For an unsentimental guy, Vladimir Putin sure wallows in nostalgia. His latest such indulgence is the revival of a Cold War-era mutual defense pact with North Korea.

“In case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion from an individual state or several states,” reads the English version posted today by North Korea, “the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and the laws of the DPRK and the Russian Federation.”

Signed yesterday by Putin and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, the agreement also states that each country “is obliged not to conclude with any third country any agreement encroaching upon the other side’s sovereignty, security, territorial inviolability, rights to freely opt for and develop political, social, economic and cultural systems and other core interests, nor to take part in such actions.”

The significance of this deal is threefold. First, as foreshadowed by Russia’s move in March to block the renewal of a UN panel monitoring compliance with sanctions against Pyongyang, Moscow’s goal is to explicitly break the sanctions regime. It has expressed its desire to sunset the program, in fact. But for the time being, that almost doesn’t matter: Russia isn’t complying with the sanctions and is enabling others to follow its lead. Even if it doesn’t sunset, the sanctions regime is starting to look like a dead letter.

This is a problem for global nuclear nonproliferation because both Russia and North Korea have shown a willingness to expand other rogue states’ knowledge of, and access to, the materials necessary to build an illicit nuclear weapons program.

Second, it means Putin has gotten easier to predict but harder to contain. He is following through on repeated threats of escalation, telegraphing his moves and daring the West to stop him. Though it seems naïve in retrospect, there was a vigorous debate in the West about whether Putin would actually go through with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now he is following through on dismantling sanctions. Putin’s threats cannot be easily dismissed, even if they sound self-defeating to Western ears.

In both of these cases, Putin is making long-term investments. He is willing to wait out the West in Ukraine, bleeding it for as long as it takes—despite the fact that Russia bleeds as well—and sign defense treaties that tie North Korea’s fate to its own. That may seem like a steep cost to bear for Putin, but it’s a down payment: Tethering Pyongyang to Moscow is a way to tether Moscow to Beijing. The axis is making it official.

Last, Putin wants the U.S. to abandon Ukraine. He keeps close tabs on the domestic debates here, and he knows that the Biden administration’s recent green light to Ukrainian forces to use Western weapons inside Russian territory comes against the backdrop of calls to shift resources and priorities to deterring a conflict with China over Taiwan—and winning it if it comes to that.

Every step forward in Ukraine is met with pushback from Putin. Before Biden boosted Ukraine’s ability to strike inside Russia, the Russians had the city of Kharkiv against a wall. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and its fall to Moscow would enable Russia to regain its crescent of occupation all the way to Kherson. Biden’s move gives Kharkiv a temporary, but precarious, sense of security.

Which is why Putin has chosen this moment to ramp up the perceived security threats to South Korea: Russia and the U.S. are taking turns trying to stretch the other’s resources.

The South Koreans, meanwhile, get the game. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol denounced the pact, and his national security adviser floated the possibility of South Korea arming Ukraine in response. But it’s unclear how much support any new hawkishness would have. The president’s opponents on the left increased their majority in April’s legislative elections. That will affect domestic policy more than foreign policy, but the electoral considerations will affect both. And as the New York Times notes today, an editorial in a left-of-center South Korean newspaper called for Seoul “to reflect on whether [its alliance with the U.S.] hasn’t had the effect of contributing to the development of relations between North Korea and Russia.”

Biden’s stated strategy thus far has been to build alliances that would ward off challenges. Putin thinks he can simply stretch the West beyond its ability to stand behind that strategy. Both Biden and Donald Trump—whose approach to Ukraine seems to change by the day—need a long-term plan that removes any doubt about the Western alliance’s willingness to defend a world order under attack.

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