This Week in Info War

Qualified Support in Moscow for Korean Summit

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Russian reaction to the summit between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June was publicly positive, if cautious, about the prospects for success. Moscow does not want U.S. diplomacy to fail, but does not want it to succeed without Russian help, either. It also hopes that the Singapore summit will boost the chances of a similar meeting between Trump and Putin.

  • Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the “mere fact of the meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea is positive. . . . We are following the comments that both sides are making but we have not seen the document yet.”
  • Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, was more cautious, noting that “[t]here is no certainty that both sides will look to capitalize upon the progress made during the summit as President Trump’s assurances of the beginning of denuclearization are ‘wishes’ rather than ‘facts.’” Kosachev stressed that it was up to the international community to make sure the two leaders uphold their summit commitments, “much like the Iran process.”
  • In recent weeks, Putin and Lavrov have been careful not to undermine the U.S. President through their public statements. Putin was apparently frustrated by the on-again, off-again planning for the Singapore meeting. But he reacted with perplexity rather than criticism, for example, to Trump’s cancellation of the summit on 24 May. (State-sponsored Russian media such as, Sputnik, and Kommersant, by contrast, were far more critical, resorting to mocking headlines and hostile rhetoric about the U.S. being untrustworthy).
  • At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in early June in Qingdao, China, Putin and Lavrov expressed optimism about the prospects for diplomatic engagement with North Korea and the “roadmap” strategy devised by Russia and China to help resolve the crisis on the peninsula.

However, Moscow also has tried to make sure that Russia was not left behind diplomatically. For the Kremlin, the summit left the distinctly unpleasant impression that any North Korean settlement would be a strictly bilateral matter. This damages Moscow’s narrative that Russia is re-emerging as a great power with a decisive say on every global issue. Even more of concern for Moscow: the U.S. proposal to extend Washington’s nuclear umbrella over South Korea to the North. This raises the undesirable prospect of a strengthened U.S. security position in northeast Asia, at Russia’s (and China’s) expense. Thus, while Lavrov expressed Russia’s commitment to the peace process during a meeting with Kim in Pyongyang on 31 May, he threatened a veto in the UN Security Council of any settlement terms that were not satisfactory to Moscow. Meanwhile, while Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov expressed his satisfaction that the Trump-Kim meeting took place, he also stated his hope that the six-party settlement talks – which include Russia as well as China, Japan, the United States, and the two Koreas – will eventually be successful in forging a settlement. He insisted that “the Russian Federation will be making political, intellectual, practical, and creative contributions to the settlement of problems.”

The Kremlin likely calculates that reduced tension in the region and cautious support for U.S. policy raises the possibility of an improved relationship with the United States. According to some reports, Moscow is privately pushing to have the sanctions on North Korea lifted. This would free up trade with Pyongyang and give the Kremlin a precedent to lobby for lifting Western sanctions on Russia itself. Especially important for Putin, though, is the boost the Trump-Kim meeting gives for the chances of his own summit with the U.S. President. After all, Putin no doubt calculates, Trump went against the advice of some his foreign policy advisors and much of the U.S. “deep state” foreign policy establishment to meet the North Korean leader. Trump’s apparently offhand call for better relations with Russia on the eve of the G7 meeting in Quebec no doubt raised further hope in the Kremlin that the U.S. president may move quickly to ease Moscow’s estrangement from the West.