After a year and a half Fighting in UkraineRussia needs to replenish its ammunition supplies for a potentially long war of attrition. In addition to expanding its domestic arms production, Moscow is also turning to an old ally with a huge arsenal – North Korea.
It is estimated that the reclusive and isolated Asian country has tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets that could give the Russian army a huge boost.
US officials expect this from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Visit Russia in the coming days to seal a possible agreement on the transfer of ammunition with President Vladimir Putin. That would be a remarkable turnaround from the 1950-53 Korean War, when the Soviet Union supplied the communist north with arms and ammunition.
“We know that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently visited mainly because of artillery shells, and most likely this will be discussed between Putin and Kim Jong Un,” said Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
Shoigu was the first Russian defense minister to visit North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Pictures of him at a Military parade Standing alongside Kim and medal-laden North Korean military officers in the capital Pyongyang in July, it was a strong sign of Moscow’s vigorous efforts to reach out to the North. Shoigu said that joint military exercises were possible.
When asked about a possible visit by Kim and an agreement on North Korean arms sales to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
However, he stressed that Moscow values relations with Pyongyang, adding: “North Korea is our neighbor and we will continue to develop our relations without looking back at the opinions of other countries.”
Kim visited Russia for the first time in 2019 and held talks with Putin that included assurances of closer cooperation but failed to produce any visible breakthroughs.
While most of the Korean People’s Army’s arsenals are obsolete, their enormous size would potentially provide the Russian military with a vital lifeline amid Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II.
Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said Russia could seek to establish North Korea as a “backbone” for its war effort and provide a large flow of munitions.
“Russia hopes that North Korea can quickly establish support channels to supply it with war materials such as ammunition, bombs and other supplies,” Hong said.
The The US said North Korea sold some ammunition to Russia’s private military contractor Wagner in November. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied that Pyongyang has supplied weapons or ammunition to Russia or plans to do so.
U.S. officials view Moscow’s pursuit of North Korean weapons as a reflection of Russia’s military problems. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the quality of North Korea’s weapons was an “open question.”
“It says a lot that Russia needs to turn to a country like North Korea to bolster its defense capability in a war that is expected to be over in a week,” Sullivan said.
Jon Finer, US President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Sunday that buying weapons from Pyongyang was “perhaps the best and perhaps the only option” open to Moscow as it tries to continue its war effort. Finer made the remarks aboard Biden’s flight from India to Vietnam.
While Washington has warned Pyongyang against sending weapons to Russia, which would violate a U.N. embargo on arms shipments to and from North Korea, observers say there is little the U.S. can do about it.
They note that Moscow could share advanced nuclear, rocket and missile systems Submarine technology with Pyongyang in exchange for arms supplies, a move that could embolden Kim and pose major threats to regional security.
“The United States and its allies have limited policy options to address this new challenge,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an analysis.
While the North’s vast supplies could bolster Russia’s war effort, Moscow has imported drones from another ally, Iran, which have played a significant role in the fighting.
Russia has been using exploding Shahed drones to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure for more than a year. After the initial surprise, Ukrainian air defense has improved its capabilities in combating them. But the cheap and simple drones, with a range of over 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), continue to cause significant damage.
Russia reportedly did this bought a production license from Iran and built its own factory to assemble the drones, producing thousands of them each year. Iran is expected to initially provide the materials and technology, then the plant will gradually convert to domestically produced components.
Russian weapons manufacturers have compensated for at least some of the equipment lost in the conflict and developed some new products, including satellite-guided glide bombs and other precision defense weapons Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive.
Early in the war, Ukraine’s widespread use of drones inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces and played a major role in Moscow’s military setbacks. Russian officials admitted that they had not paid enough attention to drones before the war and vowed to quickly close the gap.
One type of mass-produced exploding drone that made a visible impact is the Lancet, capable of lurking above the battlefield before hitting its target. Cheap and compact, it has become a productive weapon, allowing the Russian military to attack Ukrainian tanks and artillery systems on a large scale.
In recent months, Russia has increasingly used another new trump card: glide bombs. Using a pair of winglets and a satellite navigation module, old Soviet bombs were transformed into highly efficient “smart” weapons. They have a range of up to 60 kilometers (37 miles) and allow the Russian Air Force to increase its attacks on Ukrainian forces along the front line without endangering fighter aircraft.
Russia has adapted 500-kilogram bombs and is using them to repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Work has been underway to design a similar conversion for a 1,500-kilogram bomb, with it reportedly being used for the first time this month. Converted to a glide bomb, it is reportedly accurate to within five meters (16 feet) and leaves a 15-meter (50-foot) crater – a powerful weapon against Ukrainian military installations.
Another addition to the Russian arsenal is the Vikhr anti-tank missile, which is used by Russian attack helicopters. It has a longer range, allowing pilots to take out Ukrainian tanks while out of range of air defenses, and was used extensively during the summer.
“The use of attack aircraft posed a constant challenge to Ukrainian forces throughout the counteroffensive,” the Royal United Services Institute said in an analysis.
As Russian manufacturers developed new ammunition, they also increased production of tanks and other weapons, and the military increasingly used its storage facilities for thousands of Cold War-era armored vehicles. Some have been equipped with protective shields and other equipment to increase their survivability.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said Russia would produce 1,500 main battle tanks in 2023.
“The conveyors of our military-industrial complex work in three shifts and will produce as many weapons as necessary to effectively protect the Fatherland,” he said.
Emma Burrows in Tallinn, Estonia, and Kim Tong-Hyung in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.