The ambitious autocrats are more natural allies, and the U.S. is at risk of being squeezed out.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s special armored railcar pulled into Russia’s Vladivostok Station on April 24 after a nine-hour journey, a red carpet was rolled out and high-level Kremlin officials greeted the young North Korean dictator as he arrived for his first summit with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin.
Putin had flown across seven time zones for the meeting, relieving Kim of the 12,000-mile train journey to Moscow made by his father — one more bit of evidence for Pyongyang that there may well be another road to success than through a decidedly weakened, quite possibly one-term, President Donald Trump.
The pomp and deference paid to Kim began at the train station, where the platform was rebuilt, allowing Kim’s limousine to drive directly off. Putin even showed up a half hour early for their first session — a sharp contrast with his late arrival for meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Queen Elizabeth II and even Trump himself. Then there was the elaborate banquet with delicacies from venison to crab salad to caviar, topped off by a Cossack song-and-dance ensemble and rendition of the Korean anthem “Great Commander.” All pandered to Kim’s weakness for lavish deference, not unlike Trump’s.
Putin clearly wanted to give Kim a good picture of what an alternative to Trump might look like. Given how many more values Kim shares with Putin than the American president, Trump needs to act fast to turn Kim’s straying attention back to Washington if he wants to salvage his faltering relationship with the North Korean leader.
What Putin, a fellow autocrat accustomed to wielding unchallenged authority, has to offer Kim is self-evident. He is a leader with none of the baggage of Trump; he has no Democrats bearing down on him, no concerns over subpoenas, congressional investigations or a looming election that threatens his very grip on the presidency. Putin seems destined to remain in office all but indefinitely — much like Kim himself or Kim’s even closer ally, Chinese president-for-life Xi Jinping.
And with a direct Pyongyang-Vladivostok rail link, Kim was able to skirt Chinese soil entirely in making his way to his summit with Putin — a subtle message likely not lost on Beijing. (Still, playing nice, Putin disclosed he’d be heading onward to Beijing next to report on his consultations with Kim.)
Indeed, Putin in many ways has never been stronger. Surging oil prices in the wake of Trump’s new crackdown on Iranian oil exports promise to all but neutralize one of his few vulnerabilities: Western sanctions over his seizure of Crimea designed to cripple Russia’s economy and the foundations of his power. With oil — a major Russian commodity — on the rise, Putin now has the means to continue to work his will everywhere from Syria to Eastern Ukraine with little fear of further repercussions.
Putin, it seems, wants to play the role of global power broker with North Korea that Trump may have lusted after but failed to claim. After the U.S. leader’s initial well-received overtures to Kim, their second summit in Vietnam fell apart in March when the North Korean despot demanded an end to sanctions before he’d start dismantling his nuclear weapons.
These very points about Putin’s superior position and commonalities with Kim were probably items the Russian president stressed during their conversation.
He might have said, for instance, “I’ve got what’s left of Trump under control. He is in no position to start a war with you or tighten sanctions any further. With the announcement of his new Iran oil boycott, he has alienated the countries that might have signed on to any new sanctions against you. And with the second Russia-China oil pipeline going onstream, it’s even less of a threat than it might have been.”
Putin also likely reminded Kim that with his U.N. Security Council veto, he would have Kim’s back at the world body, which for years has tried in vain to rein Kim in. After all, Putin has never been reluctant to unleash his powerful veto when it suits his purposes, and sticking a thumb in the eyes of Western powers while winning a new friend on China’s border could be a most profitable exercise.
Moreover, he could well have reminded Kim of the looming prospect of Trump being a one-term president, urging him to just wait it out another 18 months and see what happens.
Kim already seems to be moving in this direction, and the Kim-Putin summit likely only cemented his intentions. As The Washington Post reported recently, Kim has a fleet of ghost ships cruising the world trying, with some success, to beat any and all U.N. sanctions or any unilateral sanctions the U.S. might initiate.
At the same time, Kim could also be interested in deepening the relationship with Putin in order to get some Russian help in modernizing aging Soviet-era industrial plants and rail facilities, while buying cheap Russian-supplied electricity. Putin, for his part, is said to covet North Korean mineral resources, especially the rare metals that China is also anxious to tap into.
Putin is clearly prepared to offer Kim a host of pledges that simply won’t work for Trump, or even China’s Xi — himself deeply suspicious of Kim’s motives and fearful of a catastrophic end game on the Korean Peninsula, barely 500 miles from Beijing. But if Trump is to make any progress between now and November 2020, he must confront all these issues squarely and quickly. If it’s not already too late.
David A. Andelman is executive director of The RedLines Project. Andelman was formerly a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. He is the author of three books, most recently "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today" and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan, Gorbachev and a World Without the Bomb,” to appear in July. His writings may also be found at Patreon
This piece was first published by NBC Think.