THAAD and the Great Power Context III: The Quiet Exception in Russian Geopolitics

By | April 18, 2017 | No Comments

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with former president Kim Dae-jung in 2001. Under Putin, Russia’s ties with South Korea have developed steadily irrespective of the political orientation of the four South Korean presidents that he has seen come and go. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst Russian involvement in security challenges in Syria and eastern Ukraine, THAAD is among Moscow’s major security concerns in Northeast Asia. A recent pronouncement from the Russian ambassador in Seoul that Russia will take whatever steps are needed to ensure its security in the case of THAAD deployment on the peninsula only underscores this concern, not least as the security situation grows more uncertain with North Korea’s steady tempo of missile tests in 2016-17.

Continuing with his analysis of Russia’s position on THAAD from the perspective of regional security, Anthony Rinna seeks to extrapolate some of the economic and geopolitical issues lying behind the THAAD factor in Russia-South Korea bilateral relations. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the Republic of Korea’s alliance with the US does not seem to be the most important component of the THAAD question. The South Korea case offers a unique opportunity to look beyond great power politics and reveal some details about the nature of Russia’s geopolitical position in Northeast Asia.- Christopher Green, Co-editor

THAAD and the Great Power Context III: The Quiet Exception in Russian Geopolitics

by Anthony Rinna

Russia approaches China and the United States essentially as great power peers in Northeast Asia, even though the status of China and Russia is itself open to debate. Russia, though long appearing to be a rump state of the former Soviet empire, has always had the ability to influence the security dynamics of countries on its periphery. This influence has manifested in a range of actions, from direct military intervention to spearheading multi-state regional security integration. Through close observation of Russia’s relationship with South Korea, we can glean interesting insights into Russia’s geopolitical stance regarding Northeast Asia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin on a state visit to South Korea, meeting then-President Park Geun-hye | Image: CCTV

Russia and South Korea: Asymmetric but Not Hierarchical | Russia seeks to influence the security dynamics of states on or near its periphery, and South Korea is no exception insofar as Russia has declared that it will take whatever steps are necessary to counteract the impact of THAAD deployment. Yet the implications of this for the Republic of Korea-Russian Federation bilateral relationship are unclear. There is obliqueness in the security aspect since, unlike Russia’s direct dealings with China and the US, THAAD constitutes a sideshow in ROK-Russia ties. Russia is not responding to a direct threat to its national security, much less one deliberately posed by South Korea. South Korea is the medium through which the US plans to install a defense apparatus that the Russians consider detrimental to their security.

Thus far, the general chorus from countries opposed to THAAD has been that the needs of South Korea’s defense constitutes a mere pretext for a wide-ranging assertion of US power and offensive capability in Northeast Asia. China and Russia have been the most vocal, although a press release from the North Korean embassy in Russia echoed the Chinese and Russian assertion that the stated purpose of THAAD, namely defending South Korea, is actually a pretext for deterring China and Russia.

Nevertheless, it appears that South Korea doesn’t fall completely within the range of Russian ire. Indeed, it seems that many Russians consider a security partnership with South Korea to still be a possibility. Russian analyst Vladimir Evseev proposes either the creation of a regional security apparatus involving China, Russia and South Korea, or inducing North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks (the latter has long been a goal in Russian foreign policy). Evseev believes that the two variables necessary for the reduction of tensions in Korea are for North Korea to adhere to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a reduction in US nuclear operability, such as forbidding USAF nuclear-capable bombers from using South Korean land and airspace.

In spite of the South Korean alliance with the US and a vast American military presence on sovereign Korean territory, Russians apparently don’t consider South Korea to be anti-Russian. All the more so since South Korea is rife with domestic opposition to the missile defense system. A South Korean civic organization has, Russian media notes, called THAAD deployment a setback for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and has even gone as far as to state that it will lead to a new Cold War. Others have called Seoul’s decision to allow THAAD deployment an attack against the Korean people. Of course, popular opposition to THAAD does not by any means constitute an implicit or explicit love of Russia; however, it demonstrates a critical area of regional security on which many Russians and South Koreans see common ground.

