The war in Ukraine may be drawing two of America’s biggest adversaries closer together.
North Korea this month formally recognized the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine as independent republics, joining Russia and its close ally Syria as the only governments in the world to accept those claims and, in the process, join the effort to redraw Ukraine’s borders.
The developments come as Moscow projects mendacious rhetoric over its ambitions in Ukraine, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claiming Russia’s overarching goal is to topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government.
Moscow is determined to help Ukrainians “liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime,” Mr. Lavrov told Arab diplomats in Cairo late Sunday in remarks that contradicted the Kremlin’s claims early in the war that Russian forces weren’t seeking to overthrow the Zelenskyy government, even as Moscow’s troops closed in on Kyiv.
The decisions from Pyongyang and Damascus, meanwhile, underscore a serious question that is likely to confront the international order as the war in Ukraine drags on: Could more countries follow in the footsteps of North Korea and Syria by recognizing the independence of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, especially if Russia and its proxies cement their long-term grip over the theater through military force?
The geopolitical choices of dictators Bashar Assad of Syria and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un may carry little weight on the international stage, and so far no other nations — not even Russia’s closest regional partner, Belarus — have followed suit on Luhansk and Donetsk.
For prospective Russian partners, the motivations likely would be both political and economic. In the case of North Korea, it appears increasingly likely that Moscow will allow North Korean workers into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the past five months of fighting. Such a move would prove a financial boon to Pyongyang, which, like Russia, labors under punitive economic sanctions.
At the same time, analysts say, Mr. Kim saw an opportunity to deepen his country’s relationship with Russia at a crucial moment and to thumb his nose at the U.S. and its allies.
“My sense is this may be low-hanging fruit for Kim,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It ingratiates him with Russia and makes him seem on the team with Russia and China — part of ‘team revisionist/rogue powers.’”
“It also is something that will keep North Korea in the spotlight for a short time,” said Mr. Maxwell, who closely tracks North Korea and the region. “It will not cost him much. There is not much anyone could do to him. Due to China and Russia at the U.N. Security Council, no one will be able to impose any more sanctions on the regime.”
The North Korean Foreign Ministry showed no signs of backing down. A spokesperson has ridiculed the European Union for protesting the recognition.
“As this decision is within the legitimate rights of a sovereign state, it does not stand to reason at all that the EU is making a nonsensical comment about it …,” an unidentified official with Pyongyang’s Korea-Europe Association told the state-controlled KCNA news organization. “The EU is not in a position to talk loudly about so-called violation of sovereignty and hostile act, given that it has followed the U.S. in its illegal and inhumane hostile policy towards [North Korea].”
North Korea’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk, now the epicenter of the Russia-Ukraine war, sparked a furious reaction from Kyiv. The Ukrainian government severed its diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and accused Russia of rallying the world’s worst actors to its cause.
Moscow has “no more allies in the world except for countries that depend on it financially and politically,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Russian officials said Pyongyang would need formal approval from both Luhansk and Donetsk before sending in its reconstruction teams. The Kremlin would have the final say, as the appointed leaders in both provinces are effectively tools of the Russian government.
The long-term benefits of such a partnership between Russia and North Korea shouldn’t be underestimated, Mr. Maxwell said.
“Perhaps Kim thinks he is setting the conditions for a future ‘business’ opportunity,” he said. “Perhaps even a deal for Ukraine wheat the Russians have begun to exploit,” which could then be used to partially address North Korea’s chronic food shortages.
On the surface, sweeping United Nations economic sanctions on North Korea would seem to limit Pyongyang’s ability to send workers into Ukraine. U.N. Resolution 2371, adopted in 2017 after North Korea’s last nuclear weapons test, “bans the hiring and paying of additional [North Korean] laborers used to generate foreign export earnings.”
The five-member U.N. Security Council adopted the resolution unanimously.
Still, Russia’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council could allow it to effectively block punishments for violating such a resolution. The Biden administration hasn’t taken a clear stance on the matter.
“I couldn’t speak to specific U.N. Security Council sanctions, but it certainly is an affront to the sovereignty of Ukraine,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said when asked about North Korean workers helping rebuild the Donbas.
“The Donbas, eastern Ukraine, belongs to Ukraine and Ukraine alone,” Mr. Price said. “Decisions about who should be there, decisions about projects that should be ongoing there — those are decisions for the Ukrainian government, not for any other government.”
Some analysts say a rush of nations looking to follow North Korea and Syria is unlikely. Major powers such as China appear unlikely, at least for now, to endanger their own economies by adopting Russia’s stance on Ukrainian borders and risking sanctions or other blowbacks.
“I think they’ll have to decide whether they want to do that or not in terms of what it might cost them,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
There is also the risk of unintended consequences. Should major world powers accept the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, other provinces around the globe could demand freedom as well, creating multiple sets of internationally recognized borders and fueling chaos at the U.N.
Russia and other states seethed when the U.S. and other countries recognized the breakaway Kosovo state when it formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, warning it would set a bad precedent for other sovereign countries dealing with separatist movements. Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, but neither do Spain, Mexico or South Africa.
“There are some internal governors, if you will, on this because a government might say that as soon as we acknowledge those two independents, ‘X province’ is going to declare that they’re independent too,” Mr. Townsend said.