Russia has been expending so much firepower in its war on Ukraine that it is running low on ammo. Seeing that they cannot manufacture enough to keep up with their current needs, they are forced to turn elsewhere. As you might imagine, they have found some unsavory sources. The White House announced Wednesday that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is covertly supplying artillery shells and rockets through third parties to aid Moscow in its war against Ukraine.

Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder announced recently, “We do have indications that Russia has approached North Korea to request ammunition.” This move clearly shows how desperate the Russians are at this point. 152mm artillery shells and Katyusha-type rockets are the most basic of military munitions, in service since 1941. It’s likely that Pyongyang is clearing out old stockpiles, perhaps dating back to the Korean War, and sending them to its Russian allies. Chances are these munitions may no longer work or could malfunction in such a way as to hurt the Russians who attempt to use them more than their enemy.

Russian artillery fires against targets in Ukraine. Note the “Z” designator on the weapon represents the Eastern Military District. Screenshot from YouTube and The Sun.

Middle Eastern and African nations have been implicated as intermediaries in the transfer of the old North Korean Weapons. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, in a statement to the press, said that he would call the number of weapons supplies “significant” but would not go as far as to say they could change the outcome of the war “in any appreciable way.”  

In his typical manner of supplying only part of the information (not a dig, often this is necessary for security purposes), Mr. Kirby would not disclose how Kim Jong-un is getting his artillery shells to the Russians. He did, however, state, “We do have a sense of where they are going” and that the US is continuing to assess our options.

In addition to turning to the hermit kingdom for weapons, it is already well-known and widely reported that Putin is using Iranian-made and supplied drones to attack both military and civilian targets in Ukraine. Is that an axis I smell in the works?

Our friends at CRUX tell us that Shahed-136, Mohajer-6, and Arash-2 combat drones “will be delivered via the Caspian Sea to the port of Astrakhan.” That particular port, as you may know, is in Russia. Screenshot from YouTube courtesy of CRUX.

Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock, you are well aware that the United States has heavily sanctioned both Iran and North Korea for several years. Those sanctions have, for a large part, been brought to bear to put the brakes on the development of nuclear weapons by those rogue nations. Mr. Kirby, speaking on why Russia may have turned to these countries for help, said it is “a sign of Russia’s own article shortages and needs.” Translation: the sanctions on Russia are working (at least to some extent). I feel they are clearly forcing them to look to outside sources of help in their “special military operation.”  

Mr. Kirby provided a rough timeline of events:

“Back in September, we had indications that Russia was willing to buy; now we have indications that Russia has purchased — and they’re on the move.”

Strange thing about military weapons; they tend to be big, bulky, and heavy. This makes them difficult to move, and especially difficult to move successfully with any degree of stealth. According to The Washington Post, Mr. Bruce W. Bennett, an expert on the Middle East and Northeast Asia with the Rand Corp, concurs with this statement. “Artillery is very, very heavy. So sending it by ship is going to take weeks,” he says. Ships also have the unfortunate capability of sometimes being sunk, thus committing their loads to Davy Jones Locker.

Mr. Bennett, again postulating to WaPo, believes that it is more likely the North Koreans would send the heavy shells via railways from China through Central Asia to Iran. They may also be playing a game of “cat and mouse,” sending some of the weapons by land, and some by sea, to keep us guessing.

Syria has been indicated as a possible player in assisting in getting North Korean weapons to the Russians. The governments of the two nations retain close ties. WaPo reminds us that Russia has control of the naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranian sea. It should be noted that the Russians officially classify the leased port at Tartus to be a “Material-Technical Support Point” and not a base. The Twitter-supplied image below may be from 2018, but that is indeed the Russian-controlled port on the Med.

Russia also maintains and operates Hmeimim air base in Syria as part of showcasing its regional presence.

Tying the whole mess together is the fact that Syria maintains relations with North Korea, a nation accused of supplying them with missiles and chemical weapons components for years (in clear violations of UN sanctions). According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), in 2019, the two nations penned an agreement in Damascus covering trade, labor, and scientific and technical cooperation.

In short, Russia is reaching out to some bad actors for help as they struggle with their eight-month-long war in Ukraine. As more players get added to the fray, it only increases the risk of a global conflict.