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As Singapore summit nears, Russia worries Trump and Kim won't cut a deal

As the Trump-Kim summit nears, little attention has been given to how the Kremlin views the situation. But Russia has a great deal at stake, as both a neighbor and a patron of North Korea.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this handout picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), on May 31, 2018.

KCNA/Reuters

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As President Trump’s on-again-off-again summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore draws closer, the Russians are becoming increasingly worried.

What scares them, experts here say, is not the possibility that Mr. Trump will make a deal with Mr. Kim – but the likelihood that he won’t.

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Indeed, Moscow appeared more at ease a few months ago, when Trump and Kim were exchanging purple insults and apocalyptic threats. Analysts here say they believe a deal on gradual North Korean denuclearization is possible, but the Singapore meeting can only open the door to what will surely be a long and arduous negotiation, one that will require a great deal of give and take on both sides.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a rare visit to Pyongyang to talk with Kim last week in a clear effort to highlight Russian concerns to the world. The Kremlin fears a possible agreement could be torpedoed by some combination of Trump’s all-or-nothing deal-making approach, toxic Washington politics where Senate Democrats are threatening to sabotage any imperfect deal, and Kim’s own abiding suspicions of US intentions.

Failure at this point, analysts say, could bring the two sides to the brink of real war more surely than if no peace attempt had been made.

“Trump is unpredictable, Kim is unpredictable, yet huge expectations have been invested in this summit,” says Vladimir Kolotov, a Far East expert at St. Petersburg State University. “The security situation can fly out of control, virtually in a moment. If this meeting fails, the region and, indeed, the whole world will suddenly become a much more dangerous place.”

A summit with Russian stakes

Russia, which shares a short border with North Korea, has long had a minor client-state relationship with the reclusive Stalinist nation. The Soviet Union put Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in charge after World War II, and provided him with arms, pilots, and military advisers to fight the US and its allies in the Korean War in the early 1950s. But Pyongyang’s main patron remains China, to whom Russia largely defers in matters relating to North Korea.

But should peace break out on the Korean Peninsula, Russia stands to gain enormously.

Teams of experts in Moscow have developed plans to extend the Trans-Siberian Railway through North Korea to Seoul, thus creating a direct rail link between the Far East and Europe. Similar ideas for a trans-Korean gas pipeline and a Far Eastern electricity grid have been stalled for decades by the lack of reliable stability in the region. Russia’s own Pacific outpost and gateway to Siberia, Vladivostok, has languished since the Soviet collapse despite its extraordinary location at the crossroads of the Far East, but could be energized by a durable Korean peace deal.

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“Russia wants to integrate into the wider region, but the absence of peaceful coexistence between North and South Korea is one of the big obstacles,” says Alexander Zhebin, director of the Center for Korean Studies at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies. “So, we have a lot of interest in seeing a peaceful resolution in Korea, but also a lot to lose if it all goes bad.”

One of the things that increasingly discombobulates the Russians is the lack of any constructive dialogue with their American counterparts, despite the fact that denuclearizing North Korea is one issue where they are mostly on the same page. And trying to read the intentions of the Trump White House has become an exercise for Russian foreign-policy experts that makes old-fashioned Kremlinology look like an exact science by comparison.

A good example of what has Russian experts scratching their heads is Trump’s reaction to Mr. Lavrov’s meeting with Kim in Pyongyang. According to the White House transcript, Trump answered a question about Lavrov’s visit by saying: “I didn’t like the Russian meeting yesterday. I said, ‘What’s the purpose of that?’ But, it could be a positive meeting. If it’s a positive meeting, I love it. If it’s a negative meeting, I’m not happy. And it could very well be a positive meeting.”

'Little more than helpless witnesses'

Experts say the outlines of a workable deal are lying on the table, ready to be grasped if the two sides are willing.

The main reason North Korea’s nuclear capability has become a critical issue for Washington is that it has recently demonstrated a potential capability to strike the continental US with a nuclear-tipped missile.

“That may be the best place to start, with a moratorium on testing ICBMs rather than with the actual nuclear warheads,” says Mr. Zhebin. Pyongyang might also agree to a full halt to nuclear testing, which would freeze its capabilities in place.

“That’s not a full resolution by any means, but it would be a very good start,” says Zhebin. “Starting with the missile problem would take the urgency out of the situation, and it would be much easier to verify than going after all the nuclear activities. So would a test ban.

“But we’re talking about a long process in which the North Koreans will have to see that the US abides by its side of the deal,” which might include sanctions relief, security guarantees, and perhaps economic aid. Washington would also have to stand back and accept the outcome of any long-term political agreements between North and South Korea.

“We're living in a world where the North Koreans have watched the US intervene in countries that couldn’t defend themselves, like Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya. The US has just pulled out of a perfectly good deal it had made with Iran. Kim isn’t going to unsee all that. His suspicions will only be overcome if the US proves over time that it has no political motives that it is pursuing under the guise of nuclear talks,” Zhebin adds.

Aside from posing as an adult in the room, a role Lavrov played to the hilt in Pyongyang last week, Russia has few ways to influence the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit or whatever follows it.

“Russia can’t give security guarantees to North Korea, and we have no influence over the US,” says Mr. Kolotov. “We're little more than helpless witnesses, with a front-row seat. The biggest problem we see right now is the extreme unpredictability of the US. If they want to attack North Korea, they will, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”