Russia has backed tough but limited UN sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests. It has adopted a similar position to China’s: that the United States and North Korea should both cease their provocations, make compromises, and enter into negotiations. But Putin’s government also seems to be playing what Reuters describes as a “double game,” perhaps to prevent the U.S. from toppling the Kim regime and extending its influence in East Asia right up to eastern Russia—just as America did with NATO forces on Russia’s western border. It has quietly tossed a lifeline to the North by, for instance, routing North Korean internet traffic through a Russian company and expanding trade in energy supplies with the North.
Trump acknowledged as much in his comments on Air Force One on Saturday. He noted that while his government has successfully convinced China to reduce its financial and trade ties with North Korea, as a means of pressuring North Korea to make concessions on its nuclear program, Russia “may be making up the difference. And if they are, that’s not a good thing.”
Russia and the United States are the most powerful countries involved in the Syrian Civil War, with the Russians on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Americans on the side first of anti-Assad rebels and, more recently, forces fighting ISIS. They are as crucial to ending the conflict as they have been to shaping and prolonging it.
Trump and Putin demonstrated this weekend that they are making progress on a peace settlement, issuing a statement in which they vowed to bring about a “political solution” to the Syrian war through constitutional reform and UN-supervised elections in which displaced Syrians abroad will be able to vote.
Such a deal, as Trump has pointed out, would save lives; a ceasefire brokered by Russia, the U.S., and Jordan this summer in southwestern Syrian has, in fact, already saved lives. But the peace plan is still aspirational rather than operational. And if peace is eventually achieved, a key question will be: On whose terms? The Trump administration has occasionally butted heads with Russia in Syria, such as when it launched strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and shot down a Syrian warplane that was targeting U.S.-backed rebel fighters. But it has mostly focused on uprooting the Islamic State from the country, leaving the Russian air force and Iran-supported militias to strengthen Assad’s grip on the country. When a State Department official was recently asked whether Russia can actually get Assad to negotiate the potential end of his rule, as the United States would like, the official didn’t exactly sound confident. “We’re going to be testing that,” the official said. “We’re going to find out.”
Putin can technically help solve the conflict in Ukraine, but that’s kind of like saying Assad can help solve the conflict in Syria; the Russian leader is a prime instigator of the violence. In 2014, following an uprising that overthrew Ukraine’s Russia-allied president, Putin intervened militarily in the former Soviet republic, annexing the Crimean peninsula and aiding pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. The fighting has simmered, with periodic flare-ups, ever since.