When Donald J. Trump headed for Hanoi last week, he wasn’t listening to American intelligence officers and diplomats telling him there was nothing much to be gained at this point from a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Maybe he was listening to Russian President Vladimir Putin encouraging him to give it a shot.
Days before the get-together, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed that Washington had been asking Moscow for its input and advice, consulting with the Kremlin prior to both U.S. summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019. Last year, Putin publicly praised Trump’s initial decision to meet with Kim as “courageous and mature.”
But the Russians weren’t rooting for Trump—quite the contrary—and state media view with public contempt his efforts to look like a tough guy in the summit aftermath.
The White House proudly shared Fox News coverage describing the meeting in Hanoi as “Trump’s Reykjavik,” praising his “willingness to walk away” as Ronald Reagan did at a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986. A Fox News commentator insisted that “President Trump knows exactly what he wants from North Korea—complete and verifiable denuclearization.”
Russia has no illusions on that score. Putin has said that North Korea wouldn’t abandon its nuclear program even if its people were forced to eat grass.
When it came to the blame game, with fingers pointing at the testimony of former Trump lawyer-fixer-enforcer Michael Cohen on Capitol Hill, it sounded as if Trump, Fox News, North Korea, and the Russian state media were in the same echo chamber.
President Trump tweeted: “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important nuclear summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’” Sean Hannity complained: “The left is rooting for Trump to fail with North Korea. Their hatred of the president is psychotic.”
North Korea’s state media criticized U.S. Democrats and American intelligence officials for “chilling the atmosphere” ahead of the summit. The Russian state media echoed: “US-DPRK [North Korea] summit ended early in Hanoi amid sabotage in Washington. Without a hint of conscience, Democrats scheduled these open hearings to dramatically complicate the life of Republican Trump, at the same time that he, at the other end of the world, tried to resolve the crisis around Pyongyang’s nuclear development.”
But while Trump and Hannity wanted to shift responsibility, Moscow wanted to show just how weak Trump really is, and justify its own softening position toward Pyongyang.
Prior to the Hanoi summit, Russia’s state-controlled media predicted that North Korea would neither enter into any major deals with the United States, nor agree to surrender any of its nuclear capabilities. Referring to North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs, Russian state TV host Olga Skabeeva proclaimed: “We trust in Kim and hope he won’t abandon anything.”
While sanctions imposed because of nuclear and missile tests formally remain in place, North Korea has leveraged Trump’s weakening approach to resume trade with Russia and China. At the same time, the Kremlin is finalizing arrangements for its own upcoming summit between Kim and Putin. The exact date of Kim Jong Un’s anticipated visit to Russia will be set in the near future and the Kremlin is “in constant contact” with North Korean officials.
Meanwhile, Washington has made a number of concessions to Kim, receiving no tangible benefits in return.
Ahead of the Hanoi talks, the United States dropped its demand for full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs, and it could have expected that North Korea would come to the table with an old, tired proposal: dismantling all or parts of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for the U.S. lifting economic sanctions.
Yongbyon houses facilities that produce plutonium and uranium fuel for nuclear bombs, but it’s not the only nuclear facility in North Korea. Analysts had warned against holding a second summit without first addressing the disparity in mutual expectations.
In the past, North Korea has offered to freeze activity at Yongbyon during its negotiations with previous U.S. administrations. However, the country has other sites with similar capabilities and Pyongyang won’t freeze other weapons programs if it’s not forced to disclose them. North Korea has as many as 20 undisclosed ballistic-missile sites and is believed to have about 40 to 60 nuclear warheads.
Yet Trump suspended joint military exercises with South Korea and canceled two annual large-scale military drills, giving up the joint military-readiness posture.
Note that Vladimir Putin has long lobbied for these cancellations. During one of Trump’s telephone conversation with Putin in 2017, the Russian president reportedly advised the U.S. to stop joint military exercises with the South Koreans in order to moderate Kim Jong Un’s behavior.
But apart from checking off a box on the Russian president’s wish list, the cancellation of exercises did not bear any fruit in dealing with the North Korean dictator.
In Moscow, since the Hanoi summit, the cheerleading for North Korea has continued.
On Russia’s state TV program 60 Minutes, Gleb Ivashentsev, Russia’s former ambassador to North Korea, said that the Hanoi summit represents a colossal achievement for Kim Jong Un, who surpassed his father and his grandfather “by forcing the head of the largest imperialist nation to negotiate with him as an equal.”
Ivashentsev opined that for Trump, the summit was nothing more than a distraction from the government shutdown, the wall on the border with Mexico, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and the testimony of the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Russian military expert and the Editor of National Defense magazine Igor Korotchenko said the outcome of the Hanoi summit represents a failure solely for President Trump and a victory for Kim Jong Un, who elevated himself to Trump’s level without conceding an inch.
Russian experts perceive the Cohen testimony and the efforts by the Democrats as a tangible danger to Trump’s presidency, speculating that Kim Jong Un refused to offer any concessions to the U.S. president who might soon be removed.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, referred to Donald Trump as the “acting president of the United States” and Konstantin Asmolov, an expert from the Center for Korean Studies, asserted that making a deal with Trump, who might soon be ousted, is pointless.
Asmolov argued: “If Kim conceded anything, then Trump’s successor might say that everything that this clown [Trump] has signed was not in our [U.S.] national interests and then Kim would end up in Gaddafi’s position,” alluding to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program in cooperation with British and American intelligence, was deposed with the support of the U.S., the U.K, and France, and then tortured to death.
Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of Russia’s main weekly news show Vesti Nedeli, summarized that negotiations with North Korea were President Trump’s only claim to fame in the foreign-policy arena. Now those, too, can be added to the long list of his failures.
“After all,” Kiselyov concluded, “Trump miraculously managed to worsen relations on all fronts: with the European Union, China, Russia. Total failure in Syria. The same with Turkey. Failure with Iran and failure with Venezuela. Nothing but failures at every turn... Trump, who calls himself the ‘master of the deal,’ left Vietnam empty-handed.”
Amid all of the perceived American failures, in fact, the Hanoi summit turned out to be a golden propaganda opportunity and a win-win situation: for Russia and North Korea.