Russia advocates cautious response to N.K.

Moscow doubts U.N. sanctions can resolve nuclear standoff


Korea Herald, October 26, 2006


This is the seventh in a series of analytical articles about the impact of North Korea's nuclear test. - Ed.

Despite China's success in getting Pyongyang to "apologize" for North Korea's recent nuclear experiment, the test has challenged skeptics of the nation's putative nuclear weapons possession. Some of those who based their skepticism on the absence of the weapons' field testing and lack of qualified personnel in nuclear physics by North Korea now admit that the test has paved a way for future similar developments. Many also acknowledge that Pyongyang has abundantly demonstrated that previous policies of enforcing a nuclear nonproliferation regime have failed.

There is no coming back to the status quo ante and, short of some fundamental changes in international politics, the emergence of new nuclear states in Asia and the rest of the world is only a matter of time.

Russia's response to the nuclear crisis has reflected these new changes. Despite the significance of the East Asian region for Moscow, the official reactions to North Korea's test have been quite mute. Most officials condemned it, yet they increasingly recognize that North Korea has now become a nuclear power and that the world can no longer be the same.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for instance, suggested the return to the pre-test state of affairs is now impossible. Moscow also ruled out the use of force and efforts of the other five parties to isolate North Korea by applying tough sanctions.

In one of his interview in Germany, President Putin stressed, "We need to move from talk of ultimatums and sanctions toward seeing international law prevail in international matters." After much hesitation, Russia has moved to support U.N. resolution 1718 imposing sanctions on the Pyongyang regime. Yet Russia clearly does not believe that sanctions are likely to be the solution. As with the case of Iran, Moscow favors return to negotiations and will be the last to give preference to tough sanctions and military coercion.

Three considerations help to make sense of Russia's mute response to the crisis. The first has to do with geographic proximity and Russia's fear that nuclear instability may produce immediate dangerous consequences for its own security. East Asia's long-term security challenges, such as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and China's relations with Taiwan, continue to affect Russia directly. A shared border with North Korea means, for example, that in case of a nuclear explosion on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would be confronted by the threat of a radioactive cloud and a potential influx of up to 100,000 refugees. Add to this a possible future instability of the Pyongyang regime, and it becomes quite clear what causes Russia concern.

In addition to the geographic proximity, the cautious reaction from Russia can be explained by its economic development needs, which require cultivation of special ties with China and South Korea. Both nations have been long-term supporters of engagement policies toward Pyongyang's regime, and Moscow is hardly in a position to have a strong independent stance on the issue.

Russia's key priority remains domestic modernization, and new realities of growing energy prices, the recovering economy, a pragmatic leadership, and relative salience of major threats from outside create favorable conditions for its engagement with Asia.

For example, although its energy markets are primarily in Europe and accounted for about 50 percent of foreign trade, Russia confirmed its determination to build additional energy pipelines with Asian nations. Two of them will connect Russia and China and run through China and South Korea.

Putin also made clear his plans for trilateral cooperation between Russia, South Korea and North Korea. Three developments can serve as a promising avenue in this regard: the link of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Trans-Korean Railroad (the so-called "iron silk road"); the East Siberian gas pipeline from Irkutsk's gas-condensate field; and supply of electricity from the Russian Far East. All three projects potentially tie the three nations together, thereby diversifying Russia's ties in the region and preparing the ground for a smoother future unification of Korea. Such engagement with the region would hardly be possible were Russia to ignore the positions of the region's key players.

The third reason explaining Russia's carefully measured response to North Korea's test has to do with a balancing policy pursued by Moscow. The central objective of that policy is to achieve a unified Korea that would not be controlled by the United States and instead become Russia's strategic partner in the region.

A considerably weakened Russia is also wary of Japan and rising China, and in the words of Chairman of State Duma International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev, such an independent and strong Korea "would balance Chinese and Japanese aspirations in the area of Russia beyond the Urals." The Kremlin understands that reunification of the two Koreas will take place, but it wants the process to proceed in a slow, orderly fashion and on the basis of inter-Korean dialogue. Russia has also sought to work closely with Seoul in resolving past nuclear stalemates, and it was ultimately a similar Russia-South Korea-China position on a denuclearizing North Korea that helped to negotiate a previous settlement.

For all these reasons, Russia advocates cautious treatment of North Korea. Russia's insistence on the development of a multilateral security framework as a solution to the crisis is partly a reflection of its own weakness and a way to increase its role in solving vital security issues in the region.

Yet it is also a principal policy belief. For years, Russia's officials have argued for the development of a multilateral security framework in the region and outside. In the post-Soviet era, Russia opposed NATO's military intervention in Yugoslavia and America's war in Iraq as lacking the support of the United Nations. The Kremlin does not believe in solving security problems in a unilateral fashion, insisting that they can only be solved successfully through systematic coordination of state efforts, and not through use of force by ad hoc coalitions.

Moscow certainly doesn't have readily available solutions to the crisis. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that the existing nuclear nonproliferation regime cannot be sustained by force and coercion. A more promising way to address the problem of proliferation is to look closely at all the leading nuclear powers and their credibility in the world. It is quite clear that an important reason why so many "dangerous" regimes feel compelled to develop their own nuclear programs has to do with the absence of adequate security assurances.

Such assurance must come from two directions. First, the United States must exclude any possibility of using nuclear weapons for any other than political objectives. One can hardly speak of assurances of security when the U.S. Defense Department implies that the United States can use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states. Last year, more than 470 physicists, including seven Nobel laureates, signed a petition to contest the proposal.

Second, it is critical to recognize that the nonproliferation regime cannot be sustained if the five original creators of it in 1968 will continue to ignore their own pledge to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate their own nuclear weapons.

Developing a comprehensive plan, which would include steps in the direction of disarmament by all involved parties, is a far more productive and responsible way to address the problem than merely trying to pressure Iran, North Korea, or any future nuclear contenders. Such pressures are necessary, but they can only be effective when applied universally, that is to all members of the nuclear club. So far, this has been far from the case.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is an associate professor at San Francisco State University and the author of "Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (2006)," among many other works. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at - Ed