Vladimir Putin would never allow a good crisis to go to waste, so it is no surprise to find him speaking his mind on the North Korean crisis. During the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the Russian leader took some time to speak about the simmering situation in northeast Asia. To be honest, Putin’s comments were not earthshattering by any means. He offered his opinion that economic sanctions are likely not going to persuade North Korea from dropping its nuclear weapons program, and championed diplomacy as the sole course of action left which can resolve the crisis peacefully. Putin also issued a frank, and somewhat dramatic warning that further escalation of the crisis could result in a “planetary catastrophe.” While his observations are not very insightful, they are more or less accurate. Sanctions will not do any more good and if this crisis continues to escalate it could result in the use of nuclear weapons, and a regional war that causes tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin’s words are not the result of newfound respect and concern for humanity. He did not wake up yesterday morning, hug a tree and suddenly decide that what the world needs now is love. Vladimir Putin is a man who rarely takes action or says something unless there is some benefit to be gained for him or his country.
In this case, the favor Putin’s words might bring about is more concentrated global attention on the North Korean situation just as Russian military forces are preparing to commence the large scale Zapad 17 maneuvers in Belarus. There has been considerable speculation about what will come from the exercises. Some Western observers are suspicious of Putin’s intentions, believing that when Zapad concludes, the Russians may not leave entirely. It could mark the beginning of a permanent major Russian military presence in Belarus, or perhaps a move of some sort in Ukraine, not necessarily a military one either.
If he does plan to take some sort of action during or after Zapad, the current North Korean crisis potentially provides him with perfect cover. Even though he is despised by many, Putin’s thoughts on North Korea will carry weight and cause politicians and media types to consider the crisis more carefully. As that is happening, the scrutiny that has been placed on Russia lately will dissipate briefly, giving Putin a potential window of opportunity. Perhaps he will make use of it, perhaps not.
Either way, the Russian president’s public statements about North Korea make it seem that he is considering the possibility at the very least.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test came earlier on Sunday and it was the most powerful device yet tested. Twenty four hours earlier, Kim Jong Un was boasting to the world that his nation now possessed a hydrogen bomb that can be fitted atop an ICBM. Whether or not it was a hydrogen device that was tested is practically a moot point at this time. Earlier in the summer, estimates making the rounds in some defense and foreign policy circles concluded that North Korea would have a hydrogen device within six to eighteen months. For myself, and many of my colleagues, this was a realistic timeframe given what was known about the North’s nuclear program. They probably do not have a hydrogen device that can be mounted on an ICBM yet either. The process of miniaturizing a device in order to fit on an ICBM is a complex, time consuming process. Kim’s legion of scientists and nuclear experts likely aren’t there yet.
But they will get there eventually unless something is done soon.
*Author’s note: Cutting this post short to try and enjoy a bit of the holiday. I’ll be back posting on Tuesday. I hope all of you are having a nice Labor Day weekend.*
With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.
With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.
Contrary to the dispassionate tone of the media coverage it receives, the North Korean nuclear crisis remains firmly in escalation mode. If there was any doubt about that, Monday’s missile test should be enough to put it to rest once and for all. North Korea’s leadership is either unwilling to accept that the rules of its chess match with the United States have changed, or is unable to recognize it. Kim Jong Un continues to play the game as if Barack Obama is still his opponent. North Korea’s strategic moves and actions in 2017 appear to be geared towards Obama instead of Donald Trump. Because President Trump is not behaving, or reacting in the manner that his predecessor had, it’s left Kim stymied. Rather than explore a new approach, he’s opted instead to double down on senselessness and instigate a new round of brinkmanship.
North Korea’s latest missile test is especially provocative. The missile’s flight path took it directly over northern Japan, not very far from Misawa Air Base, a USAF installation. The missile broke into three pieces during flight and then impacted roughly 700 miles east of Japan in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo has responded by labeling the test as reckless and unprecedented. North Korea’s action will undoubtedly strengthen Japan’s resolve and determination to stand firmly with the United States. If Kim Jong Un was hoping this missile test would result in a softening of the US, Japan, and South Korea’s position, he has misjudged the situation.
Kim’s miscalculations, and fallacies are the propellant that is escalating this crisis into dangerous territory. He is running short on opportunities to reverse the course he has put North Korea on. Heavy economic sanctions are being piled on the frail North Korean economy as Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Russia and China are reluctant to throw Pyongyang a lifeline as long as it continues to flaunt its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the face of the United States and her allies in the region.
As Venezuela remains perched on the brink of dissolution and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro continues stripping away the last remnants of democracy in the once vibrant land’s government, the United States has decided to begin hitting Maduro where it hurts. On Friday, it was announced that President Trump has signed an executive order imposing new sanctions on Venezuela. These will focus on Venezuela’s outstanding debt which has been a major economic vulnerability for the country. Venezuela, and its state-owned oil company PDVSA, owe international investors upwards of $100 billion. Sixty percent of the debts were issued in the US and are subject to US law. The new sanctions will stop Venezuela from borrowing money from international capital markets. They will also Maduro’s government from refinancing existing debts that are coming due later in 2017, likely setting up a financial crisis for Maduro to contend with in the fall.
The nuclear option for the United States has always been to prevent Venezuela from exporting oil. The chaos such a move could unleash on international energy markets makes it unpalatable to say the least. The sanctions ordered on Friday are a workable alternative to the nuclear option. For example, Citgo, which is PDVSA’s US energy company, can continue to sell gas in the US. However, it cannot send its profits back to Venezuela where it could finance PDVSA, and the Maduro government.
The next move for the Trump administration will be centered around diplomacy. The US has to make certain that nations like China, and Russia do not step in to fill the financing void that US sanctions will create. More importantly, Maduro needs to be informed that fiscal collapse can be headed off by restoring Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Washington has hinted at this possible scenario, but so far Maduro has not reacted to it. For his part, Maduro has launched a counterattack against US sanctions, and it is aimed at a domestic audience. “All they’re trying to do to attack Venezuela is crazy,” he said on Friday. “With the efforts of our people, it will fail and Venezuela will be stronger, more free, and more independent.”
In essence, Maduro has brought a knife to a gunfight. He is fighting an economic battle with nothing more than stale socialist rhetoric. Behind the scenes, he is likely hoping for intervention by China or Russia to keep his socialist paradise from going down the tubes completely. If that doesn’t come about, Maduro and Venezuela will be dangerously short on options and time.