THAAD and the Great Power Context: Russia’s Regional Interests in Korea

By | January 01, 2017 | No Comments

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-il at the turn of the 21st century, when the two leaders paid reciprocal visits to Moscow and Pyongyang over a two-year period. | Image: Wikicommons

In a December 18 interview on the US network CBS, veteran US foreign policy strategist Henry Kissinger described Vladimir Putin with a wry smile as “a character out of Dostoyevsky.” The Russian leader is a man, Kissinger went on to explain, “with a great sense of inward connection to Russian history” and “a cold calculator of the Russian national interest as he conceives it.” 

With his astute focus on Putin’s personal appreciation of Russian nationalism and identity vis-à-vis the “loss of about 300 years of [Russian] history” due to the collapse of communism, Kissinger did an infinitely better job than most of illuminating what makes modern Russia tick. Taking similarly nuanced cues in a new piece for Sino-NK, Anthony Rinna analyzes the THAAD question from the Russian perspective. As we enter 2017, Rinna seeks to elucidate the Putin government’s opposition to THAAD deployment in the context of overlapping and occasionally contradictory global and regional aspirations. — Christopher Green, Co-editor 

THAAD and the Great Power Context: Russia’s Regional Interests in Korea

by Anthony Rinna

Recent security developments on the Korean peninsula underscore the point that, per Parag Khanna, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Great power aspirations and regional interests have begun to overlap in East Asia once again, this time under different circumstances to those of the past. Where once Moscow sought influence over Korea to stem the threat from Japanese imperial expansion,1)A desire that led to defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. today’s diplomatic standoff over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) has opened a new chapter in the old saga of great powers and the eternal quest for security. Tensions no longer stem from a zero-sum competition for influence in Northeast Asia; instead, Russia and the United States harbor conflicting security interests on the Korean peninsula and in the wider region.

A cartoon by Bob Satterfield dating to 1904 warning other major powers not to become embroiled in the Russo-Japanese War. As then, today Russia’s interests in Korea risk being conflated with its conflicting interests vis-a-vis other global powers. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is all too easy to view Russian opposition to THAAD as an extension of efforts to undermine the articulation of American power, but closer inspection of the complex regional reality reveals a different situation. The United States’ primary interest, even obligation, is of course the defense of the Republic of Korea. Russia has no such obligation, nor it is necessarily in Moscow’s interest to expend lives and money defending former Soviet allies in Pyongyang. But Russia does greatly fear open conflict on the peninsula, and is adamant that the status quo — suppression of open hostilities — be maintained.

Russia: Aspirations for Global and Asian Greatness | Russia’s broad foreign policy goal of transforming what was once a post-Soviet rump state into a global power is well known. President Vladimir Putin’s famous assertion that the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” gives voice to the wounded pride of many Russians. His words do not, to be sure, represent a desire to return to the ideological dominance of Soviet Communism. Rather, they speak to the fact that even though the Cold War was at its core an ideological confrontation, there was always an underpinning of Russian nationalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented an embarrassing for Russia: from the status of global superpower to mere state with regional influence.

Concurrent with Russia’s aspirations to solidify global power status is the desire to reestablish itself as an Asian power. The question of whether Russia is a European or Asian power has been around for centuries, to the vexation of indigenous Russian and non-Russian thinkers alike. Questions about the fundamental nature of Russian identity underscore the contemporary question post-Soviet Russia faces; whether or not to tilt toward the West. Today, the question of Russian identity is more political than cultural, but nevertheless Russia continues to grapple with the long-standing question of East vs. West. Politically speaking, at least, Russia has responded to the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region with a self-declared “pivot to the East”.

Moscow’s actions and interests will almost inevitably be viewed in the context of relations with the United States, which remains the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific as elsewhere. And certainly, Russia often falls prey to the narrative of great power politics and the struggle with the United States for global esteem and respect, if not actual hard power. However, to properly understand THAAD and its implications for regional security, it is constructive to view the missile defense system in the much more limited scope of Northeast Asian, not global, security.

Russia and Northeast Asia Regional Security | The “regional security” facet of the English School of International Relations is a useful tool for understanding how THAAD factors into regional security dynamics. Barry Buzan of LSE describes regional security in terms of countries belonging to one or more “regional security complexes,” within which countries are clustered regionally and all are affected by common security concerns.2)Marianne Stone, “Security according to Buzan: A comprehensive security analysis,” Security discussion papers series1 (2009): 1-11. Countries are not restricted by their geography to only one regional security complex, particularly if a country has broad geographic scope and the ability to project power and influence beyond its immediate periphery. Conversely, simply sharing a geographic border with another region is not sufficient to be recognized as a power in the region in question. Buzan remains skeptical of Russia’s ability to become a true Asian power. Moscow works within the limits of its actual power in the region, and this is heavily circumscribed not only by China and the US, but also by years of relative Russian neglect of East Asia following the fall of the USSR.3)Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge University Press: 2004), 164-165.

