Vladimir Putin (left). Photo: Reuters
Vladimir Putin (left). Photo: Reuters

If statesman A keeps calling statesman B a “smart guy,” but the latter, instead of reciprocating, proceeds to praise person C, who is statesman A’s famous enemy, as “a shrewd and mature politician,” the message ought to be fairly obvious.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin heaped fulsome praise on his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un, whom US President Donald Trump derides as a “Little Rocket Man” with a “small button,” it is at once symbolic and meaningful for US-Russia ties as well.

At a meeting with top Russian editors last Thursday at the Kremlin, Putin had the following to say about Kim:

“I think that Kim Jong Un has obviously won this round. He has achieved his strategic goal. He has a nuclear warhead, and now he also has a missile with a global range of up to 13,000 kilometres, which can reach almost any part of the globe, at least in the territory of his potential adversary. And now he wants to clear up, smooth over or calm down the situation. He is a shrewd and mature politician.

“However, we should be realistic, and… act extremely carefully. If we want to achieve the difficult goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, we should do this through dialogue and talks… we can accomplish this mission if all parties, including North Koreans, become convinced that their security can be also guaranteed without nuclear weapons.”

Simply put, Putin congratulated Kim for leading Trump up the garden path while focusing single-mindedly on attaining the core objective of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) vis-à-vis the US. Kim now has his nuclear warhead and delivery system. Henceforth, denuclearization of North Korea can be possible only if the US and North Korea “become convinced that their security can also be guaranteed without nuclear weapons.”

Putin meant that small countries with an acute sense of vulnerability resort to the nuclear path as an asymmetrical response to perceived threats. His warning came on the eve of Trump’s momentous decision on Friday to keep the US in the Iran nuclear deal by waiving a raft of sanctions until May 12.

Statesman B, Vladimir Putin (left). Photo: Reuters

The similarities are striking. In both cases, there is really no military option open to the US except options that risk enormous destruction to its own assets and human lives.

Iran’s capacity to thwart US aggression is no smaller than North Korea’s. Both have felt compelled to embark on the path to nuclear mastery in light of the existential threat posed to them by the US. Nationalism has morphed into anti-Americanism and no amount of demonizing can hide that unpalatable truth.

The US risks bring marginalized. Putin underscored that Moscow sees through the western attempt to “destroy” Russia’s relations with Iran and Turkey, adding that “we will show solidarity with one another.”  His remarks fly in the face of Trump’s four-month countdown on Iran.

Again, Russia is positioning itself to act if the talks between the two Koreas gain traction – by extending the Trans-Siberian railway line via North Korea to South Korea and also by building oil and gas pipelines connecting Siberia and the Russian Far East with Korean markets.

On a broader plane, Putin, without doubt, also had in mind the current Russian-American talks regarding a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). In fact, he mentioned the talks as an addendum to his commendatory remarks on Kim’s strategic defiance of the US.

Washington insists that it reserves the right to unilaterally convert some of its delivery vehicles (aircraft and submarines) and silos, while Moscow maintains that the existing treaty specifically gives Russia the prerogative to verify any such conversions and satisfy itself that they involve no “breakout potential” – in other words, that silos, aircraft and submarines are not being adapted to launch nuclear weapons.

On the surface, Putin’s commendation of Kim’s smartness in outwitting the US is a statement of fact, but it also contains a broader message for the American elites. Putin effectively cited the examples of North Korea and Iran (and Turkey) to flag the geopolitical reality that the US will be countered in its attempt (as per Trump’s National Security Strategy 2017) to change the global strategic balance in its favor.

The broad thrust of Putin’s message was that it is about time the American elites got to realizing that it is not smart to seek “absolute security” in the emerging international system.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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