As tensions near a boiling point between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, some observers have suggested that Russia could step in and play a helpful, moderating role. North Korea, they argue, should be one of the few issues on which Washington and Moscow can find common ground.
In fact, the Trump administration should not look to Moscow for any serious help in dealing with North Korea. Not only does Russia have less influence over Pyongyang than China does, but uses that influence in ways that undermine the international sanctions against the regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin also views the North Korea situation, as with other international issues, through a zero-sum lens: If American standing in the region is under strain, Russia will attempt to enhance its position accordingly. Similarly, if Beijing gets tougher with North Korea, Moscow might look to step in and fill any void left by China. The Kremlin is not interested in seeing the conflict explode into war, but it is willing to exploit every advantage at the expense of Beijing and Washington, even as the situation grows increasingly worrisome.
That is why calls to look to Moscow for help with North Korea should be viewed very skeptically. The head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, argued in the New York Times last week that Russia “can help nudge Pyongyang toward strategic restraint, and help defuse tensions in the meantime, by offering it new economic prospects.” Russia could be a broker in de-escalating tensions, he argued. Former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov took a similar position in a separate op-ed.
And yet the Russian elite’s zero-sum thinking sees a deteriorating situation between Washington and Pyongyang as an opportunity for Moscow. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, argued recently in the Financial Times, “The North Korean nuclear missile crisis has no easy solution, but managing it is both possible and necessary. And if Russia does this skillfully it will strengthen its position in Asia-Pacific and mark another step away from U.S. hegemony in international affairs.”
“The Kremlin understands the North Korean psychology,” Lukyanov continued, “since Russia’s leaders have historically also felt besieged. For North Korea, it is not about bargaining, but survival — Kim Jong Un knows the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi and sees nuclear missiles as his life insurance.” In…