After Russia announced on Wednesday that North Korea's latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch constituted a "provocative act" while also calling on all sides to "stay calm", major Russian military maneuvers have been reported today along Russia's tiny stretch of border with North Korea.
According to an alarming report detailing the new Russian military build-up in Newsweek:
Russian marines have practiced landing operations at its border with North Korea, following Pyongyang’s controversial missile launch test this week, the military said. Russian naval infantry servicemen and the crews of Russia’s Pacific Fleet ships Admiral Nevelskoy and Peresvet, carried out a swift, amphibious charge on a beachhead in the Primorye region, Russia’s only one to border North Korea.
The cargo and staff boarded Admiral Nevelskoy at Desantnaya Bay and simulated the landing at the Klerk training range, both of which are in Primorye, Pacific Fleet spokesman Nikolay Voskresenskiy told state-run news agency RIA Novosti. Peresvet made its pickup elsewhere but also arrived in the area near Klerk.
Though this is not the first time such Russian military drills have taken place (similar fears over a US-North Korea war led to Russian troop deployment near the border last April), it is certainly a sign that Russia desires to back its diplomacy with muscle in a direct signalling to Pyongyang. The Russian-North Korean border (by the standards of the official Russian definition) consists of 17 kilometers of "terrestrial border" and 22.1 km of "maritime border" - and is the shortest of the international borders of Russia.
Meanwhile, TASS reports that a delegation of Russian lawmakers currently visiting the North Korean capital is seeking to meet with officials there in order to deliver an official Russian message of condemnation over the latest missile test. According to TASS:
"A delegation of the State Duma [the lower chamber of the Russian parliament - TASS], led by Kazbek Taisayev, is currently in Pyongyang under the ‘Group of Friendship’ program with the North Korean parliament. So far, we were unable to establish any contact with them. But I’m sure that our lawmakers will deliver Russia’s stance during meetings and negotiations with representatives of the North Korean leadership," Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, told TASS on Tuesday.
Russian military forces in the country's Primorye and the far eastern Kamchatka regions are engaged in a series of war games and training exercises which involve about 1,000 soldiers, paratroopers, and over 150 pieces of military hardware and transport vehicles, and which will also reportedly involve live fire exercises. The drills were announced separately from previously planned war games, which is a clear indicator that they are in response to the escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the US over recent missile launches.
As Newsweek explains, Russia is deeply troubled by the North Korean program yet also points the finger at a US policy in the region which Russia claims is overly aggressive and designed to put the Pyongyang government on the defensive:
Moscow opposes North Korea’s nuclear program on principle and protested the regime’s latest missile launch. However, Russia has insisted that the U.S. must shoulder part of the blame for stirring the North Korean regime into a frenzy and “provoking” further tests with its ongoing defense commitments to nearby Japan and South Korea.
Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the long standing Russian position on Thursday, saying that US military drills near the Korean peninsula “consciously directed at provoking Pyongyang to some new snap actions,” according to Interfax news agency.
North Korea alarmed the international community on Tuesday when, after a two-month lull, it fired a Hwasong-15 ICBM into the waters west of Japan. State media touted the launch as its most powerful missile yet. Judging by the missile’s peak height reached during its flight, experts say the North now has the capacity to strike nearly any location in the Continental US. The North's state media released dozens of photos and a video after Wednesday’s launch of the new Hwasong-15 missile, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has urged countries to cut trade ties with North Korea over the latest tests, something which Russia has refused to do, though India cut ties in 2015, which was a significant blow to the North's economy as India was its second largest trading partner.
But FM Lavrov pushed back against US pressure and threats of military and economic warfare, telling a security summit meeting in Belarus on Thursday, "We have the impression that all of this is done specially so that Kim Jong Un will go off the rails and take yet another reckless step."
Lavrov then cautioned: "It’s sad. If they want to find a pretext for the destruction of North Korea, as the U.S. representative stated in the U.N., let them say that straight. Then we will take a decision on how to react to that."
Following Tuesday's launch, Trump promised new sanctions in a tweet, saying that after a phone call with China’s leader Xi Jingping about "the provocative actions" of North Korea, he would impose "additional major sanctions" and that "this situation will be handled!" Though Kim Jong Un has appeared unbowed in the face of US sanctions and regional allied military war games, it remains to be seen what the potential for increased Russian pressure and diplomacy might do.