After a year and a half of fighting in Ukraine, Russia needs to replenish its ammunition stockpile for what could become a long war of attrition. In addition to ramping up domestic weapons production, Moscow is turning to an old ally with a huge arsenal: North Korea.
According to estimates, the reclusive and isolated Asian country has tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets that could give the Russian army a major boost.
United States officials expect North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Russia in the coming days to finalize a possible munitions transfer deal 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 weapons and ammunition.
“We know that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been looking mainly for artillery shells lately, and most likely that will be discussed between Putin and Kim Jong Un,” said Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
Shoigu became the first Russian defense chief to visit North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Images of him at a massive military parade in the capital Pyongyang in July, along with Kim and the medal-laden North Korean military brass , were a powerful sign of a strong attempt by Moscow to reach the north. Shoigu said joint military exercises were possible.
Asked about a possible visit by Kim and a deal involving North Korean arms deliveries to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
But he stressed that Moscow cherishes ties with Pyongyang, adding: “North Korea is our neighbor, and we will further develop our relations without looking back to the opinions of other countries.”
Kim made his first visit to Russia in 2019 and held talks with Putin that included promises of closer cooperation but were not followed by visible breakthroughs.
While most of the Korean People’s Army’s arsenals are dated, their enormous size could provide the Russian military with a potential lifeline amid Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War II.
Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said Russia could try to establish North Korea as a “back base” for its war effort, which would provide a huge 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 US says North Korea sold ammunition to Russian private military contractor Wagner in November. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied that Pyongyang has sent or plans to send weapons or ammunition to Russia.
U.S. officials view Russia’s hold on 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 is an “open question.”
“It says a lot that Russia must turn to a country like North Korea to bolster its defense capabilities in a war that is expected to be over within a week,” Sullivan said.
Although Washington has warned Pyongyang against sending weapons to Russia, which would violate a United Nations embargo on all arms shipments to and from North Korea, observers say there is little the US can do in response.
They note that Moscow could share advanced nuclear, missile and submarine technology with Pyongyang in exchange for arms supplies, a move that could embolden Kim and pose a major threat to regional security.
“The United States and its allies have limited policy options in addressing this new challenge,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an analysis.
While the North’s vast supplies could boost Russia’s war effort, Moscow has imported drones from another ally, Iran, which have played a major role in the fighting.
Russia has been using Shahed’s exploding drones to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure for more than a year. After the initial surprise, Ukrainian air defenses have honed their skills to attack them, but the cheap and simple drones with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) continue to cause significant damage.
Russia has reportedly purchased a production license from Iran and built its own factory to assemble the drones and produce thousands of them per year. Iran is expected to initially supply the materials and technology, with the factory gradually switching to domestically produced components.
Russian arms makers have made up for at least some of the equipment losses during the conflict and developed a number of new products, including satellite-guided hover bombs and other precision weapons, to fight back against Ukraine’s summer offensive.
Early in the war, Ukraine’s widespread use of drones caused heavy casualties for Russian forces and played a major role in Moscow’s military setbacks. Russian officials acknowledged that they had not paid enough attention to drones before the war and vowed to quickly fill the gap.
One type of mass-produced exploding drone that has made a visible impact is the Lancet, which is capable of lurking above the battlefield before hitting its target. It is cheap and compact and has become productive, allowing the Russian military to attack Ukrainian tanks and artillery systems on a large scale.
Russia has increasingly used another new tool in recent months: floating aerial bombs. With a pair of winglets and a satellite navigation module, old Soviet-made bombs have been 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 attacks on Ukrainian forces along the front line without endangering fighter aircraft.
Russia has adapted and used 500-kilogram bombs to repel the Ukrainian counter-offensive. It has been working on designing a similar conversion for a 1,500-kilogram bomb, and reportedly used it for the first time this month. Transformed into a hover bomb, it is reportedly accurate to within 5 meters (16 feet) and leaves a 15 meters (50 feet) crater – a powerful weapon against Ukrainian military assets.
Another addition to the Russian arsenal is the Vikhr anti-tank missile used by Russian helicopter gunships. It has an extended range that allows pilots to take out Ukrainian armor while staying out of range of air defenses, and has seen widespread use during the summer.
“The use of attack aviation has presented a constant challenge to the Ukrainian armed forces throughout the counter-offensive,” the Royal United Services Institute said in an analysis.
While developing new munitions, Russian manufacturers have also ramped up production of tanks and other weapons, and the military has increasingly made use of its storage bases of thousands of Cold War armored vehicles. Some have been upgraded with protective shields and other equipment to increase their chances of survival.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, has said Russia will produce 1,500 main battle tanks by 2023.
“The conveyors of our military-industrial complex will work in three shifts and will produce as many weapons as necessary to efficiently protect the homeland,” he said.
Associated Press writers Emma Burrows in Tallinn, Estonia, and Kim Tong-Hyung in Seoul contributed.