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Russia buying weapons from North Korea for Ukraine war, U.S. intelligence says

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose for a photo at their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, in April 2019. (Pool/Reuters)

As the war in Ukraine lurches toward the 200-day mark, Russia is turning to global pariah state North Korea to purchase Soviet-era weapons, according to U.S. officials and a newly declassified intelligence report.

Moscow is preparing to buy “millions of rockets and artillery shells” from Pyongyang, a U.S. official told The Washington Post on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the declassified intelligence, which was first reported by the New York Times.

The move by Russia’s Defense Ministry indicates that “the Russian military continues to suffer from severe supply shortages in Ukraine, due in part to export controls and sanctions,” the official said. “We expect Russia could try to purchase additional North Korean military equipment going forward.”

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the intelligence conclusion that Russia had approached North Korea for ammunition, saying it demonstrated the challenges Russia faces in sustaining its supply of ammunition. “We assess that things are not going well on that front,” said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.

Both Russia and Ukraine are struggling to source artillery shells for Soviet-era weapons, with North Korea among the few places that still have a supply.

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Russian state news agency Tass has previously reported that relations between Moscow and Pyongyang “are entering a golden age.” Citing a statement this year from the North Korean Foreign Ministry, it said that the two nations were reaching “new strategic heights” and that North Korea “stands in solidarity with the Russian leadership’s fair actions aimed at eliminating political and military threats and blackmail by hostile powers.”

In July, North Korea was among a handful of countries, including Syria, to officially recognize as independent states the Russian-backed Ukrainian breakaway “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk — a move denounced by Kyiv.

At the time, North Korea’s state media reported that its foreign minister had sent letters to the two eastern Ukrainian regions to express a “will to develop the state-to-state relations with those countries in the idea of independence, peace and friendship.” The Russian Embassy in North Korea welcomed the move and Pyongyang’s support for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia, in 2019. Putin also visited Pyongyang in 2000, meeting with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

A report published by North Korea this week accused the United States of being “hellbent” on containing Russia and China. It charged that the United States is working with its ally South Korea to realize its strategy of “hegemony” in the region “by force of arms,” if necessary.

Moscow’s purchase of munitions “reveals Russia’s military plight” and a “relationship of increased convenience” between North Korea and Russia, said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group think tank, adding that it illustrates how “isolated” Russia is that it is turning to outlier states for “low-tech” weapons.

The relationship with Russia “is good for North Korea. Pyongyang is looking to diversify a bit away from China. They recognize their overdependence,” he added.

“The Chinese have been a complete no-show as far as the Russians are concerned,” he said, noting that the lack of military support from Beijing for the Ukraine war has pushed the Kremlin to look to Iran and North Korea for equipment.

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North Korea has a considerable inventory of weapons and ammunition, and had made it a point to show off newer systems during military parades, said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

It is unclear whether North Korea would provide those newer weapons or draw from older stocks. The weapons being considered may include unguided rockets that are not technologically sophisticated but can still cause tremendous damage, Klingner said.

“It really shows [Russia is] running out of ammunition, or their production capacity cannot keep up with the pace of the war in Ukraine,” he said, pointing to the eroding effect of sanctions.

Ukrainian forces may be looking closely at the potential purchase by Russia and seeking to accelerate their shift away from older Soviet weapons and ammunition toward newer weapons supplied and manufactured by the United States and its allies.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its Soviet-era weapons have “exhausted their potential” and that the country would be “switching to NATO standards.”

In an apparent swipe at the Kremlin, it tweeted: “Those who are unable to transform to NATO standards, switch to North Korean standards: be it weapons, politics, standard of living.”

Biden pledges $3 billion in long-term military aid for Ukraine

In August, President Biden unveiled a $2.98 billion military package, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, in a signal of Washington’s long-term backing of the fight against the Russian invasion. The package includes more artillery, drones, radar and air defenses and commits six additional surface-to-air missile systems and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition for the howitzers and mortars in use on the battlefield. Counter-drone weapons known as Vampires will also be provided for the first time.

“The United States of America is committed to supporting the people of Ukraine as they continue the fight to defend their sovereignty,” Biden said in a statement.

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Rumors of North Korean weapons sales to Russia have circulated for some time, with speculation that Pyongyang could receive Russian oil and gas in return, North Korea expert Ramon Pacheco Pardo told The Post.

“I don’t think that it’s unusual that they are cooperating with each other,” he said, “but it is unusual that Russia has to resort to buying weapons from North Korea. That means their supplies are really constrained.” He also suggested this could be because Moscow has struggled to get the weapons it needs from elsewhere.

“It seems to me that it’s an option of last resort, like the recent report of Iranian drones,” said Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, referring to Russia’s apparent weapons purchase from Iran.

North Korea has been among a handful of nations to support Russia diplomatically in its invasion, with little fear of repercussions as “it’s already very heavily sanctioned,” he added.

The revelations about North Korea come weeks after Russian cargo planes collected at least two types of Iranian-made combat drones, according to U.S. officials, underscoring deepening ties between Moscow and Tehran. The initial delivery of the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones to Moscow in August is believed to be the first installment of a planned transfer of hundreds of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of various types, Biden administration officials said.

“In the face of combat losses, it is likely that Russia is struggling to maintain stocks of UAVs, exacerbated by component shortages resulting from international sanctions,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday in a daily intelligence update on the war. “The limited availability of reconnaissance UAVs is likely degrading commanders’ tactical situational awareness and increasingly hampering Russian operations,” it added.

Amar Nadhir and Shane Harris contributed to this report.

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