Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced his country would be expanding relations with North Korea. It comes on the heels of a charge by former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker that Putin has been reaching out to “outcast countries” —those that are “in a weaker position that might need some currency”—which Volker asserted was a blatant sign of Russia’s own weakened position.
Facing “economic and political isolation” since its invasion of Ukraine, Volker said in a recent interview on Ukrainian TV that Russia is “looking for anywhere where they can find some means of showing some kind of support.”
Russia Expanding Ties with North Korea
In a congratulatory note to North Korea Monday during its Liberation Day Celebrations marking 77 years since the Korean peninsula was ruled by Japan, Putin said that Moscow and Pyongyang were set to expand their “comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations.”
“Russia has been using money as much as anything to leverage North Korea,” Bruce Bennett, Adjunct International and Defense Researcher at the RAND Corporation, tells Political IQ. He says oil is another big leverage item that Russia holds over North Korea. “Russia is apparently sending oil that North Korea drastically needs in order to cement the relationship.”
Last month, North Korean media reported that it may be willing to send its workers to the two Russian-controlled Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Currently, that’s where the most intense and focused fighting of the war is taking place. Bennett says that because North Korea is based on a caste system, those citizens in the caste referred to as the “reliable personnel” would be willing—even eager—to leave their homes to work in what’s essentially Ukraine’s battle front.
“Even though it’s a war zone there is access to a lot of things better than they would have access to in North Korea,” he says. “They would make a lot more money, and they probably wouldn’t be under as tyrannical a situation.”
Putin’s Outreach Follows Other “Outcast” Meetings
North Korea, where half the population is malnourished, has been under UN sanctions since 2006 for its nuclear weapons program. It’s just the latest in a string of “outcast” nations that Putin has reached out to.
Last month, the Russian President visited Iran, another nation under international sanctions for its nuclear ambitions, where he met with both Iranian and Turkish leaders in Tehran. Iran’s leaders, reported to be “in dire need of money,” promised to sell drones to Russia to use in Ukraine.
The Tehran meeting with the Turkish President was the first of two in roughly as many weeks. Putin met with Recep Tayyip Erdogan again on August 5 in the Russian resort town of Sochi. During the latter talks, the leaders secured a deal to resume grain exports from Ukraine that had been disrupted by the war, as well as Russian foodstuffs and fertilizers.
Erdogan is a bit of a conundrum for the West. While Turkey is a member of NATO, Erdogan is a personal ally of Putin. Historically, NATO has waited out its members that have strayed from democracy to eventually right themselves; no NATO member has ever been expelled for bad behavior.
Last week Putin also spoke by phone with the President of Mali about supplying that country—currently under an interim leader following a military coup in 2020—about Russia supplying food, fuel and fertilizer.
Putin Vows to Sell Arms to Russian Allies
Also on Monday Putin announced Moscow would offer arms sales to all of Russia’s allies. Without naming specific nations he said, “Russia sincerely values its historically strong, friendly and trusting relations with countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa.” He added, “We are ready to offer our allies and partners the most advanced types of weapons: from firearms, armor and artillery to warplanes and drones.”
This comes as Russia’s military expenditures have skyrocketed because of the war in Ukraine. Already by April of this year, Russia had spent half of its entire 2022 military budget—$26.4 billion, or 1.7 trillion of 3.5 trillion allocated rubles.
“He understands the arms market,” says Bennett, adding that countries like North Korea have to rely on Russia or China because Western nations certainly aren’t going to deal with them. He notes that in the past, Russia has been “relatively responsible” about not selling North Korea advanced tanks and advanced air defense weaponry and the like—but concedes, “in the current environment where Russia feels heavily pressed, it may well be willing to expand these weapons that it’s offering in return for North Korea’s cooperation.”
Inside Russia, Putin’s Time May Be Running Out
While Volker says Russia is becoming isolated globally, there are signs Putin himself may be growing isolated within the borders of Russia. Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia for the National Security Council who served under three U.S. Presidents, Fiona Hill, said in a recent interview that the “grind” of Western sanctions is “having an impact,” adding that Putin may be “running against time limits.”
“We have to look out for when things start to hurt people in their pocketbook,” she remarked. “He’s not that popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When you get down into the depths of the polling, it looks a little bit like the new polling about Donald Trump right now. People would actually like an alternative,” underscoring that Putin has extended his ability to run for President another two terms, to the year 2036.
Bennett takes Hill’s assessment even further. “I think it’s a case where it’s not just in that longer term,” he says. “He’s forcing people into the military in the way that he wasn’t supposed to be. He’s causing a lot of young Russian men to be killed in Ukraine. That’s not going to be popular behavior in Russia.”
The Pentagon estimates more than 80,000 Russians have so far been killed or wounded in less than six months since the Ukraine invasion.
As for sanctions against Russia, according to the foreign policy think tank The Wilson Center, “Since April, the country has lost half its imports. Manufacturing facilities that depend on imported components are struggling or facing a shutdown. The government has increased its war spending, and budget revenues have shrunk.”
“The Russian propaganda machine has been very effective internally in selling Ukraine as Nazi territory and just terrible and all those kinds of things, but gradually outside information is penetrating into the Russian people,” says Bennett. “They are likely to not be very supportive, so he’s trying to extend his control on the country. But increasingly, unless he can obtain some great victory in Ukraine, he’s facing some political risk.”