What potential for closer Russia-U.S. security collaboration on the Korean Peninsula had previously existed runs the risk of being overshadowed by larger strategic tensions.
South Korean protesters during a rally to oppose a deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in front of the Defense ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. Photo: AP
Against the backdrop of worsening Russia-U.S. relations, disagreements between Russia and the U.S. over how to handle the North Korean nuclear threat now have the risk of transforming from a regional affair into a truly global security issue.
The looming decision by the U.S. to install a missile shield (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD) in the region doesn’t help matters and only highlights the increased stakes in the region for both the U.S. and Russia, as well as Russia’s desire for a multipolar world order.
Certainly, the uniqueness of Northeast Asia's security considerations make Russia-U.S. strategic discord more difficult to manage. Northeast Asia's security environment has, on the one hand, moved away from the traditional Cold War arrangement of a Communist bloc (albeit one that was complicated by interplay between China, North Korea and the USSR) aligned against the West.
Nevertheless, as academics Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver assert, Northeast Asia's security environment remains locked in a system of competing interests that, while having been part of the post-Cold War era, are more "indigenous" in nature.
It is unlikely, given Russia's own security concerns for the Korean Peninsula, that Russia would overtly support North Korea in retaliation for U.S. actions in the region. Nevertheless, it appears that what potential for closer Russia-U.S. security collaboration had previously existed runs the risk of being overshadowed by larger strategic tensions.
Viktor Poznikhir, a senior official of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff, stated that current U.S. plans for missile defense in the region would make a U.S. first strike possible. General Poznikhir asserted that China and Russia were considering a joint response to the potential threat. Nevertheless, Poznikhir also highlighted the Russian military's readiness to resume bilateral and multilateral talks with the United States on missile defense issues.
There can be little doubt that American strategic planners, policymakers and other senior Americans involved in THAAD's deployment to the Korean Peninsula considered vociferous Russian (and Chinese) opposition when formulating their decision. Nevertheless, the timing of this deployment marks what is perhaps a final downturn in Russia-U.S. relations with regards to each country's respective interests along the Russian periphery and in areas that are more distant yet are of strategic importance to Russia, namely the Middle East.
In this case, political arrangements have proven particularly ominous for U.S. interests. Whereas Ukraine and Syria are areas Russia and U.S. are diametrically opposed, security on the Korean Peninsula, at least since the end of the Cold War, had been an issue on which Russia and the United States took differing approaches, but on which they fundamentally held the same vision: a denuclearized North Korea. Nevertheless, cooperation between Moscow and Washington in resolving this broader multilateral issue is now much more difficult than ever.
Furthermore, Northeast Asia could hardly be considered more stable than other regions geopolitically affected by Russia-U.S. enmity; in Northeast Asia several powerful, nuclear-capable states converge. The much-touted Sino-Russian rapprochement should not be blown out of proportion. Yet in the case of THAAD, there is a very clear and specific threat on which China and Russia agree. Thus, China-Russia cooperation in countering THAAD will likely be a lot easier for the two sides, given the common threat they share.
Thus, the relatively limited geographic scope of the issue of Russia's security interests in Northeast Asia do not in any way minimize the severity of this most recent aspect of the declining Russia-U.S. relationship. In fact, aside from the risks of nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO that arose at the outset of the 2014 Crimea crisis, the current missile defense standoff in Northeast Asia comprises possibly the worst aspect of the ongoing saga of Moscow-Washington tensions. It is, to be sure, one that most certainly does not lend itself to easy resolution.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.