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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

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.

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."

Rescuers extinguish a fire in an apartment building destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv early on May 31 amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
Rescuers extinguish a fire in an apartment building destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv early on May 31 amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

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

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

Washington and the West took a series of steps to shore up Ukraine’s defenses and weaken Russia's war effort. Meanwhile, a confident-sounding Putin spoke about peace talks -- but signaled a strong appetite for more war.

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

Listen Carefully

Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently says one thing first and then something else, sometimes the exact opposite, in the next breath. So, if you pay too much attention to part of a sentence, a statement, or a combative rant against the West, you risk taking away the wrong takeaway.

This manner of speaking works both ways. Sometimes, Putin will hide a climbdown or concession in a thicket of pugnacious rhetoric. Other times, conciliatory words will be followed by language that is not so conciliatory at all.

The latter is certainly the case in some of Putin’s statements about the prospects for talks to halt or end the war he is waging against Ukraine, including remarks he made last week at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum – once a showcase of Putin’s Russia for a global audience but now a sign of its isolation from and confrontation with the West.

Lofted a question about peace negotiations by the moderator, the loyal and hawkish analyst and commentator Sergei Karaganov, Putin started by denigrating Ukraine and the West with what he said was a quote from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to the effect that one can’t choose one’s conversation partners.

He went on to repeat a theme he’s turned to several times lately, citing several articles of the Ukrainian Constitution in an effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and then suggested there were others in Ukraine with whom Russia could negotiate.

“We are ready for these negotiations,” Putin said – and proceeded to make amply clear that he is not ready, unless the talks are held on Russia’s terms and take a number of Russian demands, as well as Russia’s baseless claim that a large swath of eastern and southern Ukraine is now part of Russia, as a starting point.

At a minimum, Putin said, any negotiations should “take as their foundation” agreements that Moscow claims were reached in Istanbul shortly after he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

'Achieving War Aims Through Diplomacy'

According to Daniel Szeligowski, senior research fellow on Ukraine at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the reference to Istanbul meant Putin was saying “he would negotiate provided we accept his demands from March-April 2022, which entail far-reaching disarmament of Ukraine, curtailment of its sovereignty,” and acceptance of “Russian influence on the internal politics of Ukraine.”

“In other words, Putin says he is ready to get back to the discussion about Ukraine's surrender, as if it was still March-April 2022,” when Ukraine had not finished repelling the Russian assault on Kyiv and had not yet regained substantial amounts of territory in the east and south in successful counteroffensives later the same year.

Foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov suggested that if a deal on those terms were reached, Russia “would be achieving war aims through diplomacy” and that for Ukraine, it would mean “demilitarization, loss of territory, and a change of government.”

In addition to his reference to Istanbul, Putin said that any talks aimed at ending the war in Ukraine “must proceed from the realities of today.”

At the very least, this means that Russia would seek to retain almost all of the territory in Ukraine that it now occupies, which is roughly one-fifth of the country: all of Crimea and parts of four mainland regions that it claims, formally but without grounds, as its own.

But on June 14, Putin set out conditions more plainly than he has in the past, saying Russia would start peace talks only if Ukraine starts withdrawing troops from the four mainland regions Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson -- and renounces its ambition of joining NATO.

These demands are unacceptable to Kyiv, which says Russia must withdraw its forces from Ukraine.


However clear his statements and signals are to some listeners, Putin may have been hoping that many would focus only on the simplest of his remarks: “We are ready for these negotiations.”

“He keeps presenting himself as the party supposedly willing to end the war, while blaming Ukraine for prolonging it,” Szeligowski wrote.

Putin has cast it that way many times, both in the full-scale war and in the eight-year war in Ukraine’s Donbas – the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – that preceded the 2022 invasion.

This time, his efforts appear aimed in part at undermining the “peace summit” that is taking place this weekend in Switzerland – a bid by Kyiv to rally support from around the globe. Russia is not invited and has said it wouldn’t attend if it were.

'Despicable And Appalling'

The meeting on Lake Lucerne may not bring peace in Ukraine much closer, but it is likely to focus attention on issues such as the threat Russia poses to Ukrainian nuclear power plants and the fate of Ukrainians taken to Russia and held there, including children – the source of an International Criminal Court warrant for Putin’s arrest on war crimes charges.

After the Financial Times reported that it had identified four Ukrainian children taken to Russia who were subsequently listed as up for adoption, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan, who is to attend the conference along with Vice President Kamala Harris, called the development “despicable and appalling.”

The meeting in Switzerland comes at what could be a crucial juncture in the war.

In St. Petersburg, Putin came across as confident: A major Ukrainian counteroffensive last year fizzled out far short of its goals, and Russian forces have advanced this year, taking advantage of the fact that a $61 billion U.S. package of primarily military aid was stalled in Congress for six months.

But that money – mostly for weapons – was approved in April. Meanwhile, Russia’s advances in the Donbas have been slow and costly, and Moscow’s forces have made little progress in the northern part of the Kharkiv region after an initial push across the border last month.

Earlier this month, the United States gave Kyiv the green light to strike targets inside Russia that are involved in attacks on the city and region of Kharkiv with U.S.-supplied weapons, a substantial policy shift that is limited in scope but could open the door for further changes to the restrictions on Ukraine’s use of American arms.

Ahead of the summit in Switzerland, the United States “dramatically broadened sanctions” against Russia, as Reuters put it, with repercussions for companies and banks aiding Moscow’s military production and for trading in dollars and euros in Russia.

Ahead of the summit in Switzerland, Zelenskiy and U.S. President Joe Biden signed a 10-year security pact on the sidelines of a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Italy on June 13, and U.S. officials said the G7 nations have agreed to use interest on frozen Russian assets to back a $50 billion loan for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia’s relentless attacks on Ukraine continued, taking a dreadful human toll, as they have for nearly 28 months since the full-scale invasion.

One June 12, a Russian ballistic missile attack killed nine people in the city of Kryviy Rih, five of them children, Ukrainian authorities said.

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, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to newsletters@rferl.org.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, 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 iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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