What Does Putin Really Think About North Korea?

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 11. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters

As tensions around North Korea's nuclear ambitions simmer, one of the country's neighbors has kept a noticeably low profile _ Russia.

Although traditionally a part of peace talks, the Soviet-era ally of Pyongyang has largely been absent from the public debate around the U.S. and North Korea's increased friction. Russian President Vladimir Putin's last and brief statement about the situation came via his spokesman Dmitry Peskov two weeks ago, and in very general terms.

"We urge all countries to show restraint and advise them against any action that could mean taking provocative steps, " said Peskov said, adding that the general situation gave Russia "concern." Subsequent statements from the Kremlin and government officials have steered clear of taking any side, even security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who claimed that South and North Korea were being "provoked from outside" on Thursday, but didn't elaborate on who might be doing the provoking.

But among those wanting the Kremlin to get more involved is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who arrives in Russia to meet with Putin this week. Abe has said he wants to secure the Kremlin's backing in curbing North Korea's tumultuous behaviour. Experts are skeptical on whether Putin will galvanize Russia in a decisive way on the issue. Russia's position does not fall strongly on either U.S.-allied South Korea's side, or North Korea's and Putin has much to consider before he takes a stand either way.

Russia, says Bob Manning, a North Korea expert at the Atlantic Council, has settled into the role of "a peripheral player" on the issue.

"They are one of the countries in the six party talks, they have a border with North Korea and they use North Korean slave labor which provides plenty of hard currency for North Korea, that is true," he says. "On the other hand they have traditionally been in favor of non-proliferation, usually taking a cue on North Korea from China."

Certainly a tougher U.S. stance on North Korea has prompted a negative response from Russia. Recent air force forays towards Alaskan airspace are "no coincidence" Manning says. "I certainly don't think Putin is doing that because he wants Alaska back. The Russians want to be seen as a major player in the Asia Pacific and this is an attempt to do that."

Putin has shown great interest in the region, not only through his recent visit to Japan and increased diplomacy with Tokyo, but also through openly attempting to supplant decreased political and trade ties in Europe over the Ukraine conflict with China. In 2015 he set up one of his annual forums - used as reasons to attract global media to Kremlin-favored corners of the country such as Sochi and St Petersburg - in Russia's easternmost port of Vladivostok.

In that sense, Putin cannot afford Russia to be absent from major discussions in its back yard. This is especially true considering his current relationship with the new administration in the White House.

"We have seen these statements, those such as Nikolay Patrushev's (on Wednesday) in voiced really in opposition to what Russia sees as U.S. aggressiveness and the potential recklessness as they see it from [President] Donald Trump," he says.

The Kremlin's relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated under President Trump by its own admission. Trust between Moscow and Washington is low, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged during his recent visit to the Russian capital. The chief reason is that despite overwhelmingly pro-Russian campaign rhetoric, Trump has not delivered pro-Russian policies. His defense and state secretaries have reaffirmed support for Ukraine and NATO, while the death knell on an early U.S.-Russia rapprochement sounded when Trump ordered a strike on Russian ally Syria, earlier this month.

The strike, while not causing any Russian casualties, was a "wakeup call and a cold shower for Russia" said Alexander Gabuev, Russian foreign policy expert at Moscow's Carnegie Centre. The strike was a shock to Russia and Moscow will want to avoid any similar military surprises in its Pacific backyard, he says, especially when nuclear weapons are part of the conversation.

"Now Russia thinks Trump is unpredictable and they see this administration as out of its depth on the North Korean issue," Gabuev says.

That is not to say that Russia is ready to endorse the Kim regime's desire for nuclear arms. "Russia does not want to see a nuclear North Korea which could stimulate a nuclear South Korea and a nuclear Japan," Manning says.

As Gabuev points out, while Russia formally condemned North Korea's nuclear proliferation goals, there is a difference between its rhetoric and actions, which have done little to curb Pyongyang.

"In a way the pattern of risky behaviour of the North Korean regime, i.e. unbalancing the opponent through threatening rhetoric is very familiar in Russia - that is what it has itself done to a certain extent in (Ukraine's) Donbas region and in Syria," he says. "Russia understands this tactic and it does not think the regime is suicidal. It is really operating under the threshold of kinetic warfare."

Russia's ambivalent stance reflects its lack of trust in the White House, its limitations in affecting Pyongyang while paradoxically wanting to be seen influencing a global issue at its border, on the same level as China and the U.S., says Gabuev.

"Ultimately Russia cares about the prestige of participating."