President Donald Trump’s patience seems to be running thin for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s covert backing of the North Korean regime. But addressing the problem could be difficult, says an expert in Russian foreign policy.
“China is helping us, and maybe Russia’s going through the other way and hurting what we’re getting,” Trump said, adding, “When I say ‘maybe,’ I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
While China has long been North Korea’s most critical ally, providing up to 90 percent of the regime’s foreign trade, Russia has become a critical source of energy and diplomatic support, arguing against stiffer sanctions at the United Nations.
It is also widely believed that Russia is covertly breaking U.N. sanctions even as it concedes their necessity before the U.N.
Russia has also maintained that a military solution is not feasible.
“Russia believes that the policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile programme is misguided and futile,” Putin wrote in an article published by the Kremlin in September.
That position effectively removes the only thing many experts believe would convince the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear program: the threat of war, with an inevitable regime change.
The Russian lifeline has become critical as sanctions have started to take hold. Recent reports indicate North Korea has seen fuel prices rise sharply. As China begins to enforce the sanctions, the North Korean regime loses critical revenue streams and resources, making Russia’s support more significant.
For Russia, opposing the U.S. policy on North Korea has its own rewards. Despite its own struggling economy, Russia has invested heavily in raising its international profile, an effort that plays well to the audience back home.
“Maintaining collective self-esteem is essential for Putin’s regime legitimacy in Russia,” said Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy and doctoral candidate at Oxford University.
“As economic conditions have deteriorated due to falling oil prices and a lack of diversification, foreign policy has become an increasingly important driver of Russian nationalism and regime consolidation.”
Despite a worsening economic situation, Putin has maintained strong approval ratings. Annexing Crimea gave him a significant boost, and his success in the Syrian intervention did as well.
As long as opposing the West rallies nationalist sentiment, Russia is likely to engage in provocative actions like supporting North Korea, said Ramani.
Through these actions, Russia also gains increased geopolitical influence among authoritarian regimes that find themselves in America’s sights.
“Many of Russia’s closest international allies were formed as an indirect consequence of Western-led regime change efforts against authoritarian regimes,” he said.
Following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Russia’s relationships with Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and other authoritarian states tightened, Ramani said.
“None of these countries react negatively to Russian support for North Korea. In fact, they maintain links with the DPRK themselves, and Russia’s defiance of the U.S. improves its image in these states,” he said.
That credibility feeds Russia’s international status, which further consolidates the regime at home. That becomes more important as Russia grapples with an economy that has not recovered to growth levels seen in Putin’s first two terms.
Within this narrative, there is little Trump could do to deter Russian support. The benefits for Putin go beyond maintaining an irritant and distraction for his largest geopolitical rival, the United States. They help secure his standing in the only place that really matters: Russia.
According to Ramani, there are two things Trump could do to convince Russia to abandon North Korea. One would be to push for direct dialogue and ask Russia to mediate.
Such a move feeds Putin’s need for prestige and is likely to be more effective than further sanctions against Russian banks, which he believes would harden Moscow’s pro-DPRK stance.
The other option is to convince Russia that North Korea’s links to non-state actors and terror networks (which include allegations the regime supplies light arms to the ISIS terrorist group and Yemeni rebel groups), and the threat of wider nuclear proliferation, are a threat to Russia’s own security.
While Russia may not want North Korea to get nuclear weapons, Ramani thinks Russia views that prospect as “a lesser evil to a U.S.-led war to remove Kim Jong Un from power.”
“The Russian intelligence community views a nuclear-armed North Korea as a risk to regional stability, but opinion is divided on the exact threat it poses to Russia’s security,” Ramani said.
In fact, Russia could be betting on North Korea getting nuclear weapons, and therefore is building ties and credibility with a regime that could become more influential in the region. Ramani believes Russia’s support for North Korea will grow stronger if the Kim regime gains a credible nuclear deterrent.
Another, more constructive option would be building deeper economic ties between South Korea and Russia, a longer-term approach unlikely to resolve the immediate crisis.
Complicating matters are the Democrats’ allegations that Russia helped Trump secure the presidency, which have obstructed Trump’s ability to resolve longstanding tensions in the U.S.–Russia relationship.
If the U.S.–Russia relationship were not in shambles, there could be other options available. As it is, political efforts to link Trump to the Putin regime have made any overtures from the Oval Office all but impossible for the Trump administration.