Vladimir Putin plans to be the first Russian leader to visit North Korea.
Both countries are considered potential U.S. adversaries in a nuclear conflict.
But don't get alarmed. The visit, planned for July shortly before the G-8 summit in Okinawa, is a diplomatic step by Russia to gain leverage in arms control negotiations with the United States, possibly to gain economic concessions down the road.
The United States and Russia are locked in a dispute over U.S. plans to deploy a limited national missile defense system to protect itself from nuclear missile attacks by "rogue" states, such as North Korea. U.S. military experts believe that within five years North Korea will have a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States mainland.
The Russians are worried that such a system would unleash a multinational arms race. They believe China, India, and Pakistan would build up their arsenals to overwhelm a limited missile defense system.
Some experts doubt the practicality of the national missile defense system because of the potential of igniting a new arms race.
Some, including this columnist, think it's too early to make a judgment about the U.S. proposal. But they applaud Moscow's attempts to seek a diplomatic resolution of the disagreement between the United States and Russia, China, France, Germany, and some other countries.
"The system that the administration is planning on deploying - if the decision were made now - would be destabilizing," Dr. Thomas E. Graham, Jr., a senior associate with Carnegie Endow ment for International Peace, said. "But I would just stress . . . that [now that] the decision hasn't been made this is very much an open question at this point."
He went on to say Mr. Putin is "certainly" going to discuss missile defenses with the North Koreans. "Putin wants to come away saying that they are indeed rational people, that we [in the United States] need to pursue diplomatic channels and other means of dealing with the emerging threat of limited missile attacks," he added.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly denied that Mr. Putin will be talking the North Korea leader Kim Jong Il into discontinuing the country's missile program.
Like Dr. Graham in the United States, most experts in Russia don't believe that.
"Moscow and Beijing will try to convince Kim Jong Il to give up his plans to advance North Korea's missile program," writes Russia's popular Segodnia daily. "If Vladimir Putin succeeds in convincing the 'great leader,' Moscow will deprive Washington of valid arguments for deployment of the system."
It appears that the Russians tend to overestimate potential consequences of Mr. Putin's visit to North Korea. Mr. Putin's diplomacy may not have a decisive effect on the U.S. plans.
Dr. Graham said that's because the tests for the system have not been "overwhelmingly successful," causing "a lot of doubts about the technology" in the United States.
"I think that what you are going to see is the decision [on the system's deployment] pushed down the road in any event," he said.
It's hard to disagree. But at least for once Russia's foreign policy appears rational. This is a far cry from its usual spoilsport role.
Dr. Graham shared this view, calling Mr. Putin's planned visit to North Korea "a very intelligent thing to do at this point" and "very good diplomacy."
"Putin is certainly trying to conduct an activist foreign policy now to try to sow doubts both within Europe and within the United States itself as to the wisdom of deploying of any type of missile defense system."
Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.
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