What does Russia need?
Mired in a war he hoped would have been over many months ago, Putin’s military is short of ammunition but fighting a conflict increasingly dominated by it, analysts said.
Russia is still ramping up its own production and its increasing global isolation has left Moscow looking elsewhere.
The White House warned last month that Russia’s arms negotiations with North Korea were “actively advancing,” and that Kim and Putin had exchanged letters pledging to increase their cooperation. Artillery munitions were likely to be a particular focus, it said.
It’s hard to say exactly what was on the agenda at the Vostochny cosmodrome, but such a rare summit was likely motivated by the fact that Kim had something his host felt he needed.
Putin’s shopping list is pretty clear, said Michael Horowitz, an analyst who is the head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a security and risk management consultancy.
“The Russian president wants ammunition,” he said.
“The fighting in Ukraine is very much driven by artillery: Simply put, if you can fire more at the enemy, you have a better chance of success,” Horowitz added.
The White House has already accused North Korea of covertly supplying a “significant number” of artillery shells to Russia last year.
But the timing of Kim’s trip is significant, with Ukraine pushing to break through Russian lines before winter in a counteroffensive loaded with Western weapons.
A fresh supply of artillery from Pyongyang could further complicate Kyiv’s efforts.
The conflict has turned into an “artillery duel” more akin to the two world wars than modern warfare, said David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University, with Russia firing an estimated 20,000 rounds a day compared with 5,000 by Ukraine, whose shells are mostly supplied by the U.S.
North Korean shells, he said, would “allow the Russians to continue to hold those lines” in the hope that Ukraine will run out of ammunition first.
Analysts said it’s difficult to assess exactly how much ammunition the reclusive state might have stored and readily available for shipping, or whether that stockpiled ammunition is in a battle-ready condition. It also remains unclear just how much ammunition North Korea is producing, and if it has the capacity to significantly expand its production, should the Kremlin ask it to do so.
But two types of shells (122 mm and 155 mm caliber munitions regularly used by Russia in Ukraine) and anti-tank missiles would likely be of particular value to the Kremlin.
“North Korea would certainly have large stocks of Russian/Soviet standard ammunition, stocks that could provide real support for the Russians, who are using ammunition at a prodigious clip,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Russia already sources drones — a cheap but effective weapon designed to wear down Ukraine’s air defenses — from Iran, another Western adversary.
But while the Kremlin may be looking for an edge on the battlefield, could doing a deal with North Korea instead actually help refill Kyiv’s coffers?
South Korea, a key Western ally, also possesses large stocks of U.S.standard ammunition and the production capacity to make large amounts of it, O’Brien said.
Seoul has so far refused to provide lethal aid to Ukraine to avoid angering Russia, but on Thursday expressed “deep concern and regret” about the summit’s apparent focus on military cooperation.
“They may decide that if North Korea is backing Russia so openly, that they will provide similar aid to Ukraine,” he added.