On September 13, two armored trains met at a cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
While this might read like the beginning of a joke, it is in fact an accurate description of last week’s meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Due to personal security concerns, the location of the two autocrats’ meeting was not announced until right before their two entourages arrived at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, some 1,500 kilometers by rail from Vladivostok (TASS, September 13).
Besides the superficial formalities, little is known about the more substantive content of the talks.
Putin was the first to depart, returning to his Sochi residence for a meeting with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Kim visited the aircraft production plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and investigated the strategic bombers at the Knevichi airport (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 15). An apt punch line for the odd summit may come from one of the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s more notorious outbursts, “Shoigu, Gerasimov, where are the artillery shells?” (The Insider, September 8; Svoboda, September 14).
Munitions on the agenda
Artillery shells were perhaps the single most important item on the agenda. Russia continues losing artillery duels against Ukrainian forces, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov cannot seem to procure enough shells for breaking this trend (The Moscow Times, September 15). The old Soviet stocks are exhausted, and current production rates are insufficient.
North Korea can provide a vast amount of munitions. Although much of this supply is of a lower grade and quality, it can still be effective enough for alleviating some of the pressure of consistent Ukrainian barrages (Republic.ru, September 12). Ukraine’s Western-supported artillery has the combined advantage of longer range and higher precision and would gain a decisive edge with the arrival of the American-made ATACMS (RBC, September 16). Russian combat ships and air defense assets in Crimea are increasingly being hit by air-launched Storm Shadow and Scalp cruise missiles supplied by the United Kingdom and France, respectively (Svoboda, September 18).
Sanctions limit cooperation
The Kremlin denies that any deal on military or space cooperation was struck with North Korea. Such an agreement might have led to additional sanctions on both countries (Izvestiya, September 13; The Insider, September 14). International sanctions have limited military and space cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.
One way to circumvent these sanctions may be found in channeling some banned exports and imports via Belarus. Lukashenka recently expressed his readiness to facilitate such trilateral cooperation (Kommersant, September 15). Kim has shown clear interest in Russia’s missile technologies. The launch of two ballistic missiles during his trip added weight to his words of confidence in Russia’s “great victory” against the “gathering of evil” (Meduza, September 13).
Concerns in Bejing
Western concerns about the true extent of the upgraded ties between Russia and North Korea are treated dismissively in Moscow.
The voice that carries a bit more weight for the Kremlin belongs to Beijing, which has good reason to be worried about Pyongyang’s propensity for saber-rattling as well as the future course of fighting in Ukraine (Novayagazeta.eu, September 15; RIA Novosti, September 15). China does not want to see Russia defeated by the US-led Western coalition supporting Ukraine. However, it is also reluctant to provide the sorely needed aid to its troubled strategic partner. The mysterious disappearance of Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who visited Moscow in August 2023, may reflect this ambiguity (Kommersant, September 15).
Putin is due to travel to Beijing in mid-October for the Belt and Road Summit, but this kowtow to Chinese President Xi Jinping will hardly reduce mounting difficulties in their bilateral relations (Russiancouncil.ru, September 4).
China’s progressing economic stagnation poses an unfamiliar challenge to its leadership and distorts its political preference for upholding stability. This is a worrisome development for Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 12).
Moscow’s only escape from recession is ensuring an increase in oil and gas revenues. As a result, the Kremlin recently made a deal with Saudi Arabia for further cuts to oil production. However, the rise in energy prices will hurt Beijing’s efforts to stimulate growth (Re-Russia.net, September 14). Putin’s instructions on shifting trade accounts with China from the US dollar to the yuan have increased pressure on the ruble. In an effort to bring rampant inflation in check, Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Russian Central Bank, has raised the interest rate to a staggering 13 percent (The Bell, September 15).
Reshuffling of elites
These economic troubles undercut the efforts of Russian commentators to celebrate the recent Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The aim of this event was to attract more investment for Russia’s depressed and depopulated Far East (Izvestiya, September 13). The forum’s participants, however, were aware of the sharp increase in the outflow of capital from Russia, which leaves only the state budget as a source for investment (Forbes.ru, September 13).
Putin suspects that the old business elites, still labeled as “oligarchs,” are resentful of his war, which has devalued their fortunes. As such, the Russian president has tried to raise a new group of loyal entrepreneurs through distributing the assets left behind by those Western corporations that left the country to avoid serious reputational damage (Meduza, September 14).
This reshuffling of the elite has been accompanied by a tightening of state control and the expansion of repressive actions.
Putin’s regime is increasingly taking on qualities similar to those of North Korea’s dictatorship. Kim likely felt quite at home inspecting Russian military bases with Shoigu and his staff, barely distinguishable from the entourage of heavily decorated North Korean marshals. The important difference between the Putin and Kim regimes is that North Korea was built and sustained for decades for the purpose of waging war — something it has not done for 70 years. In Russia, the picture is exactly the opposite. The inherently corrupt regime in Russia was designed for distributing rich natural rents and keeping the population passive and consumerist. Presently, the country is trying to reinvent itself as a war machine.
The long war against Ukraine is an enterprise entirely incompatible with the nature of Putin’s profiteering regime, likely leading to ever-more Russian failures and miscalculations on the battlefield.