For many international observers, the footage of Vladimir Putin welcoming Kim Jong Un to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East on 13 September, was evidence of how far the Russian leader has fallen since his invasion of Ukraine. “It’s another indicator of the desperation of President Putin,” remarked the former British defence minister Ben Wallace in an interview on CNN. “We have a saying in England: ‘By your friends you shall be judged.’ And I think it just shows that Putin’s circle of friendship is an ever-decreasing circle.”
It was a fair point. Putin’s international stature has been drastically diminished in the last 18 months. Where previously he was a fixture at major global summits, the Russian president is now wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and skipped this year’s Brics and G20 meetings, presumably for fear of arrest. His main friends now appear to be Iran, China and North Korea – an emerging axis of autocracy. Being forced to turn to Pyongyang for its outdated and notoriously unreliable stores of artillery ammunition should, at a minimum, be seen as proof that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is not going according to plan.
Yet this is not the end of the story. Kim’s pariah status does not preclude his usefulness to Putin. His artillery shells might be unreliable, but they are largely based on Soviet-era platforms and should be compatible with Russian weaponry. Hurled in sufficient quantities, they can still wreak misery in Ukraine in the coming months, just as Iran’s primitive Shahed drones have menaced Ukrainian cities and tested the country’s air defences since they were first deployed.
Crucially, Kim and Putin are now aligned in their worldview, and in their twisted justification for the battles they claim to be fighting. Once again, as in the early decades of the Cold War, the two leaders depict themselves waging a valiant struggle against Western imperialism, with their countries the last brave hold-outs against US hegemony.
“Russia is currently engaged in a just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests,” Kim told Putin after touring the launchpad at the space port. “We will always stand with Russia on the anti-imperialist front and the front of independence.” He assured him that “the Russian army and people will achieve a great victory in the just fight to punish the evil forces pursuing hegemonic and expansionary ambitions and create a stable environment for national development”.
Of course, the North Korean leader didn’t travel more than 20 hours by train just to exchange anti-imperialist rhetoric. He also wanted something in return. Asked by Russian media at the cosmodrome whether Putin intended to help North Korea build satellites – the last two launches of which have failed – the Russian president replied, “That’s why we came here.”
Well, in part. Presumably the purpose of staging this summit in Vostochny, as well as dangling the technology Kim covets before him, was also to signal to the US and its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, that Moscow still has meaningful cards to play. Russia remains, despite its recent crash-landing on the moon, one of the world’s major space powers and it could alter the security balance in East Asia if it decides to aid Kim’s quest for military satellites and other advanced weapons systems.
In the end, the real message to take from this summit was that Putin and Kim might be isolated, but this doesn’t mean they are out of options or that they cannot yet aid each other’s struggles – real or imagined.
[See also: The unreality of American realism]