Eurasia Analyst
Volume V, Number 1 July 2017
Precarious Balance by Susan J. Cavan

 

Precarious Balance

There is a palpable sense of expectation in advance of the first official meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the context could not be more fraught; setting aside the US domestic issues surrounding the Russia investigation currently being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the international scene has witnessed a disconcerting realignment of forces as Russia, China, and Turkey maneuver to position themselves more advantageously in the absence of US leadership.

The North Korean “gift” of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test will now dominate some measure of discussions this week. Kim Jong Un’s taunts are particularly stinging in the face of Russian and Chinese coordination in response. The United States may hope to persuade a mitigation of the joint statement made by Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin at their two-day summit in advance of the G-20 meetings, but the fact that they have discussed and agreed a position starts any US efforts on North Korea at a disadvantage. China and Russia agreed that military options do not present a path to resolution of North Korea’s provocations. In addition to condemning both the North Korean missile test and the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, the Russian-Chinese joint statement declared: “Any possibility of using military means to solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula should be ruled out.” (1)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his comments on the joint statement, made clear that increased economic sanctions would be viewed as an effort at “strangling” the North Korean economy and were thus unacceptable. (2) The fact that this was not an official element of the joint statement might signal a breath of air between the Russian and Chinese positions that could be useful in negotiations.

The US response, setting aside presidential tweets, which would perhaps boost ratings if this were a television program but are generally unserious and unhelpful from a diplomatic perspective, has been to condemn the attack, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denouncing the test as a “new escalation” of the threat from North Korea and calling for “global action” to restrain the rogue state. (3) The United States and South Korea also announced a new missile drill and test fire as a countermeasure to the North Korean test. (4)

China is a key element to the resolution of any crisis on the Korean peninsula, and it will be crucial to see how much space exists between the Russian and Chinese positions on sanctions. Russia, which responded to earlier impositions of sanctions against North Korea by increasing its exports, may attempt to pressure China to adhere to its more strident opposition to new sanctions; however, as mentioned above, the absence of a joint position on economic sanctions suggests the failure of consensus on this issue.

While it is vital to note the importance of the timing of the Xi-Putin pre-G-20 summit and public avowal of a strong Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership,” Putin should not be under any illusions that Russia has, for some time, been anything more than the junior partner in this venture. Thus, using bilateral negotiations with Xi to highlight the disparities in the Russian and Chinese approaches might prove fruitful. While North Korea represents a pressing issue to the United States, Russian interest is secondary—North Korea serves as a further bludgeon to use against US leadership in the world community and a destination for Russian exports, but until Kim Jong Un turns his attention northward, the issue is not central to the Putin leadership’s strategic foreign policy goal of multipolarity in the international system.

Here, the Russian-Chinese relationship takes on serious strategic import: Combined efforts to influence, shape, and perhaps destroy international institutions that do not serve Russian or Chinese interests is the most potent sphere of common ground that Putin and Xi occupy. Despite the immediacy of the North Korean missile provocation, discussions this week should focus on identifying and accepting what partial agreement is possible and rejecting attempts to dictate US actions. China and the United States cannot be full partners on this issue, as their objectives for the Korean peninsula are mutually exclusive: the United States seeks a re-united Korea under South Korea’s auspices, and China vehemently rejects the possibility of a solution that locates a strong, united US ally at its doorstep. Understanding these constraints, US policy should aim for achievable outcomes.

Advice on the much-heralded Putin-Trump meeting this week will be thick on the ground. Reports that the American president was seeking “deliverables” for Putin are disconcerting, but, it is worth noting that Putin has made clear exactly what he would like to have delivered: Declaring that Russian forbearance “has its limits,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov warned that the United States should return Moscow’s ambassadorial summer camps (seized by order of then-President Barack Obama along with the expulsion of Russian diplomats over the Russian election hacking issue), in order to “free Russian from the need to take retaliatory moves.” (5) I hope it goes without saying that acceding to Putin’s demands on this issue, particularly given the sensitivity of this president’s Russia problem, would be taken as a sign of weakness in Moscow, at home, and internationally.

It is perhaps wiser to tamp down expectations of this Trump-Putin meeting. There need be no predictions for outcomes, no announcement of asks, and no delivery of sweeteners. This is presumed to be a get-acquainted session, and as such should be free of grand aspirations. Granted, with a different type of “modern” president, one might hope for a condemnation of Russia’s aggressive and offensive election meddling, but there is no option at the moment than to work with the cards we have dealt ourselves.

There is another interesting factor that brings the importance of NATO to the forefront of this week’s meetings. On June 29, Russia announced the finalization of a deal to provide the S-400 series missile defense system to Turkey. (6) A 2013 Turkish decision to award the contract for such a system to China sparked consternation among Turkey’s NATO allies, and that plan was eventually scrapped. Turkish President Erdogan and Putin have teased discussions over the possibility of Russia supplying this NATO ally with a system; however, this deal seems likely designed to spark a divisive response from the Allies and perpetuate conflict with the Turkish leadership. The benefit to Putin is obvious—any chance to rile NATO is not to be missed. The benefit to Erdogan is less clear. Perhaps the G-20 meeting is an appropriate time to ask the Turkish president to make clear his intentions.

The most positive outcome this week would see the United States reaffirming its commitments in Europe and throughout the global economic community. Taking the opportunity in Warsaw to emphasize the role of NATO and the importance of Article Five would be a powerful message throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, as well as a relief to the president’s Polish hosts.

The actual agenda of the G-20 presents problematic conflicts with President Trump’s approach to international economic relations, but there may be opportunities to present a more comprehensive expansion of the US approach on climate post-Paris, as well as initiatives on Chancellor Merkel’s focus on Africa and sustainable development.

This is a precarious moment in international relations, and recent developments demand a thoughtful reassessment of US objectives and intentions. But this week, for this series of meetings, small victories and doing no harm are noble enough goals.

 

Source Notes

1) “Joint statement by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries on the Korean Peninsula’s problems,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 4, 2017, via http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2807662.

2) “Russia, China to put forward initiative on North Korea at UN meeting,” TASS, July 5, 2017, via tass.com/politics/954819.

3) Ben Westcott and Stella Kim, “US, China divided over how to deal with new North Korean ICBM threat,” CNN, July 5, 2017, via www.cnn.com/2017/07/04/asia/north-korea-missile-response/index.html.

4) Ibid.

5) “Russia says it’s patience with U.S. is running thin in returning Russian embassy assets,” CBS News, July 3, 2017, via http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-says-its-patience-with-u-s-is-running-thin-in-returning-russian-embassy-assets/.

6) “Contract with Turkey on S-400 missile systems ‘agreed upon’ – Putin aide,” RT, June 29, 2017, via https://www.rt.com/news/394604-turkey-russia-s-400-contract/.

By Susan J. Cavan (sjcavan@bu.edu)