Economic Ties: The Potential Casualty | China is at the forefront of great power opposition to THAAD, probably in large part due to Beijing’s influential positions in Korea. South Korea has fallen out with China over the issue, and there are Chinese boycotts of South Korean products ongoing. The dent in China-South Korea economic ties underscores a quandary Russia also faces in its relations with the ROK over THAAD: how to develop economic ties with South Korea while not letting them be undermined by the installation of a US missile defense system.

According to Anastasiya Barannikova, China is more directly threatened by THAAD than Russia, but Russia is willing to support China diplomatically because THAAD will, in Russia’s view, lead to a state of strategic missile “disbalance.” However, Georgy Toloraya asserts that trade relations between the two countries have suffered, despite the fact that South Korea did not join international sanctions against Russia in response to the 2014 crisis in Crimea. According to Toloraya, Seoul’s decision to allow the US to deploy THAAD constitutes evidence that South Korea remains on a pro-US track, which adds to the risk of Northeast Asia dividing into two blocs: a China-North Korea-Russia grouping vs. a Japan-South Korea-USA division.1)Although Russia’s attempts at cooperation with Japan undermine this assertion to a degree.

South Korea, with one of the most prosperous economies in the world, is an important yet underdeveloped source of investment for Russia’s Far Eastern regions. Its importance lies not only in its investment potential but also the fact that it is symbolic of Russia’s ability to diversity its Asian economic partnerships away from China and Japan. South Korea’s geographic proximity to the Russian port of Vladivostok only enhances its importance. As such, when one looks beyond the basic military and strategic implications of THAAD for the Russian homeland, THAAD is more likely to constitute a regional non-traditional security threat in the form of lost opportunities for economic development in the Russian Far East.

Korea: The Exception in Russian Geopolitics | Aside from the economic variable in Russia-South Korea ties with regards to THAAD, there is an oft-overlooked geopolitical facet as well. Russia’s opposition to THAAD, whether because of an ostensible direct threat to the Russian homeland or due to potential instability on the Korean Peninsula, demonstrates that Russia has geopolitical concerns regarding the position of the US in Northeast Asia, albeit concerns that differ from those in other regions of the Russian periphery. A major cornerstone of Russian foreign policy is a buffer zone of more-or-less loyal states to protect Russia from American and European (particularly NATO) power. Russia’s action in Ukraine from 2014 as well as the 2008 war in Georgia encapsulate Russian concerns regarding the presence of pro-American states on its periphery.

Much like Russia, South Korean opponents of THAAD see its deployment as a fundamentally American decision. | Image: Tony Rinna

Yet unlike these situations, Russia’s main fear is not, at this point in time at least, the presence of a pro-US Korea on its southern Pacific flank, but rather a flare up of instability and violence in Korea. This is interesting, because Russia has obviously not been afraid of, and has even directly engaged in armed activities on and near its borders in order to advance its political goals. It has done so even at the risk of provoking NATO or the United States.

Russia’s position toward Northeast Asia further supports the notion that Russian foreign policy is in many ways regionally subjective, and that its Pacific region deserves separate analysis from other areas of Russian foreign policy involvement. The fact that Russia does not fear the possibility of confrontation with a nuclear-capable NATO buttressed by the superpower United States makes it less likely that Russia fears confrontation with the US or the involvement of China.

Conclusion | The most likely reason why Russia fears instability in Northeast Asia is, therefore, because it has less influence over the state of affairs of the region, one in which Russia’s most underdeveloped and economically sensitive areas is located. As Buzan argues in his writings on Regional Security Complex Theory, Russia is not, strictly speaking, a member of the Northeast Asia regional security sub-complex, but rather a geographically adjacent power by default, as well as a penetrator state by way of heavy Soviet involvement in regional security dynamics, a state of affairs that has arguably continued in Russia’s current conception as the Russian Federation.2)Buzan, B. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

To argue that Russia doesn’t have a stake in Northeast Asian security because it is not a member of the corresponding regional security sub-complex is completely absurd, yet its own relative vulnerability relative to the Korean Peninsula demonstrates the limits of its status as a penetrator rather than full member of the regional sub-complex. Russia’s own economic imperatives are likely to be the most important factor in Russia-South Korea relations for the time being. THAAD will continue to be a major test for the resilience of Russia-South Korea relations, but at this time a major downturn in bilateral ties does not seem to be on the cards.

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1. Although Russia’s attempts at cooperation with Japan undermine this assertion to a degree.
2. Buzan, B. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003