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How to Interpret Russia's Growing Surface-to-Air Missile Deployments Near the North Korean Border

August 11th - 2017

As tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen and the United States has more seriously contemplated preventative military strikes against North Korean targets, Russia's military has made its own tacit response. Though Russia is officially a neutral party to inter-Korean conflicts, maintaining good relations with both North and South Korea and condemning actions it deems provocative on both sides - it has strongly denounced U.S. plans for potential military strikes on North Korea as intolerable. With U.S. war games projecting a conflict on the Korean Peninsula involving the rapid deployment of troops to the Russian and Chinese borders and with such a war projected to have devastating consequences not only for Japan and the Koreas, but for neighbouring Russia and China as well, it is strongly in Russia's interests to prevent the outbreak of such a conflict. Russia has along with China proposed a freeze on both American military drills in South Korea and North Korean weapons tests - though the United States has rejected such an agreement as it would not guarantee North Korea's absolute nuclear disarmament. The superpower has been unwilling to make compromises with what it terms a 'rogue regime', and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Hayley called such dual freeze propositions made by Russia and China 'insulting'. Failing this perhaps the only means of preventing the United States from striking North Korea is adoption of a strategy similar to that used to prevent strikes on the Syrian government - the use of its anti access area denial (A2AD) weapons systems to deter the United States from launching an attack.

While North Korea relies heavily on its ability to strike American military facilities across the Pacific from Seoul to Guam and Hawaii to deter military action against it, its means of denying the United States Air Force and its missile forces the ability to strike Korean territory have historically been relatively limited. This was notably a key weakness of the North Korean military in the early stages of the Korean War, and though it was capable of engaging and defeating U.S. forces on the ground even when outnumbered overwhelmingly - the U.S. Air Force's air superiority over the Korean Peninsula was absolute and unchallenged. If the U.S. perceived that its cruise missiles and particularly its aircraft would face a significant threat from highly capable air defence systems, this would be a significant factor deterring them from launching an attack. This was notably the strategy Russia employed in Syria in 2015 with the deployment of its advanced S-400 and S-300VM systems - specialised in neutralising aircraft and cruise missiles respectively - as well as stationing Su-35 air superiority fighters in Syria with air to air missiles. The deployment of these and other critical systems was key to deterring the United States from waging an air campaign against the Syrian government as they had previously done in Libya.

With Russia's Foreign Ministry having directly compared U.S. military threats against both North Korea and Syria to one another, it is possible considering Russia's recent military moves near the Korean Peninsula that a similar strategy to prevent a US attack is being implemented. As of April 2017 Russia has been moving heavy military equipment including some of its most advanced radar and surface-to-air systems as well as air superiority fighters to its far eastern region near the North Korean border - including the S-400 Triumf SAM system with a 400-600km range and advanced anti stealth capabilities. The Russian Foreign Ministry's acknowledgement that North Korean missile test were not aimed at or a threat to Russian security was revealing regarding the motives of these deployments - particularly as the military had stated its readiness to shoot down any missiles fired over North Korean territory. If it was not North Korean missiles which were considered a threat, this indicated that Russia was deploying its air defences to provide cover to North Korea from American attacks. There is no other party against which these systems could have been aimed. Russian air defences were put on high alert in early August 2017 as tensions escalated and the U.S. threatened preventative strikes against North Korean facilities - not a time when North Korean missiles posed a heightened threat to Russia but rather a time when American aircraft and missiles threatened North Korea. Russia's deployment was therefore far more likely to be a response to the latter of the two.

Russia and North Korea have cooperated closely in the fields of air defence and intelligence since the signing of agreements to this effect in 2015. Many military analysts have since then speculated that North Korea could have been aided in upgrading and domestically producing air defence systems by Russia, a world leader in air defence technologies. Given this and the deployment of Russian air defences to the country's Far East to cover the Korean Peninsula, it is plausible that Russia is acting to deter U.S. air attacks by ensuring that North Korean airspace is defended. It is likely that Russia's air defence strategy in Korea is a reflection of that in Syria. By providing the threatened country with a limited means of defending its own airspace, Russia can then reinforce this with more advanced Russian operated systems deployed to cover the country's territory - whether it is the SAM systems at Russian airbases in Syria or those deployed to Russia's Far East which cover all potential targets in Syria and North Korea respectively. Considering Russia's strong interest in preventing the United States from waging war on the Korean Peninsula, the implementation of such a strategy remains a distinct possibility.

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