Russia's power play in North Korea aimed at both China and US

Story highlights

  • Russia flew bombers near North Korea in support of Pyongyang against US and South Korean military exercises
  • Russia is attempting to compete with China for influence

(CNN)When Russia sent its bombers flying over the Korean Peninsula last week, it was as much a signal to its allies in Beijing as it was a telegraph to Washington that Moscow too, was pivoting to Asia.

The Kremlin may not become Pyongyang's most steadfast and critical defender in this newest conflagration, but its cameo in the region is another attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to insert himself into a geo-political stalemate involving the US.
    Experts say it may also help deflect attention from upcoming military exercises in Belarus and western Russia next month, which have upset NATO members concerned about what amounts to a mass buildup of Russian troops on the edges of eastern Europe.
    China, which sent bombers into the air itself shortly after, declined to comment about the show of force from Moscow. In its regular press briefing on Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would not "quantify how close China and Russia are cooperating on the North Korean nuclear issue," said Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman.
    "Just like China, Russia plays a pivotal role in maintaining global peace and stability as well as promoting peaceful solutions to hotspot issues in the region," Hua said. "China is willing to strengthen its cooperation and coordination with Russia to jointly preserve peace and stability in the region and around the world."
    Both countries were quick to condemn North Korea's latest boast Sunday, the successful testing of its most powerful hydrogen bomb yet.
    In a statement, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for all parties to "immediately return to dialogue," reaffirming its "readiness for joint efforts in this direction, including in the context of the implementation of the Russian-Chinese road map."
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    The real trouble maker

    If China is perturbed by its once-dominant Communist partner seeking to commandeer more influence in the region, it's not outwardly displaying those concerns.
    "I think China is confident that its economic development, its military development, takes place at a faster pace than Russia, so in the long run Russia is in no position to seriously challenge Chinese core interests," said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. "There are certain elements of competition between the two countries, but their shared concerns about the US very much outweigh that right now."
    Both Moscow and Beijing "share the basic perception of who is the real trouble maker and who is the biggest common threat in the Korean Peninsula," Tong told CNN.
    That trouble maker, he said, is the United States, and more specifically, the occupant in the White House.
    "Secretary (Rex) Tillerson says he wants to do diplomacy before considering other options but the rhetoric from other people in the White House -- (US President Donald) Trump tweeting that talking is not the answer, I think from the Chinese perspective the US is still considering a military option so that doesn't reassure leaders in North Korea or China," Tong said.
    Every action Pyongyang takes, said Tong, could be construed by Beijing and Moscow as a reaction to Trump's escalated posture.
    Putin appeared to reiterate this on Thursday when he called attempts to get the regime of Kim Jong Un to cease its nuclear program "a dead-end road."
    "Russia believes that the policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile program is misguided and futile," Putin said in an article released by the Kremlin. "Provocations, pressure and militarist and insulting rhetoric are a dead-end road."
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    Russia has recently been making inroads to counter China's perceived clout with North Korea. Overtures include Russia's forgiveness of Soviet-era debt, of which $10 billion due from Pyongyang was written off by the Kremlin. Moscow is one of the largest donors of food aid to North Korea, and alongside Beijing, was recently hit with US Treasury sanctions for selling oil to the North Korean regime.
    This is all intentional, says Samuel Ramani, a Russian foreign policy specialist.
    "As Russia takes an increasingly assertive approach to world affairs, it reminds its citizens of the Soviet Union's status as a superpower that could influence conflicts worldwide," Ramani wrote in the Washington Post in late July. "In this respect, Russia's increased attention to North Korea is much like its military intervention in Syria and its expanded diplomatic presence in Libya and Afghanistan. Moscow is trying once again to project itself as a global power."
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    Old rivalry reignites

    The jostling between the two powers over North Korea has decades-long historical roots.
    "To an extent it began when China and Russia became competitors for influence in the Communist world, they fought border battles in the late 1960s," said Carl Schuster, retired Navy captain and now adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.
    Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, was a guerilla leader who became a major in the Soviet Red Army and served in it until the end of World War II. Upon his return to Korea after 26 years in exile, the Soviets installed him as head of the Korean Communist Party. With their help he built up an army and air force, then declared the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.
    "Russia had the greater advantage, they had much more influence in the region," Schuster recalled. "When the Berlin Wall came down, Russia became very poor and China came to dominate."
    Over the last 25 years Russia had virtually no ability to sway Pyongyang; it wasn't able to provide technological support or invest significantly in North Korean industry. Now, Schuster says, "Putin sees an opportunity to increase his influence, probably not by much, but it would be better than what he has, and it distracts America."
    Whatever little sway he may obtain, that, coupled with China's own shaky standing with North Korea, highlights the possibility that neither power enjoys particularly friendly relations with the isolated regime.
    "There is a profound sense of mistrust at the basis of the relationship North Korea has with China and even with Russia," said James Person, an expert on Korea at the Wilson Center. "There's a perception particularly with China that Beijing has been overly interventionist over the years and not respectful of Korean sovereignty."
    China and Russia both share a border with North Korea, a demarcation that has shifted over time as territorial disputes were resolved, and one that each of them jealously guards.
    Person said that China's determination to establish regional hegemony, or a "zone of deference" which takes in North Korea has created confusion among Western observers about China's capacity to rein Pyongyang in. "People in Washington, including President Trump, believe China can just pick up the phone and solve the problem but because of this tortured history of relations they don't have the ability to exercise at will political influence over North Korea."
    Moreover, there is risk in China's chastising North Korea any further, something that has been compounded by statements as far back as May in which the North Korean state-run news agency publicly rebuked China for banning coal imports from North Korea after a February missile test.
    The North Korean statements warned China of "grave consequences," and said Beijing should "no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK's patience."
    "The DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is," the commentary declared.
    Yet China chooses to endure this apparent belligerence. Beijing will always prefer the current leadership in Pyongyang to any that might follow should the Kim dynasty fall, says Person.
    "I think they would rather deal with the current North Korean regime with nuclear weapons than they would with a basically reunified Korea that places a US treaty ally at the Chinese doorstep," he said.
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    Moscow's own relationship with Washington becomes more fraught each day. On Thursday, Trump's administration announced it would shut down Russian diplomatic missions in US cities, seemingly in response to an order from the Russian Foreign Ministry in July for Washington to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by nearly half.
    Both Moscow and Beijing seek to keep the US at bay to protect their own interests in the area, something Person says the US could use to its advantage if it can quell North Korea's panic and pursue diplomacy again. Even now, he said, there are "talks about talks" that could lead to a de-escalation. But that choice belongs with President Trump.
    "The important thing is, the US has to recognize that only it has the ability to give Pyongyang what it wants," Person said. "Yes, China is important in the region, but let's not outsource to China anymore, especially given the fact that China is trying to reassert this hegemony in the region. By outsourcing our North Korea policy to China, we're only abetting them in doing this."
    The US must also contend with the notion that Moscow too will embrace a larger role.
    "Russia wants to be, and be seen as, a great power. It wants to lead the nations that resist Western power and influence. In defying the United Nations and supporting North Korea, Russia bolsters that status at home and abroad," Ramani says. "And so Moscow's alignment with North Korea will likely get stronger in the near future."