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The US mocked Russia for its motley cast of allies in Ukraine. It's not laughing anymore.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) visit a construction site of the Angara rocket launch complex on September 13, 2023 in Tsiolkovsky, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, at the Angara rocket launch complex on September 13.Contributor/Getty Images
  • Russia's dealmaking with Iran and North Korea has attracted mockery from the West as "desperate."

  • But the alliance actually benefits all three countries, experts say.

  • It's helped Russia in Ukraine and has likely benefited North Korea economically and militarily.

In fall 2022, Vladimir Putin was in a bind. Expecting to have already overrun Ukraine, his Russian forces were instead being routed from huge swathes of the country.

"They just didn't have the weapons they needed. They didn't have the soldiers prepared. They didn't have the defensive positions prepared," Bruce W. Bennett, a defense researcher at RAND, told Business Insider.

Isolated from much of the world by sanctions, Putin turned to rogue states like Iran and North Korea for munitions.

The US watched closely. But publicly, officials were sanguine, even dismissive.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, quipped in September that the ragtag partnerships came off like a "Star Wars bar scene of countries."

"Nothing from Pyongyang will be a game changer in Ukraine," Mark Milley, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September last year.

More recently, Grant Shapps, the UK's defense minister, posted on X that Putin had been forced "into the humiliation of going cap in hand to North Korea" to support his war machine.

But as Western support for Ukraine wavers, the impact of Pyongyang's ammunition supply — along with an influx of Shahed drones from Iran — is likely helping Russia get an edge over its adversary, experts say.

And beyond Ukraine, it's having ripple effects on the international order.

Tipping the scales

The three-way axis is "fragile in many ways," Beth Sanner, a former intelligence official under the Trump and Biden administrations, said at a recent Atlantic Council event.

But, she said, it has "a quite serious and very real effect."

As Russia's invasion stalled in mid-2022, Putin had already started the groundwork to procure Shahed drones from Iran.

Russia has fired thousands in Ukraine since then.

Given that neither Russia nor North Korea has admitted to arms transfers, there's no way of knowing how significant the country's contribution is to Russia's munitions.

But "the volume of stuff that's been going over is huge. It's significant," Joseph Byrne, an open-source researcher and North Korea specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, told BI.

North Korea Kim Jong Un Russia aircraft factory
Kim Jong Un at an aircraft manufacturing plant in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia, on September 15.Government of Khabarovsk Region via REUTERS

South Korean officials have said that since September, it has observed North Korea sending about 6,700 containers to Russia, potentially holding about 3 million 152mm artillery shells or half a million 122 mm shells.

Bennett said this is a "major contribution" to Russia's war efforts, even factoring in the possibility that many of the shells — likely drawn from Soviet-era stockpiles — may be duds.

And North Korea's factories are now working to bring Russia fresh weapons and shells, South Korea said on Wednesday.

When asked if these supplies were a "game changer" for Russia, John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, put it bluntly.

They're a "game continuer," he told the Atlantic Council.

Given Ukraine's ammunition shortages, that may be all Putin needs.

Last year, Russia was estimated to be going through 30,000 shells a day in Ukraine — roughly the amount the US was able to produce in a month at the time, Bennett said.

The US has since ramped up its production, but "it's going to take us years to get anywhere close to what North Korea has been providing to Russia," he told BI.

Byrne added: "You see Russia's ability to continue to fire artillery, fire rockets on Ukrainian positions just massively increase and sustain over a long period of time, very likely because of this uplift from the North Koreans."

Going rogue

Putin
Putin at his year-end press conference in Moscow on December 14.ALEXANDER KAZAKOV

Putin shows little sign he is bothered by the criticism leveled at his allies.

To work with North Korea, he has contravened UN Security Council resolutions he had previously signed.

For Bennett, Putin's thinking is simple. "If Russia failed to achieve success in Ukraine, meaning it got pushed out of Ukraine, is Putin going to survive physically?" he asked. "The answer is probably no. So Putin's desperate."

Motivated by self-preservation, the Russian president has little reason to mind the jibes from Ukraine's allies.

"What matters is power," Bennett said.

A boon for North Korea

Much the same can be said for Kim Jong Un, whose regime may gain a great deal from the partnership.

The terms of the exchange are unknown, but Byrne outlined several ways North Korea might benefit.

Cold hard cash is one.

Because of international sanctions, North Korea is obliged to hold most of its money abroad, Byrne said.

Western intelligence officials recently told The New York Times that Russia had unfrozen millions of dollars worth of North Korean assets, possibly in exchange for ammunition supplies.

A rocket is seen mid-launch, with flame and a cloud of smoke at its base, and two pylons either side against a dark background. The image, released by North Korean news agency KCNA, purports to show the launch of the rocket carrying a spy satellite Malligyong-1 in North Gyeongsang Province, North Korea, released on November 21, 2023.
A rocket carrying North Korean spy satellite Malligyong-1, in a handout image released on November 21.KCNA

North Korea could also benefit technologically: It might gain sophisticated technology transfers for electronic-warfare systems, air-defense systems, and ballistic missiles, Byrne said.

The opportunity to see how its ballistic missiles perform on the battlefield is "absolutely invaluable" for Kim, Byrne said.

South Korea has accused its northern neighbor of using Ukraine as a test site for its nuclear-capable missiles.

Meanwhile, Russia has been boosting North Korea on the international stage, including in September when Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, suggested that UN sanctions against the country were outdated.

Operating like this "really emboldens North Korea, Iran, and any other autocratic state," Sanner said.

An opportunistic cartel

It's unlikely that ties between Moscow and Pyongyang run deep because they share little in terms of ideology, experts said.

Kim Jong Un's regime is unlikely to be supplying Russia with weapons because it dislikes Ukraine, Bennett said.

"But they sure love Russian money and they sure love Russian grain," he said, describing it as "more a cartel kind of relationship."

But as shallow as the ideological kinship might run, there's little doubt that Russia's dealmaking with Iran and North Korea has altered the global landscape, he said. Signs of that were already emerging — in January, Russia and Iran announced their intention to sign a wide-ranging treaty.

"Two years ago, people would've said, 'Well, Russia's got some power, but not a big deal. Iran, oh, it's a nuisance, but it's not a big deal. North Korea's a nuisance, we're worried about their nukes, but not a big deal,'" Bennett said

Now, he said, "all three countries look more powerful, more threatening. And so yeah, it's changed the landscape."

Correction: March 5, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misspelled the US secretary of state's name. His name is Antony Blinken, not Anthony.

Read the original article on Business Insider