June 21, 2024

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region on Sept. 13, 2023.

Vladimir Smirnov | Afp | Getty Images

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has occupied an often contradictory and increasingly unsettling position on the global stage in recent years.

On the one hand, Russia continues to hold onto “legacy” roles with a large degree of respectability and responsibility, such as being one of only five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and a member of the G20.

On the other hand, however, it has become closely allied to countries widely seen as international “rogue states” — such as North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Syria — and has displayed similar character traits by crushing political opponents at home and threatening the West with nuclear weapons, although the 2022 invasion of its neighbor Ukraine has gone a step further than other “outlaws.”

Russia’s leaning toward so-called “rogue states” — loosely defined as those breaking international laws, sponsoring terrorism and posing a threat to the security of other nations and global peace — has been accelerated since it invaded Ukraine in early 2022, with a raft of international sanctions on Russian industry and individuals linked to the conflict, leaving Moscow largely isolated on the global stage.

This has effectively forced it to count on countries like China and India to buy its oil exports and to turn to the clutch of allied “rogue states” as a source of potential military equipment and support.

Some close followers of Russia believe Moscow, operating outside international law, is increasingly acting like a “rogue state” itself, particularly in its desire to challenge and subvert the West’s dominance in global affairs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017.

Sputnik | Mikhail Klimentyev | Kremlin | Reuters

The visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Russia this week — that saw both countries pledge to deepen military and economic ties despite the concerns of nations like the U.S. and South Korea — showed Moscow was increasingly looking to both fracture the world order, and to benefit from that schism.

“Russia is increasingly a rogue state: Its core relations are with countries outside a rules-based global order: Belarus, Iran, Syria, and North Korea,” Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group, told CNBC Monday.

“These are countries that can’t be effectively punished with threat of further sanction from the United States and NATO. They are already fully committed enemies. That limits the amount of further support Russia can count on but also means there’s not much the Americans can do to respond other than make angry statements,” he added.

Bremmer said the visit by Kim to Russia, and pledge to deepen bilateral ties and to exchange military technology for Pyongyang’s satellite program, showed that Russia was becoming “more risk acceptant and willing to engage in asymmetric warfare against its enemies more broadly.”

My enemy’s enemy

The old adage says that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and that can be applied to “rogue states,” all of whom have turbulent and deeply troubled relations with the West.

Rogue states have been bound, to a large degree, by their shared status as outlaws, largely one exacerbated by international sanctions restricting trade and transactions, and a shared ideological animosity toward Western values like democracy and freedom.

The relationship between rogue states is often transactional, analysts say, with Russia’s relations with North Korea appearing to be no different: Western intelligence suggests that Moscow is willing to offer Pyongyang food, financial assistance and military technology in return for weaponry it can use against Ukraine, for example, although Moscow and North Korea deny arms deals have taken place.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) visit a construction site of the Angara rocket launch complex on September 13, 2023 in Tsiolkovsky, Russia. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is in Russia for talks with Russian President Putin.

Contributor | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“The present global geopolitical situation is one of a polarised international order,” Edward Howell, lecturer in politics at Oxford University and an expert on North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy, told CNBC.

“North Korea is continuing to exploit the fractured international order — in particular, the UN Security Council — since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year,” he added. 

“Pyongyang knows that Moscow and Beijing will oppose any UN Security Council sanctions resolutions on the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name], whether for human rights abuses or continued missile and nuclear development. At the same time, Russia knows it can count on its Cold War client to offer material assistance, at a time when it has few global allies,” he said.

Friends, with benefits

Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin rejected the label of “rogue state” for Russia, however, saying Moscow continues to hold power and influence in a more global geopolitical sphere. Moscow still counts countries like China, India and Turkey as allies, for instance.

“Russia can hardly be labelled a rogue state — given its status with UNSC, G20, to a certain extent BRICS — ability to influence energy market via OPEC+ [an alliance with fellow oil producers in OPEC] and general scale of trade and cooperation with China, India and even Turkey.”

“But the very fact Russia needs Kim is a marker of considerable decline of Russia’s options,” Barbashin told CNBC in emailed comments.

OSAKA, JAPAN – JUNE 28: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit 2019 on June 28, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

He perceived Russia’s friendship with North Korea to be more one of a marriage of convenience, given Russia’s needs on the battlefield in Ukraine.

“Putin needs North Korea for two things: shells and people. Although I think it is far-fetched to expect North Korea to send troops to Ukraine, its people can be used as cheap labor on the occupied lands of Ukraine and Russia itself,” he said.

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