Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. He secured a fourth term in office with 77% of the vote. The result was hardly a surprise. Putin’s grip on power in Russia is ironclad and he faced no serious challengers in the campaign. The election was hardly fair, by Western standards, and has been described by some people as a sham. Even Edward Snowden was critical of the election results in his adopted homeland. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to his criticism.
As tradition dictates, many world leaders have sent formal congratulations, and spoke of desires to work together with Moscow on common issues. Behind the polite façade of diplospeak, there is less of a consensus about Putin and future relations with Russia. In Europe, many leaders and political parties are wary of Russia’s ambitions, and view Putin as a growing threat. Nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or under the thumb of Moscow during the Cold War make up the bulk of this group. Other European nations, mainly EU member-states in Central and Western Europe, are less critical. From Brussels to Berlin the priority has been to repair relations between Russia and the West. Germany has led the repair effort in recent years, though Angela Merkel has little to show for it. EU sanctions against Russia remain in place but they have not persuaded Putin to cooperate on the Ukrainian issue or any of the other matters simmering between Russia and the West.
The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United Kingdom over the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil will affect relations between Europe and Russia in one form or another. The EU is standing beside Britain in calls for Russia to disclose its development of Novichok, the agent used. The United States joined the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany in condemning the use of a nerve agent on British soil, and agreeing Russia was the party responsible for the attack. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow mirrored the move a short time afterward, expelling 23 British diplomats from Russia. Tensions remain high, with Russia denying it had anything to do with the attack.
With the election behind him now, Putin might be looking to use the crisis with England to his advantage. Russia could use a victory of some type. In Syria, and Russia it appears to be mired in military and diplomatic stalemate, with no change in sight. It’s unclear exactly how Putin can turn the current issue to his advantage, but if anyone can bring it about, it’s him.
Western leaders have accused Russia of being responsible for being behind the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter at their home in the United Kingdom. In a rare, yet encouraging show of unity, the leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement condemning the attack and calling upon Russia to live up to uphold peace and security. The statement was released one day after Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the nerve agent attack. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov labeled the allegations as ‘unacceptable.’ Moscow is expected to respond by ordering the expulsion of British diplomats from Russia in the coming days. Putin will possibly go beyond that and attempt to prod Britain in another way. Do not be surprised to hear about increased Russian air activity in close proximity to the British Isles over the coming days. Business might be about to pick up for the RAF Typhoons on QRA.
Author’s Note: Apologies for the shortness of this update. Scheduling conflicts have minimized the time I have available to write today.
Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state. President Trump announced the move this morning. CIA Director Mike Pompeo will move from Langley to State and succeed him. Tillerson’s departure hardly registers as much of a surprise. The former SecState’s relationship with President Trump was riddled with tension, and suspicion on both sides. Tillerson never embraced Trump’s America First doctrine, and his loyalty was never 100 percent there. The condition of the State Department might’ve also played a role in Trump’s decision. State, to put it bluntly, is a wreck. Under Tillerson’s command, US diplomacy was adrift and never fully in sync with the foreign policy positions of the White House.
The timing of the move makes perfect sense. Trump needs an effective SecState to help him craft a strategy for upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those talks are expected to take place before May, leaving little time for the administration to complete preparations and construct a viable strategy. Tillerson was not a major contributor when it came to North Korea. He contradicted the position of the White House in public on more than one occasion. To add insult to injury, Tillerson apparently did not learn of his dismissal until he read President Trump’s tweet this morning.
Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing will be scheduled for sometime in April.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.
Tonight’s announcement by the South Korean national security adviser that President Trump and Kim Jung Un will meet sometime before May is already being widely hailed as a major step forward in defusing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It could end up being exactly that, make no mistake. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We’ve been down this road once before in 1994. The US was coming perilously close to launching a military operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program while it was still in the embryonic stage. Pyongyang was feeling the heat, sanctions were impacting North Korea as it dealt with a major famine. Kim Jong Il, who had just taken over the duties of premier following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, indicated he wanted to open the door to negotiations with the United States.
Negotiations were held and brought about the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang gave up its ambitions for a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade material in exchange for US assurances it would not attack, as well as light water reactors that were resistant to nuclear proliferation uses. The agreement was troubled from the beginning, and as soon as US attention was diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, the North Koreans bailed on the agreement entirely. A few short years later Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
Kim Jong Un is trying something similar now. Pressure is building and the regime is starting to feel the pinch from sanctions. The odds are not in favor of Trump and Kim meeting face to face, let alone in favor of them reaching an agreement that ends the crisis once and for all. In all probability the North Koreans will conjure up a superficial excuse to use as justification for canceling the talks at the last minute. And in all likelihood they will lay the blame square on the United States.
In short, don’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive, or apparent sincerity. He’s buying time, nothing more. The White House knows this is probably true, as does the Pentagon. Contrary to the beliefs of many people tonight, the US-North Korean standoff might be entering its most dangerous phase, instead of reaching a point where tensions begin to diminish for real.