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The Week In Russia: A Performance In Pyongyang

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony during their meeting in Pyongyang on June 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony during their meeting in Pyongyang on June 19.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Full of over-the-top pomp and propaganda, Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to North Korea was a strange but predictable spectacle -- emblematic of his trajectory over a quarter-century in power, his focus on the war in Ukraine, and his pursuit of confrontation with the West.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'The Purpose Is To Frighten'

Throughout the full-scale war he launched against Ukraine in February 2022, Putin has used the threat posed by Russia's nuclear arsenal as a lever, seeking to decrease support for Kyiv by scaring the West and the rest of the world -- and all the while claiming, implausibly, that he is doing nothing of the kind.

Russia's nuclear saber-rattling has taken many different forms, from claims to have put its strategic deterrent on "special alert" to tactical nuclear arms drills, just to name two.

In each case, it has stopped well short of a threat of imminent use of a nuclear weapon -- after all, among other potential consequences, such a clear warning would deprive the Kremlin of the ability to continue turning to this tactic and to keep the West guessing about its intentions.

One of the most recent instances came on June 7, when Putin called Russia's nuclear doctrine a "living instrument" and told a high-profile gathering in St. Petersburg that changes -- which he suggested would lower Moscow's threshold for its use of the weapons -- could not be ruled out.

This week, Putin came up with a new way to use nuclear weapons in an attempt to frighten the West, this time with the help of North Korea. On his first visit to the reclusive country since 2000, his first year in office, Putin and Kim Jong Un signed a pact to provide "mutual assistance in the event of aggression."

The agreement, whose text was released on June 20, says that if one of the countries "is put in a state of war by an armed invasion," the other will "provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay."

Some analysts saw it as a reincarnation of a Cold War-era pact that was concluded by Moscow and Pyongyang more than 60 years ago but was scrapped with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.

But despite that wording, just what the agreement might lead to was murky. As with many Russian laws, far more important than the text itself is how it's interpreted and applied -- and there's always room for maneuver.

Also uncertain was the practical meaning of Putin's statement that North Korea "has the right to take reasonable measures to strengthen its own defense capability, ensure national security, and protect sovereignty."

As an article in The New York Times pointed out, Putin "did not address whether those measures included further developing the North's nuclear weapons."

The lack of clarity, as with a great deal of Russia's saber-rattling, is anything but an accident, experts say.

"The main purpose of the document was to frighten and to demonstrate," East Asia analyst Aleksei Chigadayev told RFE/RL's Russian Service before the full text of the pact was released.

'Eerily Reminiscent Of Stalinism'

There was plenty of demonstration going on during Putin's trip to Pyongyang, a one-day visit marked by parades, concerts, and thunderous applause -- a grandiose show that historian Sergei Radchenko said was "so eerily reminiscent of Stalinism. The rhetoric, the adulation, the whole vibe."

"It's like [Putin] is trying Stalin's boots on, just to see how they fit," Radchenko wrote on X. "He'll like it. You can just see from the grin."

Be that as it may -- and probably is, judging by Putin's penchant for choreographed, cheering crowds at home and his self-portrayal as the savior of a country critics say he has set back decades and may send to its ruin -- the main motivation for the trip was clearly pragmatic, if that word fits Russia's efforts to acquire more weapons for its unprovoked war against Ukraine.

The Putin-Kim pact "is based on mutual transactional needs -- artillery for Russia and high-end military technology" for North Korea, The New York Times quoted Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, as saying.

Shell Game

Russia "really needs" North Korean artillery shells, Cha wrote on X on June 20.

It's already gotten millions of them, according to Western governments and South Korea, but it wants more to fuel a war that, with Putin saying this month that peace talks could only begin if Ukraine cedes four regions that Russia occupies partially but claims in their entirety, among other preconditions, shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

"I just think it demonstrates desperation that a country like Russia needs to align itself with the DPRK to subjugate the people of Ukraine, and the fact that they have to go to a country like DPRK to obtain munitions demonstrates how isolated Russia is right now," Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder said.

Still, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that Putin's comment on June 20 that Moscow may supply weapons to North Korea was "incredibly concerning," adding that depending on the type of weapons, it might "violate UN Security Council resolutions that Russia itself has supported."

'A New Low'

A particular worry is that Russia could provide technologies that "could help the North design a warhead that that could survive re-entry into the atmosphere and threaten its many adversaries, starting with the United States," The New York Times reported.

Whatever real-life ramifications the choreographed visit and carefully worded pact may have in the coming months and years, Putin's trip was a sign of the times, a reflection of the path he has treaded since coming to power almost 25 years ago -- and in the last 28 months in particular.

"The embrace of the North Korean dictator is the logical extension of Putin's course after he launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine," Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a June 20 article. "He staked his entire tenure on victory in Ukraine. When triumph proved elusive, he went all in, hell-bent on winning even if it meant destroying his country; severing the critical diplomatic, security, and trade ties with the West; and weaponizing everything at his disposal."

"The security pact with North Korea is a new low" for Putin, Rumer wrote. "But it should not come as a surprise."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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