Putin’s collection of oddball allies grows by the day. It’s time the west got tougher | Simon Tisdall

Russia’s isolated war-criminal president is seeking out useful idiots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to bolster his military rampage against Ukraine

Vladimir Putin must be feeling fairly desperate if he’s relying on Kim Jong-un for friendship and support. There’s a reason why North Korea’s unpredictable dictator is among the world’s most ostracised leaders.

Nobody likes him and he don’t care, as the saying goes. Yet Russia’s despised, isolated war-criminal president is in much the same leaky boat these days, slowly sinking, calling out for help.

After being forced to duck the Brics and G20 summits for fear of arrest, humiliated Putin’s consolation prize is a possible meeting with Kim in Vladivostok this week. It’s a bit of a come-down. But mass murderers need to stick together.

Putin hopes to purchase weapons to use against Ukraine. But what do his friends in the North expect to get out of it? It’s a genuine puzzle that extends to toxic, unloved Russia’s post-Ukraine ties with other ostensible allies.

Being pals with Putin is like climbing into bed with a poisonous snake. Sooner or later, you get bit.

It’s suggested Kim will demand food aid. He also wants technical help in developing nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines and satellites. Yet he will be cautious, knowing how Russia abandoned his country after 1991.

Any deal would probably require Beijing’s agreement, infuriate the US and breach UN embargoes. If an arms sale does go ahead, it would signal a hardening of China’s position.

More than anything perhaps, as shown by his forlorn flirtation with Donald Trump, the Lionel Messi of narcissist politics, Kim wants attention, wants to be treated like the great leader he’s convinced he is.

Whether or not the two men meet, and whatever their motives, the strengthening Russia-North Korea connection, triangulated with China, is a serious matter. Last month’s defence pact between the US, Japan and South Korea is one direct result.

The link-up is especially worrying for Ukraine, given Pyongyang’s reported surpluses of cold war era munitions compatible with Russian artillery.

Putin is cultivating other needy, oddball allies who share his hostility to the western democracies and self-serving ideas about an alternative, authoritarian “new world order”.

Prominent among them is Iran. Its incompetent, aggressively hardline clerical regime has managed to alienate most Iranians as well as many countries that might otherwise be friends.

This week marks the first anniversary of the killing in morality police custody of Mahsa Amini, detained for breaching Islamic “dress code”. Arrests to forestall a repeat of last year’s nationwide uprising have already begun.

The regime has learned nothing since then, except how to be more repressive. Instead, it’s trying to enhance its global standing to compensate for lack of legitimacy at home.

Iran is busily mending fences with regional neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia. It has joined the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Brics.

While resisting US attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, it is openly supplying Russia with military drones and backing for its war. In short, after years of internal debate, the regime has definitively turned against the west.

This shift was not inevitable. It represents a huge defeat for US and European policy. The vast majority of younger, educated, urban Iranians are instinctively pro-western.

But conservatives have exploited the prejudices of an ignorant old man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to advance a regressive agenda. Trump’s blunders and Israel’s covert warfare also helped drive Iran into Putin’s (and China’s) arms.

President Ebrahim Raisi, chief architect of this fateful shift, should remember that Tsarist Russia was no friend to Iran. Putin’s neo-imperial project is no different. History suggests that if he doesn’t screw you now, he’ll screw you later.

But for now, Russia is backing Tehran’s reactionary mullahs, just as it backs two other allied dictators, Bashar al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko, in oppressing the people of Syria and Belarus.

Opportunism and hypocrisy boost Putin’s frantic quest for friends. Take India’s prime minister and this weekend’s G20 host, Narendra Modi, who claims to be neutral on Ukraine.

Ignoring sanctions, it’s calculated Modi has spent $61.2bn on Russian fossil fuel imports since the invasion, more than the US, UK, Germany and France combined have given Ukraine in military aid.

Likewise, South Africa’s squalid rulers, heirs to an epic freedom struggle, unconvincingly deny running arms into Russia, freedom’s murderous foe. They and other Putin-fanciers in the “global south” should be ashamed.

More dismaying still is the sickening pro-Russia chumminess exhibited by politicians in democratic countries closer to Ukraine.

No, we’re not talking now about Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, or Germany’s alt-right headbangers. We’re talking Slovakia, an EU and Nato member since 2004, and hitherto a strong backer of Ukraine.

If polls are correct, populist rabble-rouser Robert Fico – who opposes sanctions on Russia, wants to halt arms deliveries to Kyiv, and blames Nato and “Ukrainian fascists” for the war – may be elected Slovakia’s prime minister this month.

That would be a Brexit-scale act of self-harm for a country that has benefited from membership of the western democratic alliance. It could further fracture the west’s united front. It would be a breakthrough victory for Putin’s propaganda, disinformation and intimidation operations.

Yet the fact it’s even a possibility reflects the way Russia blurs the issues, distorts the facts and bamboozles public opinion. As David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary warns, the horror (and the lies) are being normalised.

As Putin seeks more useful idiots to help bail out his sinking ship, conservative, eurosceptic Poland, holding elections in October, may be the next target of his threats, scare tactics and divisive voter and media manipulation.

Gen Rajmund Andrzejczak, Polish armed forces chief, is urging Nato and the west to get tougher with Russia’s “gangsters”. He’s right. It’s time to clap a stopper on Putin and his dodgy friends in the north – and in the south, too.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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