President Donald Trump recently released a statement which went something along the lines of, “Excuse me, President Putin? Are you seeing this?” in relation to the North Korean launching of a test missile on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Well, it wasn’t phrased exactly like that. On the other hand, it’s desperately hard to miss that sort of tone your mother used to threaten you with when she said something along the lines of, “Just wait until your father gets home!”
Why would he appeal to President Putin if he’s in charge of the world’s only current superpower?
And do please ignore the whole “the missile landed close to Russia!” part of the document. It’s not going to fool anyone. North Korea has no interest in picking a fight with the Russians, and everyone knows it.
So why? Well, the world has no superpowers in terms of the legislative right to respond to anything other than a out-and-out invasion, which would violate Article 7 of the Charter of the United Nations. President Trump is, rather transparently, attempting to generate consensus on the issue of North Korean missile testing. Since Russia and China are the two permanent members of the Security Council (permanent members being the only ones who actually matter) who tend to disagree with the United States, President Trump is going just about the only route available to him to do anything about the North Korean weapons program.
Does it matter that the North Koreans don’t really have a weapons program? No. Historian and Journalist Gwynne Dyer is on record as saying that, actually, while the North Koreans might have rockets, and some kind of nuclear technology, they haven’t been able to put them together. They may never—adequately weaponising a fission-based warhead to fit in an inter-continental missile was a research-and-development cycle of maybe a few decades and hundreds of billions of dollars and roubles during the Cold War.
So why bother to create consensus and try to act on North Korea? You have to think President Trump is seeing this ultimately non-threatening “rogue nation” as a number of firsts. For example, if he can convince President Putin to back him on a motion which China appears to have already tacitly approved, it’d be a huge step for President Trump.
Something like that might build him a ton of credibility. Not just on the international stage (which we tend to ignore because we like to think locally, as human beings) but also domestically. It’s been proven that strong leadership of other nations has greatly enhanced the image of the statesman in domestic circles, and things are so frozen, awful, and calcified in the United States (and most of the West) at the moment that any credibility which could lead to breaking some of these legislative deadlocks has to be thought of as a good thing—for everyone.
The other question is, “Why should President Putin care?”
That particular question is far more problematic. Because actually, Putin probably really doesn’t care. Not only that, but President Trump leading an international motion against Pyongyang would detract from his own position. Power politics, after all, are zero-sum; if someone has it, no one else does, and Putin’s done his share of calling the tunes over the last decade.
With that, and the apparent lack of interest North Korea has in bothering either Russia or China, you could make a solid case that President Putin will continue to veto any motion in the UN that might empower President Trump’s ambitions.
On the other hand, Russia is subject to quite a large number of embargoes and trade sanctions over the conflict in the Ukraine and its “annexation” of the Crimea.
The question is going to be not whether the DPRK can hurt Russia (who have an enormous number of anti-missile defenses on the border with North Korea) but what Russia can get to go along with an anti-North Korea UN policy.
That’s why President Trump appears to be calling on President Putin for a public response. If I had to guess, I’d say there are already terms being floated in diplomatic back-channels, or even during the phone conversation the two Presidents had the other day about safe-zones in Syria. Everything about President Trump to this point tells me that he’s gently trying to apply some “in-the-common-good” pressure to President Putin, who doesn’t seem to be biting yet.
But all it might take is a release on the trade embargoes to sweeten the deal, and that’s my prediction. If Putin responds, I expect the trade sanctions will either be dropped, or will simply lapse without being renewed.