Russia’s hawkish response to North Korean belligerence appears to have at least temporarily halted the trajectory towards more favorable Russia-DPRK relations, cemented by joint military drills, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first-ever visit to the DPRK, and the declaration of a year of friendship between the two countries. Russia’s transformed North Korea policy in light of the hydrogen bomb crisis can be explained by two main factors. First, Russia wants to thaw relations with Japan to dilute its increased economic dependence on China. Second, Russia believes a mediation role in the Korean peninsula would greatly bolster its international status.
Over the past year, we’ve seen Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe look to strengthen relations with Moscow. He’s pushed to solve the longstanding Kuril islands dispute (which dates back to the end of World War II), and last week, he expressed hope that the G7 might one day bring Russia back into the fold.
A Japan–Russia collaboration may make a lot of sense for both parties. Russia needs as many buyers for its oil as possible, and although it has increased exports to China lately, it doesn’t want to be completely tied to Beijing. This is a particularly important concern for Moscow given the EU’s efforts to find replacements for Gazprom. For Abe, anyone who might be worried about China is a potential partner. And, as we wrote earlier today, Moscow has good reason to be concerned about China’s encroachment into Russia’s backyard in Central Asia.
Although it is a major threat to Washington’s friends in Europe, that is, Moscow may turn out to be a good partner for America’s friends in the East.