Short on military supplies, Vladimir Putin is turning eastward
War makes for unusual bedfellows. While Ukraine enjoys the backing of the world’s richest military and most of the European continent, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has had to cast his net further afield.
Last week declassified US intelligence revealed Russia is purchasing “millions of artillery shells and rockets” from North Korea, with plans to buy more. It comes on the heels of North Korea’s National Liberation Day last month, in which leader Kim Jong-Un promised to strengthen their “comradely friendship” and Putin vowed to expand “comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations”.
The deepening ties between the two nations should not be taken as a sign of Russia’s growing influence — or strength — in the Asiatic world. Indeed, “Russia’s purchases of rockets and shells is an act of desperation and necessity for the ruling government,” says Dr Edward Howell, Lecturer in Politics at Oxford University and specialist in North Korean foreign policy “rather than any sort of actual rapprochement with North Korea”.
As the Ukraine war enters the seventh month of what was intended as a 72-hour operation, Russian military stocks are depleted and allies are similarly lacking. With export controls beginning to bite, semiconductors, microchips, transistors and other high-tech materials are, according to Ukrainian intelligence, the most in-demand items on Russia’s shopping list.
Such is the Russian army’s dearth of supplies that abandoned military equipment has been found containing semiconductors taken from dishwashers and refrigerators. Thus, North Korea is likely to be a useful supplier for Russia thanks to years spent building criminal networks capable of evading sanctions and smuggling in banned goods.
North Korea has also been one of the few nations willing to lend its voice in support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, having recognised the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, opposed a March UN General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion, and attributed the conflict to US “hegemonic policy”. For Putin, ostentatiously strengthening ties forms a visible riposte to North Korea’s regional adversaries Japan and South Korea, both of whom have condemned the invasion, given Ukraine aid, and joined in sanctions against Russia.
Yet North Korea stands to profit from a closer relationship. Indeed Russia is now in talks about bringing in North Korean workers to rebuild the war-torn Donbas. Their earnings would form valuable financial support for the North Korean government — and its nuclear weapons programme. Meanwhile, should North Korea launch a seventh nuclear test, Russia is unlikely to use its UN Security Council veto against its new friend and arms dealer. Indeed, North Korea’s 9th September declaration that it is now a nuclear weapons state and has the right to launch a pre-emptive strike shows how comfortable it feels in brazenly pursuing its agenda.
“North Korea’s turns to Russia in recent months are not part of a strategic realignment per se”, says Howell, “but more a case of Pyongyang seeking to get Moscow’s sympathies at a time when Russia (and China) have waning desires to support the imposition of multilateral United Nations sanctions on other states”.
As Ukraine storms into Russian-held territory and battlefield losses mount, Kim Jong-Un has discovered there is no ally quite so useful as one who is desperate.