Sep 8, 2023, 5:25am EDT

Putin’s new axis

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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The News

Kim Jong Un may be about to become one of Russia’s favorite weapons suppliers.

The Kremlin and North Korea are drawing close to a deal that would send munitions and artillery to Moscow, in return for Russian food aid and support for Pyongyang’s missile and submarine programs, White House national Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters this week. “Those discussions are actively advancing,” he said.

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Jay’s view

The deal, if it comes through, would add North Korea firmly to the growing column of Russian partners that have complicated Ukraine’s defense, while also creating the foundations of a new anti-Western military axis.

Major wars historically have ushered in new geopolitical alliances and eras. World War II birthed NATO to contain the Soviet Union. The attacks on September 11, 2001, created the U.S.’s Global War on Terrorism partnership system, largely aimed at combating Islamist extremism. The war in Ukraine is no different.

The Biden administration seized on Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine to successfully rally NATO and Eastern Europe behind Kyiv, transferring billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry to Ukraine’s military. But Putin has proven adept as well at forging and strengthening his own partnerships over the past 18 months.


Along with China, Russia has leaned heavily on Belarus and Iran. Tehran has been supplying more advanced kamikaze drones to Russia, while Belarus has been hosting Russian arms depots and soldiers on its border with Ukraine. Russia’s partners have helped it diversify and extend its supply chains in recent months, according to U.S. officials, making them harder — and potentially impossible — to interrupt.

A recent defense agreement forged between Minsk and Tehran, according to Western intelligence officials, includes plans for Iran to build a new drone production facility on Belarusian territory. This could provide Moscow with another front from which to launch drone strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and military positions.

Moscow’s informal alliances have proven critical, as well. Support for Moscow also extends to former Soviet states and Persian Gulf countries who have proven willing to turn a blind eye to the shipments of semiconductors and other electronics to Russia.

Putin has also rallied many non-European democratic nations — such as Brazil, South Africa, and India — to remain at least neutral on the Ukraine war. And U.S. officials say a number of strong American defense partners, including the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, have served as founts for transhipments of Western technology to the Russian military. American, British, and European officials visited the UAE this week to try and press Abu Dhabi to cut off this flow.

Russia has already proven the effectiveness of its alliance system in the Middle East, where it’s partnered with Iran and the Tehran-backed militia, Hezbollah, to successfully protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing have been growing their support for American adversaries in the Western Hemisphere — particularly Cuba and Venezuela.


But Pentagon strategists are now gauging whether Russia and China will seek to utilize their military axis in other global theaters, particularly Asia. U.S. defense officials have been alarmed in recent months by the growing number of joint-military exercises Moscow and Beijing have been staging in the Pacific, even close to American territorial waters off Alaska.

China could potentially enlist Russia’s support, and North Korea’s too, in any conflict over Taiwan or disputed waters in the East and South China Seas — bolstered by both countries’ nuclear arsenals and ballistic missile systems. South Korean intelligence believes Russia has proposed to Kim Jong Un that Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing begin staging three-way naval exercises later this year.

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Room for Disagreement

The Biden White House argues that Putin’s emerging axis is a sign of the Kremlin’s military weakness, rather than its strength. Jake Sullivan said on Monday that all of Moscow’s allies, absent China, are pariah states that lack the technology and resources to compete with the weapons systems the West is supplying Ukraine.

“The reason why that there was such an intense effort on the part of Moscow to generate this kind of support from North Korea is that we have continued to squeeze Russia’s defense industrial base,” he said. “They are now going about looking to whatever source they can find for things like artillery ammunition.”

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  • Michael Kimmage and Hanna Notte write in Foreign Affairs this month about how Vladimir Putin successfully sold his Ukraine war to the non-Western world as being about a corrupted global order, not Moscow’s territorial gains.
  • Russia’s support for North Korea could extend to advanced technology for satellites, nuclear-powered submarines, and ballistic missiles, CSIS writes this week.