After the failure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Kremlin’s chief aim for the near future is to hold onto the land it did manage to capture, digging into well-fortified positions in a bid to grind down Ukraine’s counteroffensive. While much is made of the impact of drones and electronic jamming equipment, just as important if not more has been the use of technology that is, often literally, from the Soviet-era: Mines and artillery.
In Ukraine’s heavily contested south, “it’s a gunfight … heavily dependent on artillery,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Wednesday, suggesting that the supply of artillery ammunition was likely key to Kim’s visit to Russia.
Analysts have described Russian artillery units in particular as surprisingly skilled, a counterbalance to some of the more chaotic areas of Moscow’s army. A recent analysis by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute found that artillery units were particularly adept at the trial-and-error task of homing in on targets, sometimes able to accurately hit their mark within three minutes — “essentially the limit of what is physically possible,” given the time it takes to fire.
But this heavy use of artillery comes at a cost. Recent Western estimates suggest that Russia fired 11 million rounds in Ukraine last year. Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, told my colleagues that there were estimates that it would fire 7 million more this year. At that rate of expenditure, production alone can hardly keep up.
Accounts from Western officials suggest that while Russia has impressively boosted its military production, its capacity for artillery production is not higher than 2 million a year. From within the Russian military, there have been numerous angry accounts of shortages: The late Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin had complained of “shell hunger” on the front near the eastern city of Bakhmut, with his troops receiving only 800 of the 80,000 shells it needed per day, by his account.
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With a shortfall in domestic production, Russia may turn to imports. Western allies of Ukraine have tried to up the production of 155mm caliber artillery rounds to keep Kyiv’s guns firing, with mixed success. But there are only a limited number of sources Moscow can turn to. Russia largely uses the 152mm caliber rounds that it developed during the Soviet era, but few of its former partners in Europe will sell their stockpiles to it now.
The Soviet Union once provided weapons to countries around the world that it sought to influence, creating client states that would be reliant on it for weaponry. In many ways now, the situation is reversed, with Moscow forced to ask the weaker countries it once supplied for help.
North Korea, which bought licenses for Soviet weaponry in the 1960s, quickly began producing weapons at a huge scale not only for its considerable domestic demand following the Korean War armistice but also for international trade. This trade continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, going underground in the face of harsh U.N. sanctions designed to block it.
Given the proximity of the South Korean capital Seoul, North Korea also focused on artillery production for its own military. A 2020 report by U.S. think tank RAND estimated there were nearly 6,000 artillery systems within range of major South Korean population centers. Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, recently told the Associated Press that North Korea “may represent the single biggest source of compatible legacy artillery ammunition outside of Russia.”
Exactly how much North Korea could supply in any theoretical deal is unknown. Kirby said last year that Russia was likely hoping to receive “literally millions of rounds, rockets and artillery shells from North Korea,” though no firm details of any proposed deal have emerged.
Whatever quantity it provides, it may fall short in quality. North Korea, isolated and placed under sanctions, has largely focused on developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs over recent years, leaving its Soviet-era artillery ammunition to gather dust. Analysis of a 2010 barrage of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island by the North Korea-watching website 38 North found that half of the shells crashed into the ocean, failing to reach their target; a further quarter that did then didn’t detonate.
Putin has only hinted at the trade so far. After he met with Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region, the Russian president suggested that Russia could work with North Korea, despite the sanctions put in place by numerous resolutions from the U.N. Security Council. “There are certain restrictions, and Russia abides by them. But there are things we can talk about,” Putin told reporters.
The very first U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea, imposed in 2006, prohibits the export of North Korean “large-caliber artillery systems” as well as “any related material.” Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, backed that resolution; Putin himself was president at the time.
Russia may have already crossed the line. The United States said last year that Russia had already taken some deliveries of artillery ammunition from North Korea, though in that case Pyongyang was accused of sending only “thousands” of shells in what would be a comparatively small trade. Russia has also taken deliveries of Iranian-produced drones, which Western powers say violates an arms embargo placed on that country.
It is not clear what North Korea would get in exchange for any arms deal with Russia, though there is speculation that Pyongyang could seek more modern weapons technology from Moscow or more economic cooperation, such as an agreement that Russia can host more North Korean workers who can send hard currency back to their cash-strapped home government.
Whatever it is, for Putin it may be worth it. Having failed to quickly take Ukraine last year, Russia appears to be settling for a drawn-out conflict in the hope that Kyiv and its partners tire first. Western officials have been surprised at the lengths that Russia has already gone to evade sanctions to keep building weapons. Any artillery deal with North Korea would fit into the same pattern. Perhaps it is desperation. It may also be seen as determination.