North Korea's fourth nuclear test followed by an orbital rocket launch has presented the Russian Federation with another opportunity to find common ground with other global powers and demonstrate leadership in international affairs. But this objective is complicated by policy differences between itself and its partners in Beijing, Washington and to a lesser extent Seoul.
Russia at the UN
The Russian delegation to the UN was unsure about the level of sanctions proposed to the Security Council, and requested more time to review them before voting one way or the other. Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, acknowledged the unprecedented punitive nature of the new sanctions adopted in UN Security Council Resolution 2270 earlier this month, but expressed his hope that they may induce North Korea to resume the Six Party Talks as soon as possible.
Russia also needed assurances that its nascent but expanding trade partnership with the DPRK would not suffer. The sanctions, touted as being the toughest against the north in 20 years, leave several aspects of North Korea-Russia trade unaffected. This includes coal, North Korean laborers in Russia and tourism.
Russian opposition to South Korea’s proposal of a five-party negotiation framework - without North Korea - to replace the former Six Party Talks can be interpreted both as an appeal to avoid isolating North Korea, and as a fear it could rebalance talks in favour of states unambiguously opposed to North Korea.
Cooperation with the United States
The latest developments in North Korea's nuclear programme have presented areas of common ground for Russia and the United States. Shortly before the most recent UN sanctions were issued, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry held a telephone conversation to discuss both the DPRK sanctions and the implementation of a ceasefire in Syria. Russia and the United States have often held very divergent positions over the resolution of the violence in Syria. Yet the juxtaposition of these two issues in Kerry and Lavrov's conversation shows that even with two major simultaneous crises, on which both sides don't always see eye-to-eye, Russia and the US were able to put aside their differences.
US Senator Ben Cardin, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, touted Sino-Russian cooperation on the resolution as being a "good sign”. He reserved special praise for China, which co-authored the resolution, asserting the indispensable nature of Chinese cooperation.
The issue of promoting security on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia as a whole, however, has presented strategic challenges for cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Immediately following the North Korean rocket launch of 7 February, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's nuclear non-proliferation and arms control department stated that Moscow would cooperate with other states on drafting a UN resolution over the rocket launch. At the same time the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concerns over discussions between South Korea and the US regarding the deployment of Tactical High Altitude Air Defence systems (THAAD), leading to insinuations that the United States was using North Korea's provocations to increase the geographic expanse of its missile defence systems.
A Coordinated Sino-Russian Response
The Chinese and Russian foreign ministries have also conducted bilateral discussions, in which they have declared solidarity in opposing North Korea's adventurism. At the same time they have also expressed a common concern over the potential deployment of US THAAD systems to South Korea.
China's own bilateral relationship with North Korea also somewhat circumscribes the extent to which Beijing and Moscow can respond in a substantive manner. While North Korea and Russia have made modest moves in their military relationship, ties remain limited. Hopes that China may somehow 'abandon' North Korea, however, are largely unfounded. Whilst Pyongyang's actions have caused much angst in Beijing, and patience is wearing thin, China will not abandon the DPRK and trigger a major realignment in this most sensitive of regions.
North Korea's activities since the beginning of 2016 have presented Russia with a unique set of opportunities and challenges in the diplomatic arena. It has, on the one hand, the chance to strengthen diplomatic relations and establish its leadership role within the international community. At the same time, however, Russia has limited ability to act in concert with other powers in a way that serves Russian interests.
These are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent those of BASIC.