President Putin’s recent signing of two new strategic partnerships underscore Russia’s shifting priorities and desperation for alternatives amid deepening isolation, to the point he is willing to normalize relations with a totalitarian dictatorship that even China holds at arm’s length: North Korea.

After Putin’s surprising and first governmental reshuffle in 10-plus years, including installing Andrey Belousov – an economist, as new defense secretary – these pacts reflect Moscow’s efforts to bolster its military capabilities and apparent alliances, despite a war campaign that remains unpopular among the international community.

North Korea: a critical military supplier?

Putin’s visit to North Korea (DPRK) marks a pivotal moment in Russia’s quest for military and economic aid. The meetings with Kim Jong Un resulted in a mutual aid agreement, signaling a deepening of military and economic cooperation between the two countries, including potentially and worryingly for many, over nuclear proliferation.

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This was something inconceivable not only 24 years ago – the last time Putin visited the DPRK – but even as recently as September 2017, when the Russian UN representative rejected Pyongyang’s claim to nuclear-weapon status.

But while the potential of information sharing over nuclear technology is what North Korea could receive, it’s the heightened supplies of North Korean arms to Russia, including artillery shells and ammunition, that will seemingly provide a crucial lifeline for the Russian military, which has been facing logistical challenges and ammunition shortages in Ukraine.

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Moreover, North Korea, often viewed as a pariah state with a history of defying international norms, stands to benefit significantly from this pact, including as simply as regaining international legitimacy. This alignment is particularly alarming for Ukraine and its Western allies, as it could lead to a more sustained and intensified Russian military campaign.

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However, Putin’s outreach to North Korea introduces a delicate balancing act with China, North Korea’s primary ally. Beijing holds disproportionate influence over Pyongyang – accounting for 90 percent of DPRK’s trade and commerce – and so its alliance with Russia, would mean a strategically significant loss of leverage for Beijing.

Indeed, China has remained silent on the new pact, but Beijing is unlikely to welcome this shift in dynamics, and much of this newly expanded relationship will hinge on China’s reaction. China still needs to safeguard its interests, which in some respects misalign or even conflict with what this new Russo-Korean pact could produce.

The strategic access to the East China Sea via North Korea is one such example. As tensions escalate over a prospective war with Taiwan as the flashpoint, the US and allies are developing countermeasures, namely the Island Chain Strategy as force projections. Beijing sees this as being hemmed in, as part of a maritime containment strategy, and where the valuable geographical location of North Korea comes in, since it would be one of the few access points uninhibited by the “First Island Chain.”

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Russia, for its part, is keen to maintain its crucial relationship with China. The Island Chain Strategy is viewed as provocation by Moscow too, given its Cold War origins. However, the differences here being that China doesn’t want to disrupt and intensify tensions given its extensive trade relations with the West, while Russia and North Korea, already being largely ostracized, have little to lose.

Case in point was Putin’s rhetoric during his visit, linking arms shipments from North Korea to the broader geopolitical and redefined multipolar order. He warned that continued Western support for Ukraine could lead to an intensified confrontation, involving North Korean arms and ultimately costing Ukraine and West more in both human and material terms.

Putin’s unreserved willingness to resort to relying even on the DPRK demonstrates how far he is now in his war campaign, but equally committed to escalating in order to achieve his war aims. His statements could be seen as a strategic attempt to dissuade the West from increasing their support for Kyiv. Perhaps because even Putin doesn’t actually want to follow through on the commitment, due to the unprecedented global instability that could occur from legitimizing the DPRK regime and subsequent impact on Russian reputation.

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Vietnam: a strategic balancing act

Comparatively, Putin’s visit to Vietnam signified Russia’s ability to still solidify its presence and exert its reach in Southeast Asia. It is especially noteworthy as the US is actively courting Hanoi, largely to ensure they are onside in the advent of conflict with China.

Vietnam’s strategic location and growing economic importance make it a key player alongside one of the countries affected by China’s “9-dash line” claim and so relevant in any first island chain scenario.

Putin, meanwhile, less interested and affected by that issue, is seeking to leverage countries that maintained strategic non-alignment, as well as usual trade, investment and access Vietnamese ports. For Hanoi, maintaining a close relationship with Russia enables diversification in its alliances and safeguarding its interests in the South China Sea.

However, this interferes with US interests making the already delicate conditions even harder to navigate. Strengthened Russia-Vietnam ties could hinder Washington efforts to solidify its alliances and further undermine the efforts made to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically. It could also risk sustained interest in Ukraine, as Washington increasingly seeks to prioritize attention on its primary strategic rival, China.

Ukraine: an expendable asset?

On paper these new pacts, especially with the DPRK, could be profound for the Kremlin campaign in Ukraine. More supplies, means more firepower and an upgrade in logistics. Moreover, at the time of writing, prospects of North Korean troops joining the Russian war effort are developing, which would further worsen the outlook for Ukraine and firmly shift the balance of power at the tactical level as Ukraine struggles to repel Russian advances.

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That said, at the strategic level it’s more nuanced. Certainly, economic and strategic support from Vietnam would provide Russia with the resources needed to sustain a prolonged conflict and embolden Putin to become even more aggressive or risk-tolerant than he has already been.

However, over-reliance on others, especially North Korea, could also be an opening for Western allies to exploit Sino-Russo relations, given China’s less-than-welcoming sentiments about the new pact. And given Moscow’s growing overdependence on Beijing, were the latter to pressure a change of course, this could ultimately result in little tangible benefits for Putin. Equally, none of these pacts ensure short-term change and might enable Western backers to adjust in their support to Ukraine.

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What it does illustrate is that despite what Putin might like to portray, the longer Russia becomes embroiled in this war of attrition, they’ll become as dependent on external support as Ukraine.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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