In this pool photograph distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk during a farewell ceremony upon Putin’s departure at the Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. Editor’s note : this image is distributed by the Russian state owned agency Sputnik — (Photo by VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin seized Crimea in 2014 and then sent in troops in a shock-and-show-up invasion in 2022. His miscalculation was significant; Ukrainians rallied to push his troops back, leaving the two sides mired in a conflict two and a half years later, with no clear end in sight.

As the conflict has continued, a war of attrition has set in which is not one that favors Ukraine, because of population disparities, geography, and supplies of weapons. Those supplies come from Western allies funneled into Ukraine, whereas the Russian territory provides sanctuary for the building, importing and transit of arms to the field.

Much of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s time is spent building alliance support, and just as on the battlefield, Russia is seeing what Ukraine is doing and taking lessons to bolster its own position. The emergence of a multi-polar authoritarian state and movement over the past 15 years has enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to craft a diplomatic and military support policy which has ensured that Moscow has not been isolated by the sanctions imposed by the West.

In fact, much of the so-called “Global South” has supported him or at least not sided against him. His trip to the Middle East last year and his most recent trip to Asia have been part of his diplomatic offensive to broaden his global support and sharpen the confrontation between the West and the rest of the world, which is one of the shared objectives of the various authoritarian powers and movements.

The most recent trip yielded a new public relationship between North Korea and Russia. For some time, Russia has received weaponry from North Korea, but that has always felt transactional. Putin and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un seem to be now entering a more serious part of their relationship, announcing on June 19 a mutual defense support agreement to share arms and other military support “in case either face any aggression.”

More eye-opening is that following this announcement, reports surfaced that North Korea might send troops to support Russia in its Ukrainian operations. The reports suggested that engineering units would be sent to the disputed territories — but “engineering units” can cover a multitude of sins. These troops might be used for basic reconstruction purposes, of course, but they could also be used for installation and use of new North Korean battlefield weapons that would otherwise require lengthy training of Russian users. It’s not hard to imagine Kim, hard up for every resource but bodies, happy to throw his forces into the line of fire as a favor to his new friend Putin.

These reports remain unconfirmed. But a renewed alliance and military support being provided to Russia by North Korea must be seen as a significant development. It is already acknowledged that China is providing military assistance to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as is Iran.

Embracing North Korea, a global pariah, is yet another part of Putin’s push demonstrate that Russia is indeed supported by other authoritarian powers who have same or similar objectives. This means that any United States led-alliance effort to isolate Putin and defeat him in Ukraine has become much more complicated.

Putin has made it clear that he intends to hold on to certain Ukrainian provinces and has allied support (his allies) for this position. Can Ukraine and its allies realistically dislodge him from those provinces?

The engagement of North Korea publicly raises the stakes as Pacific liberal democracies have their interests directly affected by the war in Ukraine, and the Putin visit reminds those who may have forgotten that the United States and its allies face three nuclear powers in the Pacific, with two now directly collaborating against the US in the Ukraine.

So what is a US diplomatic policy towards Russia that makes sense with the prospect of a divided Ukraine and growing ties among the diverse authoritarian states and movements opposed to the Western order? What military policy makes sense given the diversity and disaggregation of threats to the Western order?

The Ukraine conflict is now part of a mix of challenges in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. And that means the White House, no matter the occupant come January, has to consider that any action in the Pacific or Europe could reverberate across another theater, or even down to Africa and Latin America.

For the United States, the Russian challenge is now part of a wider challenge from authoritarian powers. There are no easy answers, only realistic acknowledgement of the threat at hand.

Robbin Laird is an analyst, author and frequent contributor to Breaking Defense. Harald Bernard Malmgren is a scholar, ambassador, and international negotiator who has been senior aide to US Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, and to US Senators Abraham A. Ribicoff and Russell B. Long, United States Senate Committee on Finance. He has acted as an advisor to many foreign leaders and CEOs of financial institutions and corporate businesses and has been a frequent author of articles and papers on global economic, political, and security affairs.

Malmgren will be 89 this month and Laird is publishing a book of essays honoring Malmgren later this year, entitled “Assessing Global Change: Strategic Perspectives of Dr. Harald Malmgren.”