As U.S., North Korea escalate war of words, could Putin be a voice of reason?

North Korea’s nuclear escalation has created a potential opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, writes Chris Brown.

Russian leader does not favour increased sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized the idea of increased international sanctions to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press)

North Korea's successful test of what's likely its first hydrogen bomb not only set off an earthquake but shifted the political tectonics of the region, creating a potential opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has been noticeably more vocal on this issue since Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, emerging as a leading voice in favour of a diplomatic solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

"Russia's stake in a peaceful resolution is very high," said Alexei Arbatov, a prominent Russian security expert who now heads the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Russia shares a 22-kilometre border along the Tuman River with North Korea, and like China, it is desperate to avoid any outcome that leads to war or economic chaos along its far eastern boundary.

Speaking at an economic summit in Vladivostok on Wednesday, just a few hundred kilometres from the border, Putin suggested the current U.S. strategy is doomed to fail.

A Russian guard walks along the platform at the border crossing between Russia and North Korea at the North Korean settlement of Tumangan. (Yuri Maltsev/Reuters)

"It is clear that it is impossible to solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula by sanctions and pressure alone," he told the forum.

Putin also warned of the consequences if the U.S. forges ahead with what he said is the same ineffective strategy.

"One should not give into emotions and drive North Korea into a corner," said the Russian president. "Now more than ever, everyone needs to show composure."

In sync with China

Arbatov said Putin's proposed solution — one also supported by China — is that North Korea stops its nuclear tests while the U.S. ends its military build-up in the region as part of a multi-step plan to negotiate a diplomatic end to the crisis.

"It coincides with the position of China, and I think most European countries would support it," Arbatov said.

European leaders have been unequivocal in condemning North Korea, saying it must abandon its nuclear weapons tests and its ballistic missile program unconditionally before any talks can begin.

Many observers have suggested that Putin may view this crisis, like the ongoing war in Syria, as a way for Russia to re-assert itself as a global superpower and demonstrate there are options other than an American-led world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong, third from right, has continued missile tests and escalated the war of words with the U.S. over his country's nuclear arsenal. (KCNA via Reuters)

"He [Putin] is gaining as a constructive, predictable leader who is calling for a diplomatic solution," said Arbatov.

Up until this point, the U.S. has shown little interest in much of what the Russian president has had to contribute on the North Korea file.

Instead, U.S. officials, including UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have amped up the rhetoric, suggesting North Korea is "begging for war" and rejected any suggestion of holding talks until after Pyongyang gives up its nuclear program.

Putin told a news conference earlier this week that the North Koreans would rather "eat grass" than give up their nukes.

On Russia's much-watched talk shows, there's little enthusiasm for either the U.S. or North Korea. But on Aug. 30, Vladimir Solovyov, an influential Russian journalist and talk show host, told a TV audience why he thought Pyongyang has marched unrelentingly toward building missiles with the capability to destroy entire cities.

Namely, as protection against U.S.-led regime change.

"They saw what happened to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi [who was ousted in 2011] and decided that they should better have nuclear weapons," Solovyov said.

A 'step-by-step solution'?

Arbatov said that the two sides "should talk about a step-by-step solution."

"The first should be a moratorium on new tests of ballistic missiles and an alleviation of sanctions by the U.S. and UN Security Council. I think this is the only way to alleviate the threat of war."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said earlier this week that the North Korea seemed to be 'begging for war.' (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On Wednesday, Putin rejected a South Korean move to further constrict North Korea's economy by adding an oil embargo to an already long list of sanctions.

Russia has backed eight previous UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea, including restricting coal shipments and military exports to North Korea.

But Russia is enduring its own crippling economic sanctions, imposed by the U.S. and other western countries following its takeover of Crimea in 2014 and Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Arbatov said the North Korea crisis offers Putin a platform to challenge the political usefulness of sanctions.

"It may be another reason for Putin to be so active in promoting a diplomatic solution," said Arbatov.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.