In the crisis over North Korea the Chinese have a heavy responsibility; and they seem to be divided between the foreign policy specialists and the military over whether to rein in Pyongyang or not. The Russians, on the other hand, appear completely powerless. Their exploits fighting the USAF in the air above Korea (1950-1952) are barely living memory. The most Foreign Minister Lavrov can offer are talks trading a nuclear freeze by North Korea against military exercises by South Korea and the United States; an offer anyone could make without any means of enforcement.
As a consequence of their impotence, and, more than a little alarmed at two unpredictable statesmen in headlong confrontation while the world looks on aghast, the Russians have now put their air defence systems in the Far East on alert – Khabarovsk, Komsomol on the Amur and Vladivostok, plus the Pacific Fleet – not because they think the Americans might stray over the Russian border with North Korea, but because they fear North Korean missiles could as easily take off into unintended directions (“Zashchita ot Durakov. Sob’et rossiiskaya PVO ‘zabludivshiesya’ rakety KNDR“, RIIA Novosti, 11 August 2017)
Of course the Russians do not have the means to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles but they can use the S-300 and S-400 air defence missile systems arrayed in the Far East to fire at incoming medium range missiles. If they know they are on the way. And that is the problem. The North Koreans tell them nothing in advance of a launch and they cannot keep their radar continuously pinned on Pyongyang’s silos. They will have to rely on satellite early warning.
Their worries are the opposite of the American obsession. The US fears the North Koreans have progressed too far technologically. The Russians fear precisely the reverse. On their view, and apparently in contrast to the assessment of the Pentagon and the Japanese Defence Agency, miniaturisation of atomic warheads by North Korea is a process that will take much more time. Clearly they do not have much confidence in the missiles themselves getting to the intended target. And this part of Asia is crowded and closed. Anything could happen.
If the crisis extends towards winter another factor the Russians will have to bear in mind is the prevailing wind, which will switch in their direction from late autumn, and that means any radiation is likely to spread across the Russian and Chinese borders in the event of war. Thus radiological protection has been another Russian preoccupation as a safeguard.