VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Reports that Russia is moving troops to its border with North Korea have fueled speculation that the Kremlin is preparing for a military crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Locals in the Russian Far East have apparently witnessed tanks and other assets moving toward the border. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russia's president, did not directly comment on the reports on Friday, saying that domestic troop deployment does not fall into "the category of public affairs," and that all countries respond to global developments for their own security.
"These are totally pre-planned military exercises, which are in no way related to political issues," said Alexander Gordeyev, spokesman for Russia's Eastern military district. He stressed that the troops had already completed the drills and returned to their regular posts.
But few security experts take these explanations at face value. Should the U.S. attack nuclear facilities in North Korea, the resulting conflict could significantly impact the Russian Far East. Vladivostok, a rapidly developing city considered a key to President Vladimir Putin's Asia strategy, is located only about 250km from the North Korean nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
"If a nuclear disaster in North Korea generates massive amounts of radioactive fallout, Vladivostok would be contaminated in just half a day or so," a Japanese official said.
A large-scale conflict on the Korean Peninsula could also result in a rush of North Korean refugees trying to cross the border into Russia.
Greater military activity in the Russian Far East is believed to be a warning against the U.S., which has put the option of a military strike on the table. The movement of troops is a signal for all interested parties to exercise restraint, said Pavel Zolotarev, a deputy director of Russia's Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies.
The current North Korean regime wants to bolster ties with Russia. Concerned partly with losing influence over the rogue state, Putin is pushing for a dialogue-based approach to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov urged the U.S. on Monday to exercise maximum restraint, according to Russia's Tass news agency.