WASHINGTON – A potential high-stakes meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin is just one of several indications that the Russian president may be getting nervous − even desperate − as Moscow’s war in Ukraine grinds on into its 18th month.
As Ukraine makes some limited progress in its counteroffensive, Russian troops in the hotly contested southern coastal area of Ukraine are cracking down on an apparent resurgence of national patriotism, launching surprise checks and propaganda efforts to stave off a possible revolt, a senior Ukrainian defense ministry official said Monday.
Cuba, one of Russia’s most stalwart allies, is publicly accusing Moscow of trying to bolster its war effort by conscripting Cuban men and forcing them to fight against their will in Ukraine, a top Cuban official said Tuesday.
And perhaps most tellingly, the Russian president is trying to double down on his alliance with North Korea – a pariah state sanctioned and shunned by most of the world’s nations – in an apparent attempt to get more ammunition and weapons for use in Ukraine, U.S. national security officials said.
“I think it says a lot that Russia is having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defense capacity in a war that it expected would be over in a week, that in September of 2023 it is going to North Korea to get munitions to try to continue to grind out on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Biden administration National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at a White House briefing Tuesday.
A new post-Cold War alliance?
Russia and North Korea have had a complicated and on-again off-again relationship in recent decades.
But there are indications that the two countries are forging a closer-than-ever alliance, in part because of Putin’s need for help in Ukraine − and North Korea’s need for influential allies in the region, according to U.S. officials and former top national security officials, including John Bolton and Anthony Ruggiero.
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Both countries are becoming increasingly isolated on the world’s geopolitical stage. In Russia’s case, it is because of the unprovoked war in Ukraine that it launched in February 2022. North Korea has become more isolated because of its escalation in test launching of missile systems in violation of international treaties.
Last July, Kim invited Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to a major military parade in the capital of Pyongyang while pledging to expand military cooperation between the two countries. Current and former U.S. officials and North Korea analysts say that would primarily involve North Korea filling a critical void by supplying Russia with artillery and other ammunition.
Putin has been reaching out to presumed allies and even neutral countries in an effort to replace ammunition that is being used up increasingly quickly since Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in June.
In recent weeks, Kim and Putin exchanged official letters discussing the notion of North Korea sending more munitions to Russia to help in its war effort. And on Monday, the New York Times reported that Kim plans to travel to Vladivostok, Russia, to meet with Putin to discuss the possibility of supplying Russia with more weapons.
The agreement would help both countries, according to Bolton, a former National Security Advisor in the Trump administration, and Ruggiero, the senior director for North Korea and weapons proliferation issues on the White House National Security Council until 2021.
Putin wants Kim to send Russia artillery shells and other materiel including guided missiles designed to hit and destroy heavily armored tanks, while Kim wants advanced technology for satellites and nuclear to hit and destroy powered submarines from Russia, the Times said, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
Kim also is seeking food for North Korea’s 25 million people, who are suffering from severe food shortages. At least 60 percent of North Koreans live in extreme poverty, according to analysts.
Both leaders would be on the campus of Far Eastern Federal University in the Russian port city just north of North Korea to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, which is set to run Sept. 10 to 13, according to the Times and other media outlets. They said Kim also plans to visit Pier 33, where naval ships from Russia’s Pacific fleet dock.
Growing concern in Washington
White House officials told USA TODAY they could not comment on the Times report, or on the top-secret intelligence they have gathered on the military cooperation talks between the North Korean and Russian leaders.
Sullivan told reporters that the United States’ visibility into the quality and quantity of the weapons that North Korea could provide is “somewhat constrained,” but Washington will continue to look at the issue carefully.
But National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to USA TODAY that, “As we have warned publicly, arms negotiations between Russia and the DPRK are actively advancing,” in a reference to the official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Watson said Shoigu, the Russian Defense Minister, traveled to North Korea in July “to try to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia.”
“We have information that Kim Jong-Un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia,” Watson said. “We urge the DPRK to cease its arms negotiations with Russia and abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.”
After Shoigu met with Kim in July, “another group of Russian officials traveled to Pyongyang for follow-on discussions about potential arms deals between the DPRK and Russia,” another White House spokesman, John Kirby, said last week. “Following these negotiations, high-level discussions may continue in coming months.”
Kirby also said that U.S. officials warned at the end of last year that North Korea had “delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner,” Moscow’s paramilitary proxy group. Wagner was headed by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin until his death in a plane crash last month after mounting an aborted uprising against Putin.
