Russian lawmaker and former deputy defense minister Andrei Kokoshin discusses North Korea and Georgia in his interview with National Interest online editor Ximena Ortiz. His statements on the North Korean nuclear test reveal the differences of U.S.-Russian perception, while his statements on Georgia demonstrate the precariousness of that conflict.
Russia Points to America
Q: A variety of foreign policy experts in the United States see both Russia and China as the key to furthering the U.S. agenda regarding North Korea, applying, for example, multilateral sanctions. You certainly have a lot of neoconservatives pointing towards Russia and China, and then you have people like Thomas Friedman, who has certainly broken ranks with the administration on some issues. So you have this wide ideological spectrum pointing towards Russia. And there's a lot of curiosity of what Russia's perception is regarding North Korea as a confirmed nuclear power. What exactly is the Russian perspective? What should we do about North Korea now in wake of the test?
AK: First of all, the position of Russia and the People's Republic of China on this issue is very much the same as the position of the United States, Japan and South Korea. And Russia always was insisting on serious negotiations with the North Koreans. But the question is that the North Koreans are eager to have direct negotiations with the United States, as they had in the ‘90s. Actually, I think those were the successful missions, at least we didn't have such a failure in North Korean leadership as we have seen in recent years, when we haven't had these direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea. That's why I think that we should pursue the policy of dealing with North Korea on the nuclear issue both on a multilateral and also bilateral basis-direct efforts by the United States to cope with this diplomatically with this issue.
Q: That's interesting, because here you have many policy experts pointing at Russia and China and saying, they need to do this and that, and you are describing a strong Russian sense that the United States needs to become more involved, more adept at bilateral negotiations.
AK: I'm not saying who should do more. All of us should do a lot, and maybe more. But we should take into account the behaviour and position of the other side. We should take into account the desire of North Koreans to have direct talks and some security guarantees from the United States. And one should not forget also that the United States has allied relations with the Republic of Korea and Japan, and according to existing treaties , the United States is a provider of some security guarantees, both for Japan and for South Korea.
Q: There is a lot of emphasis here, professor, on sanctions, and I'm sure you've heard a lot about that during your stay in Washington. What is Russia's specific perspective on sanctions on North Korea-on multilateral sanctions?
AK: I think it's quite possible that all these five parties involved in the issue will agree on some kind of sanctions, that probably there will be also some disagreement on some kinds of sanctions that we heard from, for example, Beijing. I think that there is a principal consensus among these five powers, plus other members of the international community that it is not in our interest to have more nuclear powers in this area. That's why I think there's very important ground for our mutual understanding and joint actions in this area.
Q: In terms of joint action, what specifically could that be in terms of sanctions?
AK: That's an object for serious and intensive negotiations. Just recently Russian president Vladimir Putin had a very constructive telephone conversation with President Bush, so I hope that we will come to some kind of joint position before the issue is discussed at the Security Council.
A Nuclear Enigma?
Q: It's more difficult to denuclearize a country than to prevent it from going nuclear-so are we now confronting a more considerable challenge in denuclearizing North Korea?
AK: According to what I read, there are different opinions and different assessments of what has happened in North Korea.
Q: Yes, well there certainly are. What's your view of that? Has their nuclear capability been confirmed or not?
AK: I should look at concrete data. I haven't had a chance to do that. It's a very serious matter and I think it will take a great deal of time and expertise to find out what really happened. We have been confronted with similar situations in the past, and for some cases we still don't have a definite answer.
A Soft Landing?
Q: Is it, in your view, possible for the international community to somehow orchestrate a soft landing for North Korea-in other words, a gradual evolution toward some sort of representative government or some sort of reunification with the south?
AK: I think that our number one priority now-for the whole international community including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, the countries that share the most interest and are most involved in this issue-is to address, first of all, the nuclear issue. To use some other problems would be a grave mistake-to think about political issues that are not connected to the nuclear problem.
Q: If they are, in fact, nuclear, why should we care about that? Why should we be so concerned?
AK: I think that the most serious issue is this movement of becoming a nuclear power, and its effect on other parties, on other actors of world politics. Whether it will stimulate other powers, other parties, to become nuclear is one of the most important issues right now.
The Russian-Georgian Face-Off
Q: The other matter that is in your line of expertise and has generated a lot of attention is the tension between Russia and Georgia. Is it your sense those tensions could escalate to an actual war? If so, what might the trigger be?
AK: The greatest potential for conflict comes from the activity of the Party of War, which has increased their role in Georgia in recent years. The minister of defense of this Party of War has said several times that the Georgian forces will be in Ossetia before the end of the year. They concentrate their forces; they have acquired a substantial number of hardware equipment; they have had very intensive training with the help of the Western powers.
One should not forget that it was a very bloody conflict there in 1991, 1992, and that it was the Georgian leadership at the moment, very nationalistic, that did not recognize the autonomy rights of these two republics [Ossetia and Abkhazia] which became a part of Georgia only in the days of Stalin-who was Georgian as you know. We have a very complicated situation. Russia is not interested at all in starting a conflict in this area. But that's probably not in the interest of the current Georgian leadership because they have a very difficult domestic political situation, with their ratings falling. They are facing difficult problems fighting corruption and dealing with the growing political opposition. They were very much criticized by various Western European sectors about the illegality of what they were doing fighting corruption. And so on and so on. That's why this leadership is behaving very adventuristically and they believe that they will be supported in many kinds of conflict by the West.
I know that many Western politicians are entirely against this idea, and they prefer a peaceful solution to all these issues. But they also are facing some kind of support from some political circles. They say all the time they are ready to provide the autonomy of southern Ossetia, but people in southern Ossetia are very skeptical about that because of what the Georgian leadership has done to another former Soviet autonomous republic's autonomy, Abkhazia, as it is suggested by Tbilisi. Nobody believes now in southern Ossetia that they will be provided with real status.
Q: When you mention these politicians that are possibly encouraging what you call the War Party, do you see the United States playing that role, and if so could you be specific in pointing to what that encouragement has been?
AK: I hope officials do not play this role directly, but for several years there were substantial efforts to build armed forces for Georgia with offensive capabilities, to supply them with ammunition and so on, equipment, and that very fact created very serious hopes for the Party of War that, in the case of conflict, American forces would be involved in it.
Q: Is it your sense that there would be American forces involved?
AK: You know, I think that both sides, the United States and Russia, should have understanding that we don't need armed conflict in this area. This is an area of serious instability, close to the Middle East. By the way, on some official American maps, as I discovered on the Internet, Georgia is not in Europe, it's in the Middle East. I think that the real interests of both sides are not to have this conflict, to have a peaceful solution of existing problems, but I think that in some cases, the real interests are not working. Some people, like this Georgian Party of War, is trying to play a different kind of game and a very dangerous game. And one should not forget that U.S. politicians are encouraging militancy of the current regime in Tbilisi by trying to bring Georgia into NATO.
Dragged Into War
Q: When you say both sides, I assume you're talking about the United States and Russia?
AK: And some European political forces as well. I hope that U.S. politicians as well understand that this very militant and arrogant rhetoric from Georgian officials and regular military exercises-it's a clear violation of all existing international agreements on this matter. That should make our American colleagues more sober and realistic about the existing regime in Tbilisi. History shows that sometimes these smaller countries can bring bigger countries, unfortunately, to the conflict despite the interest of the bigger countries and despite their desire to avoid such conflicts.
Q: How would Russia respond if Georgian forces did enter Ossetia or Abkhazia?
AK: Very decisively, very decisively and very strongly.
Q: What does that mean, professor?
AL: It could mean many things. We should cross that bridge when we come to it.