You’ve got to give Vladimir Putin his due: The man knows how to play a weak hand well.
With relatively little investment, the Russian leader is expanding his toehold in the Western Hemisphere and potentially getting access to giant oil and uranium supplies by backing a dictator in Venezuela.
With relatively little investment, he has expanded his base of operations in the Middle East by propping up a dictator in Syria and by trying to send some sophisticated Russian military equipment into Turkey. (For the latter effort, he’d actually turn a profit.)
And with relatively little investment, and little notice from a distracted international community, he has kept up a low-level war against those fighting a Russian takeover in eastern Ukraine, holding on to a bargaining chip he might find useful someday.
He does all this while overseeing an economy roughly the size of South Korea’s, which produces little or nothing the world wants to buy, outside of oil and military gear.
It’s an audacious strategy—and it is working. Never was that more clear than last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Boltoncited Russian support as the only reason Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro remained in his country in the face of an organized uprising by his opponents and elements of his own military.
.. In short, Mr. Putin appears to recognize the moment he is in, and what to do about it. After almost two decades of a focus on combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, the world is evolving into a new era of big-power competition. The U.S. and China are the two big competitors now, of course, but Mr. Putin is making sure Russia is the third.
His problem is that Russia doesn’t have the economic might of the U.S. and China. So he brings to the table what he can, which is basically the ability to make trouble and thereby insert himself into the global mix.
Thus, Russia became an early world leader in the 21st-century tool of unconventional combat—cyber warfare. The Kremlin combined that skill with its traditional willingness to engage in the dark arts of covert action to interfere with the 2016 election in the U.S., as well as other elections in the West.
As the U.S. tries to maintain economic pressure on North Korea, Russia provides just enough economic relief to Pyongyang to ensure that Moscow has to be a player in how the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program plays out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is wedging himself into the space between East and West by offering to sell Russia’s S-400 air-defense system to Turkey, which happens to be a member of the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After members of Congress declared that Turkey couldn’t both buy the American-made F-35 jet fighter and have a Russian air-defense system geared toward shooting down that same jet, Russia stepped up and said it also would sell its own jet fighters to Turkey instead.
But in the days and weeks since then, U.S. negotiators have faced stiff resistance from a North Korean team practiced in the art of delay and obfuscation.
.. Diplomats say the North Koreans have
- canceled follow-up meetings,
- demanded more money and
- failed to maintain basic communications,
- even as the once-isolated regime’s engagements with China and South Korea flourish.
.. Meanwhile, a missile-engine testing facility that Trump said would be destroyed remains intact, and U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang is working to conceal key aspects of its nuclear program.
.. The lack of immediate progress, though predicted by many analysts, has frustrated the president, who has fumed at his aides in private even as he publicly hails the success of the negotiations.
“Discussions are ongoing and they’re going very well,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.
.. Officials say Trump has been captivated by the nuclear talks, asking staffers for daily updates on the status of the negotiations. His frustration with the lack of progress has been coupled with irritation about the media coverage of the joint statement he signed on June 12 in Singapore, a document that contains no timeline or specifics on denuclearization but has reduced tensions between the two countries.
.. Trump has been hit with a strong dose of reality of North Korea’s negotiating style, which is always hard for Americans to understand,” said Duyeon Kim
.. Trump’s interest in the issue has put a particularly bright spotlight on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has tried to wring concessions from his counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief viewed by the Trump administration as uncompromising and unable to negotiate outside the most explicit directives from Kim Jong Un.
.. A low point from the perspective of U.S. officials came during Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang on July 6 when he pressed North Korean officials for details on their plans to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War
.. when Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang, the North Koreans insisted they were still not ready to commit to specific plans
.. The delay angered U.S. officials, who were under pressure to deliver given Trump’s premature announcement on June 20 that North Korea had already “sent back” the remains of 200 soldiers.
.. The sentiment worsened when Kim Jong Un chose not to meet with Pompeo during his stay as had been expected. Pompeo later denied that a meeting was planned, a claim contradicted by diplomats who said the secretary initially intended to see the North Korean leader.
..Pompeo scheduled a meeting between the North Koreans and their Pentagon counterparts to discuss the issue at the demilitarized zone on July 12. The North, however, kept U.S. defense officials waiting for three hours before calling to cancel
The North Koreans then asked for a future meeting with a higher-ranking military official.
.. “Pyongyang has reverted to its heavy-handed negotiating tactics.”
.. North Korea denounced the United States’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” after Pompeo’s last visit and described the discussions as “cancerous.”
.. On Wednesday, Trump said he secured a commitment from Russia to “help” with the North Korea issue.
.. on Friday at the United Nations, his ambassador, Nikki Haley, accused Russia of blocking efforts to discipline North Korea’s illegal smuggling.
.. Climbing down from earlier soaring rhetoric, Trump told CBS this week that “I’m in no real rush. I mean whatever it takes, it takes,” he said.
“Trump is too vested to walk away right now,”
.. U.S. officials lay some of the blame on Kim Yong Chol, who despite being North Korea’s chief negotiator has consistently stonewalled discussions by saying he is not empowered to talk about an array of pertinent issues.
That dynamic drew the ire of U.S. officials in an early July meeting in Panmunjom when he refused to discuss the opening of a reliable communications channel or even specific goals of Pompeo’s then-upcoming trip to Pyongyang, diplomats briefed on the meetings said.
.. Kim Yong Chol said he was authorized only to receive a letter Trump had written to Kim Jong Un.
.. When U.S. officials tried to raise substantive issues, Kim Yong Chol resisted and kept asking for the letter. Unable to make headway, the Americans eventually handed over the letter and ended the meeting after only an hour.
.. “[Kim] has a reputation for being extremely rude and aggressive,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea scholar at Tufts University
.. Kim Yong Chol’s negotiating tactics so frustrated U.S. officials that several expressed hope that he would be replaced as top negotiator by Ri Yong Ho, the North’s more agreeable minister of foreign affairs.
.. “Ri knows the issues better and can speak perfect English. Kim is a former spy, not a negotiator.”
.. One of Pompeo’s key objectives ahead of the Pyongyang meeting was to improve basic communications with the North
Many of the president’s top security and intelligence officials have long doubted that North Korea would live up to any of its commitments. But given the lack of options outside of the diplomatic realm, some analysts said a tolerant approach still provides the best outlook.
.. “I worry that Trump might lose patience with the length and complexities of negotiations that are common when dealing with North Korea, and walk away and revert back to serious considerations of the military option,” said Duyeon Kim, the Korea scholar. “Getting to a nuclear agreement takes a long time, and implementing it will be even harder.”