The Ukraine war is deepening Russia’s ties with North Korea as well as Iran | Russia

Russian arms procurement from Iran and North Korea heralds an increasing convergence of military and diplomatic interests between Moscow and two countries regarded as international pariahs.

Amid reneweds from Washington that Russia is attempting to search for large amounts of artillery ammunition from Pyongyang, on top of the missiles and kamikaze and other drones it has already bought from Iran, Moscow’s arms procurement blitz has flagged up the mounting logistical problems in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

According to one expert interviewed by the Guardian, Russia may be seeking to stabilize its production and supply of key artillery shells during the coming winter by seeking ammunition from North Korea and elsewhere, to allow its factories to catch up with production.

The Kremlin’s continuing urgent efforts to source weapons suggest that Russia envisages fighting in Ukraine continuing well into next year despite numerous a series of recent battlefield setbacks for its forces in the eastern Donbas region and southern Ukraine.

The latest US assessment on Russian attempts to search for artillery from North Korea emerged on Wednesday, which suggested that Pyongyang may be intelligence attempting to disguise weapons supplies through countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“Our information indicates that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while obfuscating the real destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as though they’re being sent to countries in the Middle East or north Africa,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the national security council, told reporters.

Although Kirby did not name transit countries, North Korea supplies weapons to Iran and the two countries also collaborate on missile development.

North Korea is particularly attractive to Russia as a source of rockets and shells, producing the same caliber of weapons for North Korean variants of Soviet-era systems and holding large stockpiles.

North Korea “may represent the single biggest source of compatible legacy artillery ammunition outside of Russia, including domestic production facilities to further supplies”, Joseph Dempsey, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, explained earlier this year.

In addition to well-established routes for armaments supply via the Middle East, North Korea also has good rail connections with the Russian far east via a route from its northern town of Tumangang to Khasan over the border.

Although North Korean arms sales are covered by UN sanctions – in theory backed by Moscow – Pyongyang has managed to continue supplying armaments.

“North Korean arms do get about,” Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Guardian, “and there are fairly established routes into Iran.

“The Russians are running short in a number of key areas not least 122mm artillery rounds and North Korea has a considerable stockpile of those munitions. It is entirely plausible they are going to Russia and likely going through different routes.

“What Russia is trying to do is stabilize its munitions supply through winter to backfill the gap until its own industrial base can start churning out,” adds Watling, adding that Russia arms manufacturers had encountered a serious logjam in the chemical production for high explosives.

And while the convergence of Russian and Iranian interests – not least over their joint military support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria – has been well documented, North Korea has now been drawn more closely into that axis.

With Pyongyang one of the few countries to recognize Moscow’s attempted illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine under partial Russian occupation, Russia in turn used its security council veto earlier this year to block new sanctions against North Korea.

Indeed, earlier this year Asian thinktanks, speculating on the increasing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, have suggested that as well as probably benefiting from cash transfers from Russia, North Korea may be looking for technology and materials for its ballistic missile programs that are subject to sanctions.

Public statements by Putin and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, have mentioned their joint desire to broaden their “comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations”.

One consequence of that ever tightening relationship – far from the frontlines of Ukraine – has been the increasing sense of impunity being enjoyed by North Korea as Pyongyang has continued to escalate tensions this week with a series of missile launches that has rattled both neighboring South Korea and Japan.

Few are in any doubt that the relationship will deepen, confronted by Russia’s mounting problems prosecuting its war against Ukraine.

Speaking in September US state department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel underlined the trajectory in a briefing for reporters.

“This purchase [of North Korean munitions] indicates that the Russian military continues to suffer from severe supply shortages in Ukraine due in part to export controls and sanctions,” Patel said.

“We expect Russia to try to purchase additional North Korean military equipment going forward, as well.”

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