In comments at an 11 August youth forum in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged all sides involved in the controversy over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to avoid using force and exercise maximum restraint. “Unfortunately, the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang is now starting to go over the top,” he said. “We still hope and believe that common sense will prevail.” At the same time Lavrov seemed to tilt toward North Korea in the dispute: “My personal opinion is that when you get close to the point of a fight breaking out, the side that is stronger and cleverer should take the first step away from the threshold of danger.” In a 26 April speech to the annual Moscow conference on international security, Russian Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev much more pointedly claimed that “external provocateurs”—a clear reference to the United States—were pushing North and South Korea toward war.
On 5 August, Russia joined China and the other UN Security Council members in unanimously imposing strict new sanctions on Pyongyang—a response to North Korea’s launch of two intercontinental missiles last month. The new measures significantly step up restrictions on North Korea’s ability to export coal, iron, lead and seafood. Estimates say they may cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year, an enormous sum for a relatively poor country. The hope is that these efforts may lead Kim Jong-un’s regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program, or at least bring it to the negotiating table.
“Russia is quite happy with the language of the new UN Security Council resolution, since it secures most of Russia’s commercial interests with regard to North Korea,” stated Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russia does not have much skin in the game, nor does it have many tools to influence the situation. So it is happy to sit back and let China led the way. Moreover, the UN sanctions do very little harm to Russia’s commercial interests in North Korea, nor will they affect the thousands of North Korean workers seeking temporary employment in Russia. (Those workers provide Russia with cheap labor to modernize the city of Vladivostok).
More critical to the Kremlin’s calculations, however, is that Russia is involved in the North Korea issue in a way that will get both the Russian public and the international community to see the country as a great power. In doing so, the Kremlin seeks to rally public support for its policies and increase Moscow’s global position as a credible counterweight to U.S. hegemony.
This goal can be achieved in three ways: first, by showing that Russia is a better international broker than the United States. Since President Vladimir Putin began his third term in 2012, Kremlin policymakers have often stepped in to settle conflicts. The point is to show the rest of the world that Russia can solve problems the United States cannot.
Second, Russia is trying to reinforce its image at home as a great power. This is apparent in the Russian state media’s enthusiastic and oft-repeated coverage every time a foreign leader praises Moscow’s involvement in the North Korean crisis. Whenever any country asks Moscow for help in mediating a conflict, the Russian state media trumpets that heartily. These requests show off Moscow’s international influence to nationalists at home and refute Western perceptions that Russia is diplomatically isolated.
Third, Russia wants to lead the nations that resist what they see as U.S. diplomatic and military coercion. Moscow wants to be recognized as a global leader not just within its own borders but among the international community as well. Thus, its position on North Korea is linked to its desire to lead an informal coalition of countries that believe that the United States is trying to overthrow the North Korean regime.
This is not to say that Moscow is ready to endorse Kim Jong-un’s goal of acquiring nuclear arms. It does not want to see a nuclear North Korea, which could lead to a nuclear South Korea and a nuclear Japan. But Moscow calculates it cannot afford to be absent from major negotiations in its backyard—even if its leverage is limited. This is especially true given its concerns about what it sees as the unpredictability of the Trump administration.