Considering the uncertainties plaguing Donald Trump’s administration, today’s warning by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and North Korea are “on the brink of large-scale conflict” should be treated seriously.

Some analysts in Washington and European capitals still think that Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are more about bluster than substance.

But both men seem to be consistent in their core beliefs. Kim thinks Washington wants to oust him from power while Trump sees Kim as an unhinged person who wants to cause massive nuclear destruction in America’s homeland.

Both men are narcissistic enough to call each other’s bluff and, disregarding saner advice, light a spark that turns into a conflagration.

Putin’s warning may be self-interested but it does match growing concern in European and Asian capitals that Trump like most beleaguered leaders might launch a sudden small strike somewhere on North Korean forces.

He might see that as a measured way to use a foreign crisis to re-gather his core supporters around him and divert headlines away from his domestic troubles. But Kim is a greater unknown than Trump and might respond with a wide-scale conflict even though it would be suicidal.

This concern is taking shape because Trump is struggling against critics and desperately needs his core supporters for political survival in Washington.

He might decide that sinking a few destroyers of North Korea’s navy instead of striking targets on its homeland might play well with his supporters.

It could even deliver wins if Kim feels intimidated enough to be less belligerent and allies like South Korea and Japan feel reassured of US commitment to them.

Trump has already started the process of gathering his core supporters by soldiering on with core personal beliefs that many critics see as his most noxious.

For instance, he pandered to white nationalists by pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted for defying a court order over racial profiling.

The Arpaio pardon raises the possibility that he might pardon others when special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe starts to bite more sharply and subpoenas fall upon his relatives and associates. He might even pardon himself.

Despite opposition from some Republicans, he may soon reverse former president Barack Obama’s order halting the deportation of about 800,000 “Dreamers”, who are the children of illegal immigrants.

That would break Washington’s trust with Dreamers but could consolidate Trump’s anti-immigrant supporters.

Bluff or not, he may also close down the US government if Congress does not include funding for the Mexican border wall in its budget later this month.

Worse, a more aggressive Mueller probe may prompt Trump to turn yet more desperately towards such core voters.

That is the growing concern in Europe. If the going gets tougher for Trump, some kind of military action against North Korea cannot be ruled out.

Germany’s Angela Merkel has hedged her bets. Asked if Germany would side with Trump, she told the German newspaper Handelsblatt, “No, not automatically. I do not see any military solution to [the crisis with] North Korea. I think it is wrong.”

She was taken aback by Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” against North Korea and counselled caution. But added without offering ideas, “We should do more. We cannot simply insist on a diplomatic solution while we sit and do nothing.”

Putin said more sanctions against North Korea could be “counterproductive and dangerous”, although he approved the latest UN Security Council sanctions after North Korea’s ballistic missile launches in July.

But Kim’s response was another missile launch, this time across Japanese territory. It caused siren warnings that sent people running to shelters despite an immediate announcement by Japan’s authorities that they were not being attacked.

In today’s statement, Putin said, “Provocations, pressure and militarist and insulting rhetoric are a dead-end road…The region’s problems should only be settled through a direct dialogue of all the parties concerned without any preconditions”.

Those are also the views of China, Germany and France. But all are concerned that Trump’s increasing travails in Washington may push him towards causing a crisis in North Korea because that, rather than more fighting in Syria or Afghanistan, would rally American nationalists behind him.

Brij Khindaria, Foreign Affairs Columnist
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