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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playing With the Tigers

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Only weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin had a nice summit with his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush that ended with an alleged "agreement" to allow the United States to build a national missile defense. This week Putin lavishly entertained in Moscow the Stalinist leader of North Korea who Washington believes to be the prime source of a "rogue state" ballistic missile threat.

Kim Jong-il and his delegation visited several important military-industrial facilities, including the Khrunichev missile-building complex that now makes space rockets but in Soviet times was one of the main intercontinental ballistic missile-building centers.

It was officially announced that at Khrunichev Kim and his entourage visited the workshop where Rokot space launchers are assembled. In the West, Rokot is better known as the SS-19 two-stage ICBM. The Russian missile industry is planning to use a slightly remodeled SS-19 to launch small satellites into low orbit, but the project has been stalled for years because no cash-paying customer wants to risk losing a valuable payload by sending it up on a repainted second-hand ICBM.

Maybe the North Koreans want a Rokot. A relatively modern Russian ICBM could boost the lagging North Korean missile program that for years has been using remodeled ancient Soviet R-11 (Scud) one-stage short-range missiles.

Of course, taking a North Korean delegation that included military personnel and probably rocket specialists into a converted ICBM assembly plant is not, legally speaking, proliferation of forbidden rocket technology, but it is close and extremely provocative.

The sting seems to have worked: The Kim visit forced Washington to make official what it was offering for months behind closed doors. Last week, White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the Bush administration will try to work out a new strategic framework with Russia that could include joint military exercises and sharing of NMD technology — provided Russia stops assisting Iran and North Korea.

Unofficially, the United States is also telling Russia to constrain its military cooperation with China so as not to give Beijing the capability to threaten U.S. allies, first of all Taiwan. In addition, Washington wants Moscow to stop supporting Iraq, not to sell modern arms to Syria or Libya and in general behave as America's friend if it seriously wants to be one.

Because of the constant preliminary probing, the official offer to share NMD technology was no surprise to Moscow. For months the standard Russian response was "We cannot consider an offer unofficially," while in the Kremlin a coordinated response was worked out.

Only hours after Rice's offer, a Russian "diplomatic source" told Interfax that attempts to link Russian-U.S. relations with Russia's relations with third countries are unacceptable. "We cannot and will not fall for this bait," the source said.

Such a reply is in line with the present Kremlin strategy of building a "multipolar" world in which Russia is envisaged as an ancient Chinese Middle Kingdom — a country that is at the center of world politics, friendly to all, but not to close to anyone, sitting on a hill, watching the tigers fight in the valley and also reaping benefits by providing ammunition for the fray.

It is a seductive idea: to sell rogue states military technology and then make extra money by helping the West build defensive countermeasures.

In the Far East this concept has been working not so badly.

In the 1990s, South Korea quietly bought from Russia limited quantities of Soviet-made weapons that North Korea had in its inventory.

In the early 1990s, General Anatoly Funtikov, who was at the time chief of armaments in the Defense Ministry, told me: "We had to dig three old Scuds out of piles of litter left after the Soviet Union, but the South Koreans paid a handsome price for them."

Japan also paid a relatively high price to train several of its pilots to master Su-27 fighters, and the United States began seeking (and buying) Russian rockets and torpedos after China acquired similar weapons. It is reasonable to expect that if Russia sells some new weapons to North Korea, there will be others cashing in later.

No matter if Kim "pays" for his new T-80 tanks and other weapons by providing slave labor or other unusual barter. Anyway, the Omsk Transmash factory has not been able to sell to anyone hundreds of T-80 tanks it made in 1991 and 1992 for a decade.

If the West does not like this, it will have to live with it.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst. based in Moscow.