Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.

Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.

Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.

Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.

In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.

America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.

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Saudi-Western Relations Since WWII: a modern foundation for a modern alliance?

Saudi Arabia has for some time been the crucial ally of the West in the Middle East. This despite its autocratic and illiberal monarchy, flagrant human rights abuses and covert sponsorship of Sunni fundamentalism in the region. Indeed, US-Saudi diplomatic relations date back to 1933, just a year after the Middle Eastern state’s official unification. British-Saudi relations can be traced back even earlier to the 1915 Treaty of Darin, in which Ibn Saud agreed to his lands being held as a British Protectorate in return for recognition of a fledgling Saudi state.

Ibn Saud - Saudi Arabia's founder and early ally of the West
Ibn Saud – Saudi Arabia’s founder and early ally of the West

Today, Saudi Arabia is taking part in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), which is trying to perpetuate an extremist version of Islam anathema to even the Saudis. Both Britain and the US have strong economic and commercial ties with the Kingdom, and have done so since the early exploitation of Saudi oil post-WWII.

It was the post-WWII period, in particular, that solidified Saudi Arabia’s strong relations with the West. The House of Saud was vehemently anti-communist and predominantly concerned with ensuring regional security so that its oil exports would remain stable. It opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War. Furthermore, it has remained a key military and security ally for recent Western engagement in the Middle East.

How supportive Ibn Saud was of the Allied cause during WWII, however, is open to conjecture. It is generally believed that despite officially remaining neutral (despite a token declaration of war in 1945), he was more sympathetic to the Allies than the Axis powers. Whether this translated into significant material support is not so clear. A British War Cabinet document from January 1942 is intriguing in this respect. Hoping to coax the Saudis into the war on the Allied side, a British diplomat in the Middle East put forward three proposals:

A) Negotiate a treaty of alliance between Britain and Saudi Arabia;

B) Encourage Ibn Saud to make an official declaration of war against the Axis powers;

C) ‘A simple declaration by Ibn Saud that he has reached the conclusion that every good Muslim should be on the side of the Allies against the powers of evil and that he is himself prepared to offer the Allies every assistance in his power’.

The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations
The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations

Unsurprisingly, the diplomat recommended Proposal C as the most likely to achieve success. It would provide both sides with the comfort they required in that ‘the facilities to be granted by him [Ibn Saud] need not be publicly defined, nor need any public statement be made regarding assistance which we were rendering to Saudi Arabia in return’.

Ibn Saud, therefore, would not be prey to domestic criticism and complaints amongst the Arab nationalists that their country was fighting on the side of the imperialists. Britain, on the other hand, could conceal the amount of money it was providing Saudi Arabia from its cautious and war-weary public, which had already endured many government-imposed hardships.

Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII
Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII

It is possible, then, that Ibn Saud accepted proposal C, providing local support for Allied operations that helped them claim victory in the Middle Eastern theatre. Perhaps it was this very modern-seeming piece of diplomacy that helped set the foundations for a lasting and pivotal global relationship. Either way, it is a relationship worth maintaining.

National Archives Reference

CAB 80/33

Libya Wobbles and So Does Italy: what next for this troubled relationship?

Libya is fast becoming the next global security issue. With the Islamic State (IS) announcing its presence in the North African country by executing 21 Coptic Christians, Egypt responding with unilateral air raids, and rival militias battling for political control, Libya is as unstable as it gets.

Those who applauded the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship will surely have now abandoned their initial euphoria. With vast oil reserves, huge stockpiles of weapons and intense factional discord, the international community must return its attention to the failed state. Italy has already done so.

The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control Source: BBC
The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control
Source: BBC

With only a short stretch of the Mediterranean separating the boot of Italy from Libya, the Rome government is concerned that IS may launch terrorist attacks against its economic interests and, potentially, its territory. Furthermore, the extreme unrest has precipitated increasing numbers of helpless civilians to attempt the illegal migration across Mediterranean waters, exacerbating an already costly dilemma for the Italians.

This is just the latest stage in a troubled recent history between Italy and Libya. A 2008 agreement between Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – hardly two pillars of just rule – looked to have buried historical enmity. Berlusconi promised $5bn in colonial reparations to Libya if Gaddafi made a concerted effort to halt the illegal migrant networks between his country and Europe.

Italy’s recent engagement with Libya began in 1911-12 during the Italo-Ottoman War. The Italians invaded the Turkish colony of Tripolitania Vilayet, driving the weakened Ottomans out of North Africa and establishing Italian Libya. Concessions by Britain and France of some of their African possessions – all part of imperialistic charity apparently – saw the colony grow in size.

Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire - something that would preoccupy Mussolini
Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire – something that would preoccupy Mussolini

Ironically, it was the British who helped kick the Italians out of Libya during WWII, after which they administered the territory until its independence. Italy had justified its invasion of Ottoman Libya, in part, through archaeology. It was imperative, its politicians had argued, to preserve the Roman ruins going to waste across the Mediterranean. Their subsequent rule was characterised by harsh treatment of the native population during a period which coincided with the rise of Mussolini and fascism.

The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest
The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest

Gaddafi and Berlusconi’s cozy agreement was soon upended by the former’s overthrow and the subsequent sanctions and embargoes placed on the fragile state. Yet Italy’s Libyan adventure may not yet be over. Over 70 years since the blackshirts were evicted, and almost 1,500 since the Romans departed, the Italians may be sucked back in.

Already the Italian government has offered to mediate a ceasefire. What more could follow? The Mediterranean has proven time and again to be an inadequate geographical barrier. It may foster a rare case of Italian diplomatic leadership, one sorely needed in the absence of a united global response to this latest crisis.