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Moscow breaks with U.N. to buy North Korean weapons

New weapons deal may signal a supply chain crisis as Russia sources ammo and rockets from North Korea

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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting in Vladivostok, Russia.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on April 25, 2019. As the war in Ukraine stretches into its seventh month, North Korea is hinting at its interest in sending construction workers to help rebuild Russian-occupied territories in the country’s east.

Alexander Zemlianichenko, Associated Press

According to recently declassified U.S. intelligence, Moscow has made agreements to buy millions of artillery shells and rockets to aid in its invasion of Ukraine. First reported by The New York Times, the disclosure signals faltering supply chains as Russia’s access to supplies has been squeezed by American and European sanctions.

Why Russia can’t buy weapons

American and European sanctions and export controls have prevented Moscow's large-scale acquisition of weapons and technology. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that “the Russian military continues to suffer from severe supply shortages in Ukraine, due in part to export controls and sanctions.”

China blames the U.S. and NATO for the invasion of Ukraine, and refuses to criticize the actions of the Kremlin, showing how recent events have deepened ties between the two nations, per Axios.

Even so, China has not provided any material support to Russia, according to Reuters. Chinese companies have been warned that “the United States would cut them off from American equipment and software they need to make their products,” per The New York Times. Any contributions to Russia’s war effort would devastate their chip-making capabilities, which rely on Western tech.

Moscow received hundreds of drones from Iran in August, yet The Washington Post reported that there were some technical issues with the devices. The extent of the problem remains unclear.

A closer look

Investigators from the Conflict Armament Research group recovered components from helicopters, cruise missiles, aerial vehicles and navigation equipment to understand Russian technology. In the report they released, it was shown that the country is “highly reliant on a narrow set of particular technology to produce the advanced weapon systems it has deployed since invading Ukraine,” with many critical parts being supplied from non-Russian manufacturers.

The armament research group is working with agencies to trace the purchasing paths of these devices in order to stop future products from getting past the export bans. As high-end Russian weapons systems rely on foreign tech, the Kremlin is reaching out to North Korea for lower-tech options such as the 152-millimeter artillery shell, per The New York Times.

Both Ukraine and Russia are finding it difficult to source artillery shells for their Soviet-era guns, and North Korea is one of the few places that have the munitions, according to The Washington Post.

The state-owned Russian news agency Tass reports that North Korea-Russia relations “are reaching new strategic heights,” and are “entering a golden age.” This weapons deal further complicates the United Nation’s attempts to denuclearize North Korea by imposing more sanctions, as Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution in May.

Any export of weapons to Russia would violate other U.N. resolutions, though there have been suspicions that China and Russia have avoided strict enforcement of U.N. measures against North Korea for some time, per The Associated Press.

Frederick W. Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The New York Times that “the only reason the Kremlin should have to buy artillery shells or rockets from North Korea or anyone is because Putin has been unwilling or unable to mobilize the Russian economy for war at even the most basic level.”