictable. In 2002, Putin pushed for a pipeline project through North Korea to carry Russian LNG to the ROK and Japan. Moscow pitched the proposal as a confidence-building measure, but it was so clearly aimed at benefiting the Russian economy and not actually at denuclearization that no leader took the proposal seriously. Then when President George W. Bush proposed the six-party talks to Putin in early 2003, the Russian leader responded by claiming that the United States should simply agree to the Russian pipeline proposal and make concessions to Pyongyang. When the Bush administration started organizing multilateral talks without Russia, Putin reversed course and agreed that a regional diplomatic solution was necessary.

After that, Russia was quite helpful. I remember well the night before the first six-party talks when the Russian delegation warned the Americans that they would say kind things to the North Koreans so that Putin could maintain his “special relationship” with Kim Jong-il for the purpose of future diplomacy. In talks the next day, the Russians helpfully denied the North Korean accusation that the United States was preparing a nuclear attack against Pyongyang. In response, the North Korean delegation chief began condemning the Russians. “So much for the special relationship,” our Russian counterparts whispered to us as the talks broke up. The Russian delegation to the UN Security Council has generally been more forthcoming than the Chinese after North Korean nuclear and missile provocations and Russia played a lead role in the September 2005 agreement with respect to regional confidence-building proposals.

But as relations with Russia have deteriorated in recent years, Moscow has begun making diplomatic and military maneuvers that are causing more concern than reassurance. Russia now pays tens of millions of dollars to the North Koreans in exchange for forced laborers who harvest timber in the Far East. North Korean entities also appear to have shifted more of their illicit cash transactions to Russian banking outlets that evade the kind of scrutiny that led many other countries to freeze North Korean assets or discourage banking activities originating in Pyongyang. At the end of April, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev led the highest-level Russian delegation to Pyongyang since the Cold War. At a time when U.S.-DPRK, North-South, Japan-DPRK and even China-DPRK dialogue is either frozen or tense, is Moscow trying to calm down Pyongyang or to seek influence at the cost of other parties?

The Russian military is flexing its muscle in the Far East. Xi Jinping made his first visit as president of China to Russia and returned for the Sochi Olympics and G-20, earning Putin’s gratitude. Russia and China recently agreed to conduct major naval exercises in the East China Sea, a pointed message to Japan, the Philippines and other maritime states facing Chinese pressure. The Russian Air Force has been flying bombers and surveillance planes to test Japanese air defense responses, and Russian fighters have engaged in dangerous intercepts of regular U.S. reconnaissance flights in the Far East reminiscent of hostile Cold War tactics. There is no military logic to the Russians’ increased operational tempo except that it reminds the United States and her allies that Moscow must be reckoned with.

Russia is a declining power in many respects. With 70 percent of exports and half of government revenue coming from oil and gas, Moscow is cash rich for now and ranked ahead of Korea in nominal GDP size. But Russia is also trapped as a petro-economy, with corruption growing and innovation stifled.

Yet even in decline, Russia can be a wild card in Northeast Asia. If Putin moves on the Ukraine and the United States, Europe and Japan (and presumably Korea) impose new sanctions in response, Putin could choose to complicate North Korea diplomacy and the U.S. position in Northeast Asia more generally by obstructing UN Security Council sanctions, providing independent support for Pyongyang, or pressing militarily from the Russian Far East. These would be counter-productive moves for Russia, given the importance of relations with Japan and Korea and the cost that a Cold War-style response to the West would entail. But then, annexing Crimea was also self-defeating for Russia. That did not stop Putin, who is animated not by the logic of 21st-century statecraft but instead by a desire to play the chessboard of the 18th-century Czars.

Threats to interests in the Far East should not deter the United States or the EU from taking measures to punish Russian violations of sovereign borders in Europe. Moreover, the United States and Korea should endeavor to continue close cooperation with Moscow in the diplomacy of the Korean Peninsula regardless of developments on the other side of the globe. Nevertheless, we should also be prepared for the possibility that greater tensions in Ukraine will affect the Far East.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green

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