It is an indication of just now badly Russia’s “special military operation” is progressing in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin finds himself having to turn to North Korea’s oddball dictator, Kim Jong-un, for help.
With a military campaign that was supposed to last just a few months now well into its second year, the Kremlin finds itself in desperate need of fresh supplies of weaponry. Morale among front-line troops is at an all-time low after the devastating losses they have suffered during the past 18 months, and their misery is compounded by a lack of munitions. The primary cause, after all, of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived coup attempt in June was the crippling equipment shortages which he claimed his Wagner mercenaries faced as a result of the Kremlin’s inept war management.
Prigozhin has now been successfully neutralised but Putin’s quest to replenish Russia’s depleted weapons stocks means he has little alternative but to turn to the North Korean leader. Kim, after all, is the one former US president Donald Trump once dubbed “rocket man” because of his obsession with threatening the United States with his ballistic missile arsenal.
North Korea’s missile systems bear an uncanny resemblance to their Russian counterparts, which is hardly surprising given the close military ties Pyongyang has enjoyed with Moscow dating back to the Soviet era. North Korea’s Nodong medium-range missile programme, for example, is based on similar technology used in the Soviet Union’s Scud missile systems. It has also been used in the development of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Nor are the similarities confined to missile systems. Many of North Korea’s weapons stockpiles are much the same as Russia’s, especially conventional arms such as artillery shells and rockets, which are compatible with Soviet-era weapons.
Consequently, at a time when Putin is under immense pressure to boost Russia’s faltering war effort, he has found he has no other option than to seek help from Pyongyang, a move that merely confirms the Russian leader’s dire predicament.
By hosting Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome – home to Moscow’s space programme – in Russia’s far east, Putin was seeking to satisfy his guest’s well-established interest in missile technology.
It has even been suggested that the Russian leader will offer North Korea help with developing its satellite programme in return for Pyongyang providing the Kremlin with weapons. If so, Kim will want reassurances from Moscow that any future co-operation in this field will not suffer the same fate as the last Soyuz-2 lunar probe to be launched from Vostochny in August, which ended up crashing during its attempt to land on the Moon.
Putin will also need to take care that deepening ties with Kim will not cause friction with Beijing, which historically has regarded North Korea as falling under its own sphere of influence. China remains North Korea’s most important trading partner and Pyongyang’s heavy reliance on its powerful neighbour means that Beijing is able to exercise considerable influence over its unruly ally – as and when it chooses to.
Often, it suits China’s foreign policy agenda to have North Korea causing consternation in Washington, such as when Kim makes one of his threats to launch a nuclear attack against America. The Chinese, however, are just as willing to rein in their troublesome neighbour if events look like spiralling out of control, as happened in 2017 after Trump threatened to “totally destroy” Kim’s regime after dispatching a US navy battlegroup to the Korean peninsula.
China’s ability to exercise influence over Pyongyang could, though, be undermined if Russia succeeds in deepening its military ties with North Korea, which would allow Kim more room for manoeuvre in his confrontation with Washington. Beijing is unlikely to look favourably on such a development, with all the implications that it would have for China’s support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Another consideration that Putin needs to bear in mind is the impact his courtship of Kim will have on his efforts to improve Russia’s appeal to those parts of the world that have remained neutral on the Ukraine issue. Part of Russia’s appeal to emerging powers such as South Africa and Brazil is that Moscow presents a viable alternative to US military supremacy. Yet, as the conflict in Ukraine has graphically illustrated, Western military technology has proved to be greatly superior to Russian firepower.
This week’s attack on the Sevastopol base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, where a British Storm Shadow missile has been credited with scoring a direct hit on one of Russia’s most formidable submarines, has brutally exposed the base’s ineffectual defences.
The string of successes that Ukrainian forces have recently enjoyed on the battlefield using sophisticated Western weaponry suggests that Putin’s claims of Russian military might are nothing more than a myth. And the fact that Putin has now been forced to turn to an unpredictable dictator such as Kim for help serves to highlight the inherent weakness of Moscow’s position, not its strength.
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