Opinion: Putin goes on the defensive

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and senior columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more CNN Opinion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to North Korea this week kicks up yet another gust in the recent swirl of diplomatic activity surrounding Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine.

Frida Ghitis - CNN
Frida Ghitis - CNN

But unlike the dizzying number of summits of the past few weeks, this gathering of dictators in Pyongyang is meant to help Moscow – not Kyiv.

In recent weeks, Ukraine’s supporters – led by the US and other Western democracies – have held multiple meetings, offering not only symbolic backing but also very concrete new assistance to besieged Ukrainians.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Putin is pushing against his diplomatic isolation and seeking to invigorate his weapons pipeline; the main purposes of his visiting the North Korean capital he has not seen in nearly a quarter of a century.

The timing of all this stepped-up diplomacy, and of renewed efforts to squeeze concrete results beyond declarations of enduring support, is not a coincidence. A seemingly unrelated process unfolding thousands of miles away is fueling the increasing urgency.

On both sides of the conflict, world leaders are keeping a wary eye on the calendar. With each gathering, summit, historical commemoration, the day draws nearer to what is arguably the most important event of 2024 – the US presidential election, in which one of the candidates has indicated he disapproves of the scale of Washington’s support for Ukraine and intends to cut it.

That, of course, is former President Donald Trump. And the expectation that he would withdraw support for Kyiv is a key reason why, in three separate summit meetings in as many weeks, Kyiv’s friends have made strides toward Trump-proofing Ukraine’s defenses.

The outcome of the US election will have profound implications for American foreign policy and potentially for the future of Ukraine, now in its third year of defending against an effort by Putin’s Russia to subjugate it by force.

The allies have good reason to believe Putin aims to outlast Western support. Putin – who along with his friends in Iran, Russia, China and North Korea, would like to see an end to a global order led by the US and Western democracies – needs to secure enough weaponry to keep pushing into Ukraine for the coming months.

Part of his plan is probably to maintain the pressure until the public in Western countries grows tired of supporting Kyiv, and their rightist leaders – perhaps Trump in the White House and other like-minded ones in Europe – pull the rug out from under Ukraine.

That line of thinking was likely behind last week’s port call in Cuba by a Russian nuclear-powered submarine, and a “peace” proposal by Putin, both aimed at persuading Western audiences that the risk is too high and it’s time to let Putin get at least some of what he wants.

Under Putin’s proposal, he wouldn’t get all of Ukraine; instead suggesting he’d be happy to keep a few large chunks of the country, along with a number of provisions weakening Kyiv.

Ukraine’s friends saw the proposal for what it was. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “a recipe for future wars of aggression.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it a “dictatorial peace” offer. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called it “absolutely crazy” and a sign that Putin is “panicking.”

Panicking or not, Putin has new reasons to worry after the moving, steadfast support Ukraine’s allies deployed toward Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky and, more important, the substantial action they took to ensure their support survives beyond November.

From the escarpments of France’s Normandy, where Western allies came together earlier this month to commemorate the 80thanniversary of the D-Day invasion against the Nazis, to the G7 summit in Italy’s Puglia region, to the Peace Summit in Switzerland this past weekend, scores of countries have voiced support for Ukraine, equating Russia to the reviled aggressors of previous wars. Many have backed their soaring rhetoric with significant steps of assistance.

To be sure, Russia has secured massive support from its autocratic allies. South Korean intelligence estimates that North Korea has delivered as many as 5 million artillery rounds, along with ballistic missiles and other ammunition. That has undoubtedly helped Moscow kill countless Ukrainians and crush its energy infrastructure. Iran has provided kamikaze drones, and China is reportedly supplying the parts needed to convert Russia into a wartime economy (which they all deny.)

But the West has also upped its game. The six-month delay in approving the Biden administration’s $61 billion aid package, blocked by Trump acolytes in Congress, allowed Russia to gain momentum. But the weapons are now flowing, helping slow Russia’s progress in some areas.

In Normandy, Western leaders likened the war against Hitler to Ukraine’s cause, with Russia playing the part of WWII Germany – an analogy that both undercuts Putin’s false claim about Ukrainian Nazism and strengthens the rationale for helping Ukraine win.

In Puglia, the G7 agreed to a massive $50 billion loan to Ukraine, financed with the earnings from Russia’s frozen assets. President Joe Biden called it a “vital step forward in providing sustainable support for Ukraine in winning this war.” Notice the word “sustainable” – that’s the Trump-proofing part, or even the Republican-Congress-proofing piece, in case GOP hardliners again try to reverse US policy.

Biden also signed a 10-year security agreement with Zelensky. The timeline outlasts even a possible second Biden term. “Our goal,”said Biden, is to strengthen Kyiv, “for the long term.” There’s that allusion to the calendar once again.

When Zelensky convened his peace conference in Switzerland, more than 100 countries participated, and more than 80 signed a declaration reaffirming Ukraine’s right to keep all its territory, a repudiation of Putin’s “peace” plan.

And in case the US changes course, NATO defense ministers just agreed that the alliance will take more responsibilities from the US in backing Ukraine.

The swirl of activity is not ending soon. Next month, NATO will hold its summit in Washington. Expect more concrete support for Ukraine from the mighty military alliance.

Putin, meanwhile, will visit one-party ruled Vietnam later this week, not exactly a military powerhouse, but at least one country that is not backing Ukraine.

This article has been updated.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com