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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Talks Show Russia's Shift From Korea Back to U.S.

WASHINGTON -- For each of the previous two years, Russia has hosted the leader of North Korea on lavish railroad excursions fit for visiting royalty. This year, however, has brought no train trip for Kim Jong Il, only Russian warships floating off the coast of North Korea.

Russian armed forces are conducting an elaborate series of military exercises in the Far East, in part to prepare for any refugee crisis that might occur should North Korea's government collapse or become involved in a war with the United States. North Korean officials in Pyongyang were so offended at the exercises that they denounced them and refused to send observers.

The flap demonstrated that the North can no longer count on unstinting support from Moscow as it seeks to deflect international condemnation of its nuclear weapons program. Heading into the six-nation talks that open in Beijing on Wednesday, Russia has pushed its ally to find common ground with the United States and abandon its atomic ambitions. "The Korean Peninsula should be free from nuclear arms," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said last week.

In backing away from the Stalinist government, Russia has underscored a broader diplomatic turn away from so-called rogue states since the war in Iraq as it seeks to rebuild its relationship with the United States.

Last summer Moscow seemed to go out of its way to court members of U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," negotiating a $40 billion economic agreement with Iraq and proposing construction of five more nuclear reactors in Iran and opening its doors to Kim when Washington wanted to isolate him.

A year later, the Kremlin is taking a more cooperative stance with the United States. In the past two months, Russian officials have abandoned talk of expanding their nuclear assistance to Iran and brought new pressure on that country to subject its nuclear program to strict international inspections. And they have teamed up with China to encourage recalcitrant North Korea to negotiate.

"The tide has certainly changed in Russia on foreign policy," said Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The transformation has happened "very quietly. It's very interesting. There has been no major statement, nobody has been sacked. But everybody is singing a different tune."

Senior policymakers describe it not as a change in substance, but in calibration. Mikhail Margelov, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin and chairman of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, attributed the new harmony to better coordination to avoid misunderstandings.

Other officials and analysts see two imperatives behind the shift in Russia -- Moscow's fear of being shut out of major global decisions, as it was during the Iraq war, and its creeping realization that Iran and North Korea may actually pose a serious threat.

Russia conducted back-to-back talks here in Moscow with South Korean and North Korean officials and enlisted China's leadership in putting together this week's multiparty negotiations. The Far East military exercises, which also planned for what would happen if a North Korean vessel bearing a nuclear weapon had to be stopped, "were not a PR exercise," Trenin said. "I think they were damn serious."