According to U.S. intelligence officials, Russia has recently obtained ballistic missiles and drones from North Korea to support its invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. also reports that Russia is in the process of purchasing additional missiles and rocket artillery from Iran. These revelations highlight Russia’s desperation as its war efforts falter and underscore the global security threats posed by Russia’s relationships with isolated authoritarian regimes.
Russia Turns to North Korea for Weapons
On January 4th, 2023, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby revealed that American intelligence indicates Russia has used North Korean short range ballistic missiles in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure over the past several months. Kirby declined to specify the number or types of North Korean missiles used, but experts believe they likely include variants of North Korea’s KN-23 missile which resembles Russia’s Iskander.
While Russia possesses a massive stockpile of Soviet-era missiles, U.S. officials report that Russian forces have depleted a large portion of their precision-guided munitions over 11 months of intense bombardment of Ukrainian cities and energy facilities. North Korea’s supply of such missiles is also thought to be limited, but its willingness to transfer weapons to Russia provides Kremlin war planners with desperately needed reinforcements.
In addition to missiles, Kirby stated that Russia has purchased hundreds of Iranian-made drones which were used in attacks across Ukraine in late 2022. After Ukraine devised effective methods to counter the slow-flying drones, Russia again turned to North Korea and obtained 100’s of drones capable of faster speeds and harder to shoot down. These North Korean drones have been frequently spotted over the skies of Ukraine over the past month.
|Used in attacks on Ukraine infrastructure
|Many shot down, effectiveness diminished
|Actively used to strike targets across Ukraine
Experts warn that Russia’s integration of North Korean missiles and drones poses risks beyond the war in Ukraine. North Korea stands to benefit financially and technologically from access to Russian weapons and practices, gains which it could incorporate into ongoing efforts to expand its nuclear forces and missile programs.
The illicit transfer of banned ballistic missile systems also violates multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions imposed on North Korea. However, Russia seems undeterred from making deals undermining the international rules-based order, perhaps calculating that neither China nor the West has sufficient leverage or willpower to punish such violations at this stage.
Iran Missile Deal in the Works
As North Korean stockpiles run low, U.S. officials report that Russia has focused efforts on procuring additional long-range ballistic missiles and attack drones from Iran. On January 4th, the Wall Street Journal revealed Russia and Iran have finalized an unspecified agreement for Tehran to provide Buk M-1 anti-aircraft missiles, Fateh 110 and Zolfaghar short range ballistic missiles plus additional attack drones to replenish Russian military stocks depleted after intense bombardments of civilian Ukrainian infrastructure.
The Fateh 110 is a road-mobile, solid propellant missile with a range of 300km capable of carrying a 500kg payload. The larger Zolfaghar can reach 700km while carrying a 700kg warhead. The Buk M-1 air defense system fields advanced radar-guided missiles effective against aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions like the HIMARS rockets which have dealt heavy blows to Russian forces in Ukraine.
U.S Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned Russia’s weapons deals as violating U.N. Security Council resolutions and further enabling worldwide “terror and mayhem.” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky also criticized Moscow’s growing alliance with regimes like Iran and North Korea, stating: “The axis of evil is not just an epithet… Russia is forming an anti-democratic alliance with dictatorial and corrupt regimes that threatens global security far beyond Ukraine.”
A Deepening Russia-North Korea Military Partnership
While shocking to some Western observers, Russia’s procurement of North Korean and Iranian missiles reflects a deepening 3-way military partnership between America’s primary adversaries. According to U.S. intelligence sources and think tank analyses, Russia-North Korea defense ties have continuously expanded since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to deteriorating relations with the West.
North Korea was one of only a handful of nations to recognize the independence of the Russia-backed breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk just days before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia also joined China in vetoing recent U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea’s record number of missile tests over 2022.
In addition, a November 2022 U.N. report revealed that over 100 North Korean IT workers have been dispatched to Russia and Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. There, these North Korean cyber experts likely assist Russian intelligence hacking and electronic warfare efforts.
North Korean laborers are also constructing Russian military camps and fortifications in contested areas of Ukraine. The U.N. report stated that 30-90 North Korean construction workers were spotted in Donbas and Kherson oblasts supporting Russian occupation authorities. Financial transactions indicate these labor arrangements directly benefit North Korea’s Munitions Industry Department – the agency responsible for oversees ballistic missile development.
In exchange for missiles, drones, cyber support and manpower, North Korea is thought to gain much needed hard currency along with opportunities to examine advanced Russian weapons and military equipment. President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated “Russia is buying weapons from North Korea in order to use them against Ukrainians.” The deepening Russia-North Korea military partnership, what Sullivan labeled an “unholy alliance,” threatens to further undermine global security by strengthening the offensive capabilities of authoritarian regimes hostile to Western allies across Indo-Pacific and Europe.
The Path Ahead
The news that Russia has deployed North Korean missiles and drones in attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure confirms Moscow’s increasing reliance on rogue states to sustain its faltering invasion. So too do the reports that Russia has finalized deals to purchase Iranian ballistic missiles and other advanced weapons. Russia’s economic isolation makes it unable to produce advanced munitions to replenish its massive losses of aircraft, tanks and artillery systems. Instead, Putin’s war machine grows more dependent on the black market of intercontinental arms trafficking.
Expert analyses overwhelmingly expect Russian missile strikes employing imported North Korean and Iranian missiles to intensify in 2023. Ukraine likely faces continued heavy bombardments as Putin desperately seeks to regain momentum and salvage an invasion branded a catastrophic blunder by many Russian nationalists. Iranian weapons also bolster Russian anti-aircraft defenses which may slow, but likely not stop, Ukraine’s methodical counteroffensive to reclaim occupied territory in the Donbas and southern regions.
However, Russia’s economic struggles, loss of territorial gains, and need to acquire munitions from distant authoritarian regimes bodes poorly for its military’s future capabilities. Dependence on North Korea and Iran further ostracizes Russia from the rules-based international order, opening Moscow to additional diplomatic consequences and sanctions. Meanwhile China treads carefully, gauging when declines in Russian power provide opportunities for China to wrest control of Mongolia and parts of the Russian Far East.
Domestically, anti-war protests demanding Putin end partial mobilization and negotiate with Ukraine simmer across Russia. Though harsh government crackdowns have limited demonstrations, economic hardships from brutal Western financial sanctions will further deflate support for what is increasingly seen as Putin’s disastrous foreign policy ambitions. Ultimately, say experts, time stands firmly on the West’s side, not on the axis of despots conspiring to fracture NATO solidarity and usher in a new world order built on repression abroad and deprivation at home.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.