Russia turns to fellow outcasts North Korea and Iran for help with faltering war effort

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok, Russia, in 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON — With aid continuing to flow to Ukraine from the West, and its own military increasingly strained by a war now entering its ninth month, Russia is turning to fellow outcasts from the international community for shipments of weapons.

Last month’s attacks by Russia against Kyiv and other Ukrainian targets were conducted by Shahed-136 drones sent by Iran, in violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

(Moscow and Tehran denied the drones’ origins, but Western observers were unconvinced.)

Now, intelligence indicates that Russia is also receiving aid from North Korea, another heavily sanctioned nation that operates outside the bounds of international norms. North Korea is “covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while obfuscating the real destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as though they are going to countries in the Middle East and North Africa,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a Wednesday morning briefing.

He did not specify which countries were serving as “stopover sites” for the North Korean shipments, though Iran and Syria would serve as obvious candidates. Kirby also declined to say how the United States obtained intelligence about the shipments or whether efforts would be made to intercept future deliveries.

“We will obviously consult allies and partners, particularly in the U.N., on additional accountability measures,” Kirby told reporters. In October, the United Nations voted in rare near-unanimity to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories. North Korea and Syria both voted against the measure.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February, he expected a quick victory culminating with a regime change in Kyiv. Instead, he now finds himself in a grinding ground war that Ukraine is winning through the innovative use of sophisticated Western weaponry.

Russian tanks damaged in recent fighting are seen near the recently retaken village of Kamianka.
Russian tanks damaged in recent fighting are seen Sunday near the recently retaken village of Kamianka, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russia has suffered astonishing losses as a result, with perhaps as many as 70,000 soldiers having been killed since the conflict began. Equipment losses have been staggering as well, with 1,183 tanks and 1,304 infantry fighting vehicles destroyed since the start of the war.

And with Russia’s own economy heavily crippled by sanctions, it has sought help from rogue regimes like those in Tehran and Pyongyang.

In addition to drones, Iran could be preparing to send guided missiles to Russia, the Pentagon believes. “We do have concerns that Russia may also seek to acquire additional advanced munition capabilities from Iran — for example, surface-to-surface missiles — to use in Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said earlier this week.

Iran is believed to have sent members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Crimea last month to help train Russians in using their new Shahed-136 drones.

North Korea and Russia agreed on a munitions sale several weeks ago; only now does that sale appear to have finally been executed.

“We don’t believe this will change the course of the war,” Kirby said of the shipment, though he said the number of shells was “not insignificant.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shake hands in Tehran, Iran.
Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran, in July. (West Asia News Agency/Handout via Reuters)

In addition to North Korea and Iran, Belarus is one of the few countries in the world willing to help Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is a close Putin ally.

China has notably abstained from efforts to punish or isolate Russia, and the two neighboring superpowers have maintained a robust trade relationship. And although China and Russia also have close military ties, Beijing has so far shown little interest in helping Putin on the battlefield.