A US Army THAAD missile interceptor being tested. THAAD was initially developed as a response to Scud missiles | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Buzan’s analysis primarily concerns a given country’s ability to project power and influence in the security dynamics of a specific region. Yet while Russia’s ability to exercise influence in the Northeast Asian security architecture is surely limited, its geographic reach into Northeast Asia means that it is inevitably affected by regional security developments. Russia faces the unenviable position of being a powerful country but one with little real influence in a region of major importance. THAAD demonstrates how security issues and great power convergence on the Korean peninsula affect Russia in a way that that is unique. In other regions on Moscow’s periphery, it enjoys far greater influence.

The core purpose of THAAD, at least per statements of the US government, is not to assert US prowess against other powers, meaning China and Russia, but rather to contain the regional threat posed by North Korea. As North Korea’s conventional armed forces continue to stagnate compared with their technologically advanced American and South Korean equivalents, Pyongyang now places the emphasis on its missile capabilities. Russia staunchly opposes THAAD deployment regardless.

In July 2016, the Russian Ministry of Defense condemned Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD on the Korean peninsula, calling it a “miscalculation” that would not benefit regional security. The defense ministry also stated that Russian defense officials would begin taking THAAD into consideration in their own strategic planning. The range of THAAD remains classified, but estimates put it at about 200 kilometers (125 miles). The distance between Vladivostok, Russia and Seongju, South Korea (where the THAAD system is due to be deployed to provide defense for rear-deployed US forces on the peninsula) is 865 kilometers (538 miles). This considerable discrepancy raises the question of what Russia’s bone of contention with the US over THAAD actually is.

THAAD missiles are not capable of attacking Russian sovereign territory directly. However, the system’s all-important radar tracking system is, according to estimates, capable of detecting threats from up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away, which could potentially undercut Russia’s own deterrent capabilities in the Russian Far East. Nevertheless, given the THAAD system’s inability to directly attack the Russian homeland, the biggest source of Russian disquiet must be the potential consequences it could have for overall regional stability. The Russian Federation has not shied away from condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests and South Korea-US joint defense exercises in recent years, asserting that both activities ratchet up regional tensions unnecessarily. THAAD deployment to Korea, Russia fears, could heighten the risk of inter-Korean conflict, which would have spillover implications for Russia.

Nevertheless, the Russian government’s argument that THAAD poses a threat to regional strategic stability comes with the caveat that Russia’s own defense developments in Northeast Asia may also exacerbate tensions. The Russian defense ministry resolved in 2015, while THAAD deployment to Korea was still under discussion, to deploy extra batteries of C-400 missiles to the Russian Far East. C-400 is a multi-layered defense system capable of neutralizing a plethora of airborne enemy objects, ranging from aircraft to ballistic missiles. As Keir Giles argues, there is little credibility in Russian protestations at US missile deployments when Russia has also undertaken deployments that could cause disruption to strategic stability, the same issue of which Russia is allegedly fearful.

Conclusion | It is tempting to view Russia’s opposition to THAAD as an extension of Russia-US geopolitical tensions along the Russian periphery, the like of which we have already seen across Eurasia and in the Middle East. However, THAAD and its attendant political implications differ from other facets of Russia-US tensions. Given the missile defense system’s well documented capabilities and limitations, it seems clear that the US defense establishment is not attempting to conceal the goal of deterring Russia behind a cloak of protecting South Korea. While American defense planners undoubtedly did consider the Russian response when they pondered deploying THAAD to Korea, that response was not at the forefront of the Pentagon’s strategic thinking.

Moscow fears the consequences of growing American power in Northeast Asia. Yet its reasons for fearing augmented US capabilities are fundamentally different from its reasons for opposing US power in other areas. Russia feels encircled by NATO and the West in places like the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, to the point that it fears the establishment of pro-Western and subsequently anti-Russian governments on the Russian border. In the case of the Russian Far East, Russia fears increased US power not as a direct affront to Russian security per se; what it fears is that the exercise of American power could exacerbate or even ignite regional tensions, in particular on the Korean Peninsula. Any armed conflict in Northeast Asia poses a direct threat to the Russian homeland, not to mention a source of grave economic risk at a time when Russia is attempting to solidify commercial relationships with the region’s big economies.

   [ + ]

1. A desire that led to defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
2. Marianne Stone, “Security according to Buzan: A comprehensive security analysis,” Security discussion papers series1 (2009): 1-11.
3. Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge University Press: 2004), 164-165.