The Meaning of the Putin-Kim Connection

3 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to North Korea was a remarkable event for many reasons. It was his first visit there in 24 years, the pageantry was especially lavish even by Russian and North Korean standards, and Kim Jong Un and Putin seized the moment with a new mutual defense pact that echoed the Cold War era. But the upshot is a decidedly mixed bag.

On one hand, we shouldn’t read too much into the rendezvous. Putin was perhaps keen to show he still has friends days after representatives of more than 90 countries, many of them deep-pocketed, gathered in Switzerland to forge a Ukraine peace plan. That summit came on the heels of new Western commitments, including by the U.S., to provide Kyiv with better weapons and more money. Putin’s turning to the hermit Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by contrast, was not the most impressive optics.

In addition, the mutual defense pact that Kim and Putin announced—an “alliance,” according to Kim, but not Putin—isn’t worth all that much. Both Russia and North Korea have nuclear weapons. It’s the nukes, not their new diplomatic partnership, that provide their best deterrent against attack.

There’s also the fact that China can’t be happy with this budding friendship. Beijing doesn’t need Putin emboldening Kim to act more aggressively, further destabilizing a region China would prefer to keep quiet. Threats from North Korea drive South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. closer together, creating problems for Beijing in East Asia.

On the other hand, top-level Russia–North Korea cooperation should concern Western governments. North Korea, like Russia, is a dangerous nuclear-armed country with sophisticated cybercapabilities. If Kim is listening to foreign friends, America and Europe would prefer he turn to China’s Xi Jinping, who wants more stability in the global order, than to Putin, who benefits from chaos.

Nor is the tightening Moscow-Pyongyang axis good for Ukraine and its Western backers, because North Korea has weapons that Russia badly needs and incentives to share them. Days before Putin’s trip, South Korea’s Defense Minister said Seoul had detected 10,000 shipping containers sent from North Korea to Russia that could carry nearly 5 million artillery shells.

Openly showcasing their ties underscores Putin’s confidence. The Russian leader knows that when so many countries, including the U.S., are holding critical elections, the threat of energy and food crises will compel the West to limit sanctions. Creating an economic emergency for resource-rich Russia would trigger supply shocks and price surges that no one can afford—and Western nuclear plants still need Russian uranium to operate.

Now take a second look at that Swiss-sponsored peace conference. Putin knows Ukraine has (still limited) backing from the U.S. and Europe. But China didn’t attend the event. India, the Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates sent lower-level delegations. The West may be firmly with Volodymyr Zelensky, but much of the Global South wants a cease-fire and a Ukrainian-Russian compromise that ends threats to food and fuel supplies that risk a punishing global recession.

For these reasons, Putin believes he can wait to make a peace deal. Maybe for a long time—especially if Donald Trump wins the White House come November, and a friendlier far-right government takes power in France in the coming weeks. Such a scenario could undermine the West’s support for Ukraine and force Zelensky, or his successor, to the bargaining table.

Materiel from North Korea can make Putin’s waiting easier. For the West, that’s the worst news of all.

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