In response, Kirby said, “We will continue to identify, expose, and counter Russian attempts to acquire military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine.”
An “extraordinary” expenditure of ammunition
In an interview, Bolton – an expert on North Korea − said he wasn’t surprised by Putin’s overtures to Pyongyang for help in Ukraine.
“The Russians are expending ammunition in this war in Ukraine at extraordinary rates,” Bolton said. “Of course, so are the Ukrainians.”
The difference is that a massive U.S.-led coalition has been helping Ukraine with ammunition, heavy weapons, tanks, missile systems and warplanes, while Russia has been forced to persuade allies and neutral countries to risk global isolation by helping it, Bolton said.
Bolton also said it makes sense for Russia to seek military aid from North Korea, a fellow communist nation that uses similar, if not identical, Soviet-era weapons systems. “The artillery shells are interchangeable in most cases, and it’s a perfectly logical place to go.”
A burgeoning alliance between key U.S. adversaries
The weapons talks between North Korea and Russia are also likely to expand the broader alliance between the two U.S. adversaries.
“We can see here a real looming kind of restoration of the Cold War blocs,” with Russia, North Korea and China all jockeying for position in a new anti-Western alliance, said Ingu Hwang, a Boston College professor, author and longtime expert on modern Korean history and Cold War East Asian diplomacy.
Even if Kim doesn’t travel to meet Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok next week, a summit is inevitable given the two nations’ diplomatic trajectory, Hwang told USA TODAY.
“Even if it actually does not take place this month, we cannot and will not be surprised if it takes place in two months or three months,” Hwang said. “It’s very predictable.”
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Russia also is believed to have proposed that North Korea participate in three-way naval exercises with China, South Korean National Intelligence Service Director Kim Kyou-hyun said. That’s according to the Associated Press, which cited a lawmaker who attended a closed-door briefing Monday with the head of South Korea’s top spy agency.
In that meeting, the South Korean spy leader said he believed Shoigu, the Russian military chief, likely proposed including North Korea in the drills during his visit to Pyongyang in July.
Conscripted soldiers from Russia − and Cuba?
On Tuesday, the Cuban government issued a statement saying it had detected and “is working to neutralize and dismantle a human trafficking network that operates from Russia in order to incorporate Cuban citizens living there and even some living in Cuba, into the military forces that participate in military operations in Ukraine.”
Russian officials had no immediate response to the charges, or to Cuba’s claims that those involved in the trafficking were trying to promote “distorted information that seeks to tarnish the country’s image and present it as an accomplice to these actions that we firmly reject.”
“Attempts of this nature have been neutralized and criminal proceedings have been initiated against those involved in these activities,” according to the statement by the Cuban Foreign Ministry.
Last year, Russia announced a plan to boost the size of its armed forces by more than a third, in part due to heavy casualties in the war in Ukraine.
Ruggiero said North Korea has also sent conscripted workers to Russia to help in various civilian work projects, including the Sochi Olympics, and that it was a profit center for the Pyongyang government, which kept 90% of the wages paid to the workers by Moscow.
So far, Ruggiero said, there were no indications that Russia is using North Koreans in the war effort. But he said it is likely planning to use them in rebuilding efforts in Ukraine if and when a cease-fire or end of hostilities is enacted.
“I think that’s another area that Russia will probably be interested in,” Ruggiero said. “And, of course, North Korea will be happy to do it. They’re already making hundreds of millions of dollars on this overseas labor front.”
Recent Russian losses in Ukraine
There are also signs that Ukraine’s oft-stalled counter-offensive is making progress, including eradicating Russia’s network of trenches, minefields and underground tunnels.
The Kyiv government has confirmed it has captured a key village on the southern Zaporizhzhia front, which could enable it to seize more territory in the critically important overland route to Crimea. One photo published by Reuters shows an obliterated Russian tank on the side of the road near Robotyne last Friday.
Deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said Monday that Ukrainian forces had liberated the village of Robotyne, bringing Ukraine into contact with Russia’s main defense line to the south covering routes to the Sea of Azov.
Maliar said Russian occupation authorities are increasingly trying to crack down on the spread of pro-Ukrainian sentiment in contested areas, including through the use of planned and unannounced inspections and special propaganda campaigns, according to one translation on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Ukraine’s progress there is relatively modest, Maliar said, but indicative of Kyiv’s slow and steady progress since the start of its counteroffensive in June. “Offensive is a long process, and war is long,” she said, according to another English-language translation on X. “Now we can see that our offensive is happening. For example, in one place certain milestones were passed, in another – the first line of defense. We move on.”