The summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Russian city of Vladivostok brings Moscow back into the diplomatic game focused on the Korean Peninsula. This symbolic breakthrough aside, however, Russia doesn’t have a very strong hand among all the global and regional powers involved in the crisis resolution.
The tools Russia has at its disposal are too limited to have an impact on the calculations and behavior of North Korea or the U.S. As asymmetry in the Sino-Russian entente gradually grows in China’s favor, Moscow is increasingly receptive to Beijing’s agenda and prepared to play bad cop in an unofficial division of labor on the Korean Peninsula.
Russia could, however, be an indispensable partner in a broader conversation on security mechanisms in Northeast Asia, including offensive missiles and missile defense systems. The current lack of this broader conversation makes a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue less likely, if not impossible.
Russia doesn’t play a decisive role in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, but its behavior does affect general developments in the region. For a long time, Moscow tried to be an independent player on the peninsula, using its limited resources skillfully.
Russia’s historical connections with North Korea, its ties to the country’s senior officials, and — most importantly — its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council allowed it to play its own game. The stakes in that game are fairly high for the Kremlin, which has its own outlook on the situation on the peninsula, as well as clear red lines.
The stated goal of Russian policy and diplomatic efforts on the Korean Peninsula is denuclearization. Indeed, Moscow included the denuclearization of the peninsula in the latest version of its Foreign Policy Concept: a key strategic document outlining the Kremlin’s approach to foreign policy and international issues, signed by Putin on November 30, 2016.