Putin’s bid for North Korean weapons, Cuban fighters show signs of desperation

Attempting to negotiate arms deals with Kim Jong Un and trafficking Cuban soldiers are just the latest signs of Russia’s growing desperation as it struggles to maintain its fighting force in Ukraine. 

As Ukraine’s counteroffensive enters it fourth month, Russian forces are strained under heavy casualties, lack of equipment, limited training and low morale, forcing Moscow to look outside its borders for any help it can gain, U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts say. 

With a new meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin soon expected, such a visit is indicative of the Russian leader’s “international pariah status” leading to “trouble sustaining the military effort,” according to State Department spokesperson Matt Miller. 

“Not only has he failed to achieve his goals on the battlefield, but you see him traveling across his own country, hat in hand, to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance,” Miller told reporters of Putin on Monday. 

And Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) earlier Monday on MSNBC said Putin is “desperate for more equipment, he’s desperate for more support,” forcing him to “make a devil’s deal.” 

The North Korean and Russian leaders were expected to “soon” meet in Vladivostok, an eastern Russian port city where Putin is attending an economic summit, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying talks “could take place within days,” according to Kremlin state-run outlet Tass. 

The trip is a major development as it marks the first known travel for Kim outside North Korea’s borders since the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring 2020, and the first time he’s met with Putin since April 2019. 

It also marks a chance for the Kremlin military to gain more weaponry, which, more than a year and a half after it first attacked Ukraine in February 2022, is badly depleted.  

Multiple outlets have reported that Putin is seeking more artillery and ammunition for his forces in Ukraine’s occupied eastern and southern regions.  

Pyongyang, in return, could get its hands on valuable intelligence and weapons technology it’s been barred from accessing by 20 years of United Nations’ sanctions, including those that could help Kim’s new nuclear submarine program and floundering satellite program. 

Should a deal be brokered, it wouldn’t be the first time North Korea would be supplying Russia arms.  

The Biden administration last year confirmed North Korea attempted to bolster Kremlin troops in Ukraine via arms shipments to private Russian military company Wagner Group, a claim Pyongyang denied. 

This latest meeting between the two nations, however, could mark a more open and significant deal. 

“Putin and Kim really have very little friends in the international arena, and I think a lot of this is also just political and moral support for a common goal of undermining or subverting U.S. influence,” said Andrew Yeo, the senior fellow for Brookings Institute’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July in a bid to push forward talks and sway North Korea to sell artillery ammunition to Moscow. 

“It speaks volumes about the desperation that Russia has if it’s going around the world trying to find support and weapons from North Korea,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News last week after news broke of the upcoming meeting. 

Russia is already being shipped weapons, specifically drones, from Iran. With concerns it could soon get more from North Korea, the United States “will look at every possible means we have to prevent that, to disrupt that, working with other countries,” Blinken added. 

Whether Putin is indeed as desperate as U.S. officials and lawmakers claim, he has “definitely depleted his military capabilities and is running out of options,” according to Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. 

“Putin is determined to persevere and to seek all avenues for continuing the war effort in Ukraine,” he told The Hill. 

By one account, Russia has spent more than seven million rounds of artillery in its fight in Ukraine this year alone, though it is only able to produce about two and a half million rounds using Russian arms manufacturers, according to Cronin.  

“So there’s a significant shortfall in maintaining the ability just to fire conventional munitions on the battlefield . . . And Kim Jong Un is very much trying to exploit Putin at a moment when Putin desperately needs to persevere on the battlefield at all costs,” he said. 

Yeo said seeing as North Korea hasn’t been in any kind of war since 1953, they likely have “a stockpile of artillery shells and missiles and they’re probably compatible with Soviet-era weapons.” 

By gaining such munitions from Pyongyang, Moscow could stay in the fight longer and wait out the West for any possible diversion, distraction, public and political fatigue, or major election that could quell the flow of aid to Ukraine, Cronin noted.  

The Russian president is also limited in his ability to mobilize people at home even as his troops are being cut down in droves, forcing him to attempt to recruit from such pariah states as Syria, Cuba and elsewhere.  

Cuban authorities last week announced they had so far arrested 17 people in connection to a ring of human traffickers allegedly attempting to coerce young Cuban men to fight in the Russian military. 

Officials said they were working to “neutralize and dismantle” the network, which was operating both in Cuba and in Russia, countries that have strong political ties. 

Last August, the Russian leader ordered his military to increase its number of soldiers after its combat forces suffered heavy losses in Ukraine, even signing a decree to allow foreigners to volunteer for service in the Russian military to receive fast-tracked citizenship. 

And multiple outlets reported last year that the Kremlin, through Wagner Group, was attempting to recruit Syrians to fight with Russian forces in Ukraine, though few Syrians appear to have taken the bait.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in January reported that less than 2,000 soldiers from the Syrian Arab Army had been deployed to Ukraine to fight on behalf of Russia.

The new attempts to have foreigners sign up for Russia’s side in the war come as multiple media outlets and outside groups watching the war have reported Russian troops’ persistent problems on the battlefield, issues they say are hurting Kremlin operations along Ukraine’s frontline. 

Reuters last week detailed multiple Russian soldiers complaining that their units were suffering from heavy losses, dwindling munitions, proper training and equipment and low morale. 

And a far-right Russian irregular paramilitary unit known as the “Rusich” Sabotage and Reconnaissance Group have released a list of issues that it claims are never-ending for Moscow’s forces. Included in those grievances was a lack of counter-fire range and accuracy due to a dearth of needed equipment, rocket launch systems that are susceptible to electronic warfare, difficulty with different units communicating with each other due to troops being forced to buy their own equipment, and no evacuation of dead or wounded troops from the frontline, according to the Institute for the Study of War’s latest battlefield assessments released Sunday.

ISW said that it has “routinely observed other Russian units expressing similar issues.” 

Russia’s slog in Ukraine isn’t expected to end anytime soon, making it likely that Putin’s woes will continue to pile up without significant outside help. 

Ukraine’s intelligence arm on Sunday stated that Ukrainian forces will continue counteroffensive operations into late 2023. 

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