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With the West having to ramp up production to meet Ukraine’s ravenous demand for ammunition and avoid shortages of its own, it shouldn’t shock anyone that Russia is facing an even greater threat to the flow of weaponry to the front. The West is wealthy, Russia isn’t and sanctions make it difficult to buy arms, or source the dollars dealers and manufacturers would demand.
So, it’s even less surprising that Vladimir Putin is reportedly looking for help from North Korea and is scheduled to meet Kim Jong Un in Russia’s eastern city of Vladivostok. Russia is also considering joint military exercises with the hermit state, “because they’re neighbours,’’ according to defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia’s problem is that traditionally North Korea doesn’t have friends. Three generations of Kims prefer to call their inevitably temporary and floating alliances “tactical and strategic collaborations.’’ That’s partly because everything in North Korea is clouded in vague language – or language that means the opposite of what is said.
What passes for friendship also comes at an immense cost, so Putin will pay far more for weapons or ammunition than they’re worth in any other market. He’ll also pay in dollars because Kim and his beleaguered citizens recognise no other currency. For the most part, North Korea obtains dollars through a near-global criminal network, and the trickle that crosses the Chinese border in the hands of brave smugglers and traders.
The two countries have an uneven history in their dealings with each other. North Korea was born of Soviet patronage, but the collapse of the USSR and the birth of Russia’s state capitalism saw them distance themselves. Now, a desperate Putin needs to mend bridges where he can. On one side of his enormous nation he has Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, on the other a cautious China and the sinister weirdness of North Korea, inarguably the world’s most oppressive and strangest state. Nothing about North Korea makes sense.
It seems inevitable that North Korea will send munitions to Russia in exchange for dollars and oil. Russia is already accused of breaking sanctions by shipping oil to Kim’s regime and perhaps, until now, Russia had the upper hand. War in Ukraine has changed and upset the balance in this relationship, and now Putin must go cap in hand and haggle with a man who strapped his uncle to an anti-aircraft gun and shredded him. It’s reasonable to expect that Kim negotiates hard.
Still, this isn’t just a Russian problem. There are good and sensible reasons for the harsh sanctions on North Korea because its leader isn’t rational. Kim’s purpose in life is his own considerable comfort and the continuation of the Kim dynasty. Any additional wealth Russia provides Kim could feasibly be used to ramp up his nuclear ambitions, where it’s his fervent desire to be recognised officially as a nuclear state, most especially by the US. His desire is to be known as a legitimate and equal among nations, not a rogue state.
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Kim is content to force his 26 million enslaved citizens to endure extreme sacrifice in order to get what he wants. His family grew fat watching at least three million starve to death. When they eventually allowed food aid into the country, it was repackaged as “war reparations’’ from the enemy, even as North Koreans were eating grass.
It’s not just weaponry Russia is running out of; it’s also running out of fighters and turning to criminal gangs and human traffickers to bolster the front line. Cuban authorities have announced the presence of Russian human traffickers on the island nation and say they will soon prosecute those they’ve caught for trying to send young Cuban men to fight in Ukraine. Meanwhile, there have been reports of Cubans already in the Russian military, fighting on the promise of citizenship if they survive.
Being short of men and materiel doesn’t mean that Russia’s offensive will collapse imminently, though many a war has ended when combatant nations ran out of money. Instead, it likely means that Ukraine will make slow but steadier progress, and that Putin will cosy up to other pariah states like Iran – and that behind closed doors he’ll be begging China for help, which might well be given.
For the West, it means the Cold War is back, this time with vengeance in its heart. It also means that the hot end of the Cold War has new fronts, from Ukraine to West Africa and beyond. This is a huge and terrifying prospect because the West’s heart isn’t in it. It’s become soft and lazy and far too comfortable, so leaders from London to Washington would do well to treat any Russian cooperation with North Korea as more than a blip in the system. Ukrainians won’t be the only people to suffer the consequences of such an alliance.