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Russia positioning itself to make U.S. irrelevant in North Korean nuclear crisis

"The U.S. role in the world is visibly diminishing. Russia and China are coming in to fill the gap."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said isolating North Korea is not a credible diplomatic tactic. CREDIT: /Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said isolating North Korea is not a credible diplomatic tactic. CREDIT: /Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo

Russia is setting the stage for sidelining the United States in the North Korean nuclear crisis that has been escalating for roughly four months, during which the administration of President Donald Trump has relied primarily on threats of total annihilation, sanctions, and name-calling. None of these U.S. measures has served to deter North Korea from testing its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The U.S. role in the world is visibly diminishing. Russia and China are coming in to fill the gap,” Charles Armstrong, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, told ThinkProgress.

After Pyongyang’s most recent missile launch a Hwasong-15 missile on Wednesday, Trump responded with an uncharacteristically restrained “We’ll handle [it]” before returning to his typical rhetoric, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “sick puppy” at a rally in Missouri. By Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov finally had enough — and flat-out accused Trump of trying to manufacture a reason to attack North Korea, Reuters reports.

“The Americans need to explain to us all if they want to find a pretext to destroy North Korea. Let them say it directly… then we can take a decision about how to react,” said Lavrov, who also rejected calls by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., for Russia to cut ties with Pyongyang, stopping the sale of oil products and deporting North Korean workers.

Trump’s name-calling and threats of wiping out the country of roughly 25 million have caused worry within his own administration and among North Korea’s neighbors, such as China and South Korea, who continue to urge reaching a diplomatic solution with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But Russia, which is masterfully edging the U.S. out of relevance in Syria, is now making more muscular statements on Trump’s diplomatic shortcomings with North Korea, including his calls to further isolate the regime.

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“We regard this negatively,” Lavrov said. “We have already said many times that sanctions pressure has exhausted itself.”

While Russia condemned North Korea’s latest missile test, Lavrov also raised concerns about the large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises planned for December, which he said “look designed to deliberately provoke Pyongyang into taking new extreme action.” U.S. officials had initially said that the exercises would be delayed until spring in order to allow for the tensions to ease.

“We were encouraged by that approach. And then suddenly … they announced large-scale exercises in December. We have the impression that it was all done specially to get Kim Jong Un to ‘fly off the handle’ and ‘take another reckless step,'” he said, according to Reuters.

The Russians — who, according to Armstrong, “realize that the U.S. is increasingly isolated on the North Korean issue” — are also strengthening their alignment with China, North Korea’s top trading partner.

“China and Russia have been showing a united front on North Korea for the past several months. They’ve proposed a freeze-for-freeze solution a number of times, in which the U.S. would suspend its military exercises in exchange for North Korea suspending its missile testing and nuclear development,” Armstrong told ThinkProgress. Both countries, he said, are “concerned that the U.S. has not offered a diplomatic option,” which increases the possibility of war, “and that would be a catastrophe for the whole region.”

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“So part of [Russia’s positioning] is to seem reasonable to South Korea and to ally with China against the U.S. and I think they are largely seen sympathetically by other countries as well, who are quite concerned with the direction in which the U.S.-North Korea confrontation is going,” he said.

China, meanwhile, unveiled its powerful new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, likely ready for deployment in 2018, the timing of which Armstrong said could be intended to “both, dissuade the North Koreans from continuing down this path and to tell the Americans that the Chinese are dealing with it in their own way.”

Russia’s maneuvering into the North Korea crisis is more than just a single-serving of humiliation for the United States — it’s indicative, said Armstrong, of a larger trend. While Armstrong calls “the Syria situation” — wherein Russia is setting the scene for what post-war Syria will look like with Iran, Turkey, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad — “disturbing and quite embarrassing for the U.S,” he said the manner in which the U.S. is being sidelined in Asia is “even more stark.”

“The U.S. role is diminishing at the expense of China’s expansion, and the more that the U.S. is seen as an unreliable ally, a dangerous provocateur, the more China looks like a reasonable grownup in the region, even though there’s a great deal of distrust of China by many Asian countries,” said Armstrong.

He said he was also “not encouraged” by rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson being pushed out of the job in favor of CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although he was publicly sidelined for it by Trump on Twitter, Tillerson pushed for open diplomatic channels with Pyongyang over talk of “fire and fury.” As with Tillerson, it’s unclear whether Pompeo could be given the latitude to steer negotiations in a diplomatic direction, even if he wanted to.

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“Putting Pompeo in is perhaps not a good sign for diplomacy if he’s going to carry out the same hawkish as the president… it could actually make the situation worse,” said Amstrong.