Arsenal of Autocracy: North Korea and Iran are arming Russia in Ukraine

Over the New Year holiday period, Russia launched some of the biggest bombardments of Ukrainian cities since the start of the full-scale invasion almost two years ago. These attacks had been widely expected, with Russia believed to have been actively stockpiling missiles and drones during the final few months of 2023. Nevertheless, the origin of some of the missiles used in Russia’s latest air attacks has sparked considerable disquiet in Ukraine and throughout Western capitals.

In the days following these latest bombardments, the White House announced that Russia had used North Korean ballistic missiles to strike Ukraine. These claims were subsequently corroborated by senior Ukrainian officials. In a joint statement issued on January 9, the US, UK, EU, Australia, Germany, Canada and nearly 40 other partner nations condemned North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles to Russia.

The delivery of North Korean ballistic missiles marks the latest escalation in the country’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Reports of North Korean arms shipments to Russia first emerged in late 2022. In October 2023, US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced that Pyongyang had delivered more than 1,000 containers of equipment and munitions to Russia. Speaking in late 2023, South Korean officials claimed North Korean military production facilities were operating “at maximum capacity” in order to meet Russian demand for armaments.

It is not clear what Russia is offering in exchange for the weapons it is receiving from North Korea, but there are fears that Moscow is providing the heavily sanctioned nation with access to new military technologies. During a September 2023 visit to Russia, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a number of military sites showcasing advanced weapons systems.

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North Korea is not the only authoritarian regime currently providing Putin with weapons for the invasion of Ukraine. Iran has supplied Russia with large quantities of attack drones as well as artillery shells, while Russia is using Iranian drone technologies to establish large-scale domestic production of attack drones for use in Ukraine. Recent reports indicate this cooperation is now intensifying. Russia is poised to receive Iranian ballistic missiles, with Iran also delivering upgraded drones.

The military support currently being provided by North Korea and Iran is believed to be critical for the Russian war effort. While Vladimir Putin has succeeded in moving much of the Russian economy onto a war footing, the intensity of the fighting in Ukraine means Russia is currently unable to meet high demand for key munitions categories including drones, missiles, and artillery shells.

With the invasion of Ukraine about to enter a third year, deliveries of Iranian and North Korean ammunition are enabling Russia to maintain a significant artillery advantage in what is now widely regarded as a war of attrition. Likewise, the steady supply of Iranian drones makes it possible for Russia to continue its intensive bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities and the country’s civilian infrastructure. Deliveries of North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles will allow Russia to further expand the air war against Ukraine.

While Putin’s fellow autocrats in Tehran and Pyongyang grow bolder in their readiness to back the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West’s collective commitment to the Ukrainian war effort is now increasingly in question. In recent months, a major new US aid package for Ukraine has become hostage to domestic American politics, while the passage of long-term EU aid has been blocked in Brussels thanks to opposition from Hungary. This is fueling speculation over the future of Western support for Ukraine in a long war with Russia.

Vladimir Putin has clearly been encouraged by mounting recent indications of Western weakness, and believes he can ultimately outlast the West in a test of political wills. The Russian dictator has long framed the invasion of Ukraine in historic terms as an attempt to end the era of Western dominance. He aims to usher in a new multipolar world order and is building alliances with like-minded authoritarian regimes.

It is now clear that Russia has succeeded in establishing an Arsenal of Autocracy together with Iran and North Korea. Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang are leveraging their military potential and producing the quantities of weapons necessary to overwhelm Western resistance and achieve Russian victory in Ukraine.

This authoritarian alliance poses grave threats to the future of global security. If Russia prevails in Ukraine thanks to military support from Iran and North Korea, Ukrainians will not be the last victims. On the contrary, Putin’s triumph would set a disastrous precedent. The international community would soon be faced with further wars of aggression as the world plunged into a dangerous new era where today’s rules regarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity no longer applied.

None of this is inevitable, but the clock is already ticking. If Western leaders wish to avoid decades of international insecurity and instability, they must send a clear message to all autocratic rulers and Putin wannabes by making sure the Russian invasion of Ukraine ends in decisive defeat.

Olivia Yanchik is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Arsenal of Autocracy: North Korea and Iran are arming Russia in Ukraine. (IMAGO/Christian Ohde via Reuters Connect)