By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 28, 2009
MOSCOW, May 27 -- For years, Russia has appeared to take a back seat in international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It urged diplomacy and resisted tougher sanctions, but usually let China take the lead in relations with Pyongyang.
There are signs, however, that the Kremlin may be considering a more active, tougher stance following Monday's surprise test of a nuclear device by North Korea less than 60 miles from the Russian border.
After an initial, mild expression of "concern" by the Russian foreign minister, the government issued a high-level statement denouncing the underground blast as a "direct violation" of U.N. resolutions.
"Initiators of decisions on nuclear tests bear personal responsibility for them to the world community," said Natalya Timakova, chief spokeswoman for President Dmitry Medvedev, adding that the test "deals a blow to international efforts to strengthen the global regime of nuclear nonproliferation."
Timakova also said North Korea's nuclear program was "linked to the development of rocket technologies" and described the connection as "a source of particular anxiety," according to the Interfax news agency. Russian officials previously played down the threat posed by the North's missile program.
Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations convened an emergency meeting of the Security Council to condemn the test and pledged to support a strong new resolution against North Korea. Russia holds the rotating presidency of the council this month.
"The reaction has been quite serious and quite unusual," said Alexander Pikayev, a top arms control expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations here. "Moscow is really concerned. North Korea most likely has an operational deterrent now with this successful test. So this changes the whole situation."
Pikayev said the Kremlin generally defers to China on how to manage North Korea because it recognizes that Beijing has greater leverage over Pyongyang. But the government now appears to favor tougher sanctions, he said, and "might try to convince the Chinese to take more serious actions."
Vasily Mikheev, a senior Asia scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Medvedev seemed to be driving the more forceful response, perhaps to assert his authority over foreign policy a year after succeeding Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister.
Medvedev may see the issue in the context of his efforts to improve relations with the United States, Mikheev added. "Nonproliferation is one of the most important areas where Russia and America can work together," he said.
The nuclear test came just weeks after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Pyongyang to try to persuade North Korea to return to the six-nation disarmament talks it quit in April.
During the trip, Lavrov presented a proposal to help North Korea launch satellites into space from Russian territory, which analysts said was an early hint of the Kremlin's desire to play a more active role in resolving the nuclear dispute.
But Lavrov was not granted a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Russian analysts have interpreted that as a snub and a sign of North Korea's displeasure with Moscow's decision to support a U.N. statement condemning its April 5 launch of a three-stage rocket. North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the six-nation talks in retaliation for the council statement.
Alexander Khramchikhin, a researcher with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, said that even if the Kremlin wants to assume a leading role in resolving the dispute, it cannot. The Soviet Union once served as North Korea's patron, but Moscow withdrew support after the Soviet Union's collapse, and Beijing took its place.
"You can see some shift in policy perhaps, but I think Russia is simply following China," he said. "Russia just doesn't have the tools to influence North Korea."