Putin's unhelpful power game on North Korea

Just as China apparently joins the U.S. in a bid to check North Korea's nuclear ambitions, in steps Russian president Vladimir Putin, giving just-in-time succor to North Korea's brutal regime.  Sure, it's some sort of power -alancing gambit against hyper-power U.S.-China.  But with North Korea brazenly stepping up its nuclear launches, it's not the time to start in against the U.S. over Syria, which seems to be the real bone in Putin's craw, according to his statements.  It's actually a good way to lose credibility and wind up on the losing side of any possible confrontation.

According to a report in the New York Post:

"I want to confirm that we are categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear powers, including with the Korean Peninsula and North Korea," Putin said at a Chinese economic summit in Beijing, saying it would be "harmful and dangerous."

But in comments apparently directed at the US, Putin said "intimidating the DRPK is unacceptable," using the acronym for North Korea.

"At the same time, we understand that what we have observed in the world recently, and specifically flagrant violations of international law and incursions into the territory of foreign states, changes in regime, lead to such kinds of arms races," he said.

Intimidating?  Can he tell us again who is doing the intimidating with the illegal nuclear launches, which CNN notes are well within the reach of Guam now?

And not just Guam, but Russia itself.  And not just within range, but aimed squarely at and headed in the direction of Russia.  Last May 2, Pyongyang sought to save face for its failed missile launch by claiming that it had aborted its mission solely because it was headed for Russia.

Maybe it's telling the truth.  Maybe it's lying.

But it ought to be a wake-up call to Putin that Russian cities are at stake here.  Yes, there are plenty of cities in Russia's Far East.  It's not an empty quarter, and any of those cities could find itself on the receiving end of these illegal missile launches, whether North Korea intends to make them that or not.  Who is to say North Korea would have the power to control all its missiles, if its face-saving claim about aborting the launch is actually true?  Russia is probably in more danger than any of North Korea's purported targets solely for North Korea's technological backwardness.

Yet here we have Putin, saying the main thing is to not intimidate North Korea?  Russia, frankly, should be intimidating the hell out of the North Koreans.  Maybe that's the problem.  The urge to appease is not a good image for Russia, but that is what we are looking at here.  And Russian cities are in danger as a result.

Putin attempts to sound sensible and reasonable in his call for a peaceful solution to North Korea's crisis.  It's frustrating, because Putin knows very well how bad a communist regime can be.  There is no need to preserve such illegitimate regimes.

His attempt is actually an old Russian game described pretty well by Julia Ioffe in a recent issue of The Atlantic:

Lavrov tried to play the part of the impartial referee: Let's not fight until we know what happened. "We have insisted that … we have a very thorough investigation of all that," Lavrov said. And whoever doesn't want to have a very thorough investigation, "this will mean that they simply don't want to establish the truth." (That said, while Lavrov was in Moscow calling for an investigation, the Russians in New York were busy vetoing a UN resolution that called for an investigation, saying it already presupposed the culprit.)

This was classic Russia, but it was also the only thing left to Russian decision-makers in the face of such a stunning and unexpected reversal. Taken by surprise, Lavrov had to steer everything back onto the playing field in which Russia excels: bureaucracy. If a terrible thing occurred, who could be against an investigation? Don't you want to know the truth? Of course you do. But Russia means something very different than its Western counterparts do when it says "investigation" and "truth," as it did when it insisted on an investigation after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. That investigation took years, during which the memory of children's toys and vacation guides and limbs scattered among sunflowers faded, and years during which Russia conducted its own investigation anyway, which predictably absolved it of any blame.

It works only if the other side doesn't notice.  With the aggressive provocations of North Korea increasingly clear, the U.S. is right to notice.

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