At the end of 2017, one of the Russian research centers that regularly supply state institutions with recommendations sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Kremlin a set of proposals aimed at reviving relations with the US, a reliable diplomatic source told me.
The proposals included intensifying dialogue on Ukraine and initiating contact to agree on mutual guarantees against cyberattacks, as well as helping Donald Trump in his outreach to North Korea. The experts argued that the US president, who is constantly criticized for everything he does, would be grateful for any support that would enable him to achieve at least some success in the international arena. And, because decreasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula is fully compatible with Russia's long-term interests, why not try this out?
The reaction of the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry is best summed up by rephrasing an old Billy Joel song: "Russia Didn't Start the Fire" (i.e., Cold War II) — so it should not be the one to offer concessions to the Americans first.
Since then, Trump has achieved some progress in dealing with the North Korean regime. And, although the fate of his planned summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un is still up in the air, it is already clear that the United States has managed to find the right combination of carrots and sticks to succeed in pushing the dictatorship to formally end the state of war with South Korea and agree to negotiate on the main issue: denuclearization.
And it is now that Moscow has finally decided to join the game. Unsurprisingly, on the side of Pyongyang.
'New Cold War'
After Lavrov's trip to Pyongyang last week (pictured), it seems that the Kremlin will try to complicate the US's North Korea policy as much as possible — or even derail it. Lavrov handed Kim a message from Vladimir Putin and agreed that the Russian president would meet the North Korean leader before the end of the year. Judging by reports from the meeting, the main advice that Moscow gave the Kim regime is quite simple: Do not make any unilateral concessions on scrapping your nuclear and ballistic missile programs until the Trump administration starts lifting sanctions on North Korea.
This, of course, directly contradicts what Washington insists on in its contacts with Pyongyang: North Korea must show serious and verifiable evidence of disarmament before getting gradual sanctions relief, aid, investment and finally international acceptance.
It is interesting that Moscow is trying to spoil the US's party by playing the game that it has played over past decades. It offers the North Korean dictatorship the same dish that it served Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Viktor Yanukovych before and Bashar Assad today. It is well summarized in one sentence: Regime change will not be permitted.
The Kremlin's obsession with the United States and Washington's inherent hostility to dictatorships has been progressively worsening ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. After the tumultuous events of the past few years, Putin and his circle firmly believe that the only way to prevent regime change in Russia is to counter every US policy every step of the way. This will make the US respect the Kremlin's red lines, especially in the post-Soviet space, and ultimately make peace with it.
There is not much evidence that this policy was or is particularly successful. Saddam was hanged in Baghdad, Milosevic died while on trial in The Hague, and the fugitive Viktor Yanukovych (the happiest of all) is spending his stolen billions in Moscow restaurants. Assad looks like the only lucky one — so far. But still the Kremlin pursues the same policy as it has no alternative. Putin accepted the "New Cold War" as reality and is acting accordingly. Moreover, he uses it to suppress opposition at home and mobilize public opinion to stand up to "Western aggression" with some success.
The Kremlin finally figured out that Trump's "America First" slogan — as understood by the president himself, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — means nothing but trouble for Russia. Lavrov's trip to Pyongyang has set a new stage in the ongoing conflict with the United States. Moscow's calculation is to prod North Korea to stand up to the US for as long as possible. And although Russia, unlike the US, China and South Korea, has few levers of influence on North Korea, it still possesses enough clout to make matters difficult for Trump.
This policy is also in the interest of Moscow's designated "strategic partner": China, which does not want to lose Pyongyang's regime as a useful tool of controlled tension in Northeast Asia. But, while China's relationship with the United States is very complex, especially in view of the two countries' mutual economic dependence, Russia's is not. That is why it can taunt the White House and try to spoil Trump's (tentative) Korea triumph.