Central Asia

Russia left out in the cold
By Pavel Ivanov 
   It's all up to the US, says North Korea

This week the Kremlin has started experiencing some serious and most unwelcome consequences of being the "informal" leader of the anti-Iraq war coalition and having convened a "summit of losers" (Russia, France and Germany) in St Petersburg on April 11-12. First, Washington quite clearly hinted that it might no longer consider Russia as a member of the so-called G8 club; then Russia found itself tossed overboard from the now trilateral negotiations on the North Korea nuclear issue to be launched in Beijing on April 23.

The latter, as well-informed sources in Moscow report, was considered by the Russian ruling elite as a painful slap in the face. First of all, Moscow believed that as one of the best foreign buddies of North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, Russia could count on an honorable place at the negotiating table if Pyongyang finally agreed to multilateral consultations. Moreover, it was keen on playing a leading role in future wider multilateral negotiations focusing on regional and global security concerns over North Korea's violations of the non-proliferation regime, and involving not just China, Russia and Japan, but probably even Australia and the European Union.

Well, Kim Jong-il finally has changed his stance on the framework for consultations, but Russia is out in the cold. Kim realized that there was no way to force the United States to talk to him tete-a-tete about a non-aggression pact; also, as knowledgeable people in Pyongyang are whispering, he was very much impressed by the success and especially the swiftness of the US military operation in Iraq. So, as a compromise, he decided that "trilateral" is almost the same as "bilateral" and agreed to Beijing's participation. But he completely forgot about his Russian friend, President Vladimir Putin. Diplomatic cunning and real-power calculations easily got the upper hand over the pleasant recollections of travelling by special train on the trans-Siberian railroad through Russia and receiving purebred horses as little friendly souvenirs.

Easily as unpleasant a surprise for Putin is the fact that the White House also changed its position and - instead of insisting on not just China, but also Japan, Russia and South Korea at the table - quickly agreed to hold "multilateral talks", but at this stage only with the participation of China.

Unlike the contemporary "Kremlin dreamers" who sit around waiting for someone to come along and finance their Utopian plans to unite the Korean peninsula by building a trans-Korean railroad connected to the trans-Siberian line and modernization of North Korean industries created with assistance of the former Soviet Union, the Americans are realists and pragmatists.

The Bush administration knows very well that because of its economic, military and political might at present, China is the only important independent political player in the Pacific. China is also the only country in the world that renders real economic assistance to the Pyongyang regime and, besides, has a military treaty with North Korea.

Perhaps, if this new negotiation situation had come about before the Iraq crisis, President George W Bush would have used his clout and influence and wangled an invitation for his friend Vladimir, elevating Russia's status to that of the great Pacific and Asian power it aspires to be. But now, when just two weeks ago Moscow was accusing the US of destabilizing the entire world situation with its Iraq campaign, why bother? The clear signal from Washington and humiliating message to the Russian leadership is that from now on Washington will deal only with real political players, not has-beens or wannabes.

The blow delivered by Beijing to the Kremlin's self-esteem is equally serious. How could a partner, a friend with whom an essential part of the current Russian political leadership was ready to create a new military-political strategic axis, behave like this? According to reliable information from multiple sources in Tokyo and Seoul, in exchange for its help in setting up a dialogue with Pyongyang, China demanded that Russia, Japan and South Korea be removed from the framework of consultations - and Washington quickly and readily accepted. Unbelievably, the present Russian leaders have still not realized that the last thing China traditionally or at this point wants is to see active Russian participation in real decision-making in Asia. Or, for that matter, that China even less wants to see Japan play a larger political role in the region. Surprise, surprise!

Unlike Russia, Japan and South Korea - after some hemming and hawing - have accepted the now-decided framework of the North Korea consultations without great reservations. They do not have Russian-style political ambitions and great-power dreams, but are seriously concerned about settling the nuclear standoff situation on the Korean peninsula by peaceful means and avoiding even the slightest possibility of military confrontation in the Far East.

As for Russia, it seems that Moscow has overplayed its hand, and now it is paying the price.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Apr 19, 2003

Uncertainties loom over North Korea talks (Apr 18, '03)

What China should do about North Korea (Apr 18, '03)

What, no Evian for Putin at G8's table? (Apr 18, '03)


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