Russian Desperation in Ukraine Pushes It Closer to Iran, North Korea

  • Russia is facing increasing international isolation because of its war against Ukraine.
  • Moscow is not totally alone, as countries continue to buy its oil and, in some cases, send it arms.
  • Some of those countries are also isolated, and there are limits on what they can do for Russia.

International backlash to Russia’s attack on Ukraine has left Moscow increasingly isolated, but it is not totally alone.

The Kremlin maintains close ties with China, continues to sell oil to major countries, including India, and is acquiring military hardware from Iran and North Korea.

The latter two countries are providing Russia with much-needed munitions, but Moscow’s decision to turn to them illustrates how its faltering war effort is distorting its foreign policy, a top US Defense Department official said.

“I think the big story here is how desperate the Russians have become,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, said during a Defense Writers Group event on November 8.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands next to an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy next to an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone.

Screenshot/President of Ukraine official website



“A year or two ago, the relationship between Russia and Iran was that Russia was a great power that people feared was going to provide a lot of weapons to Iran,” Kahl added. “Now Russia has been so attrited in terms of its conventional power in Ukraine that they’re going to Tehran and Pyongyang and elsewhere to try to make up for the fact that they have spent down an enormous amount of their artillery” and “a huge amount of their” precision-guided weapons.

Iran’s most prominent contribution has been the “kamikaze” drones that Russia has used extensively in Ukraine, often to attack civilian infrastructure.

Ukrainians first detected those drones in mid-September during attacks on Odesa. Around that time, a team of trainers from Iran’s Islamic Republican Guard Corps was identified by Ukrainian intelligence and “destroyed with a precision artillery strike in Kherson,” according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Since then, Iran has agreed to provide more drones and short-range ballistic missiles, according to Iranian and Western officials.

Those weapons would not necessarily be “a game changer,” as Russia has already used its own missiles in Ukraine, Kahl said. “I think the storyline here is that this is an indication of Russian desperation and also, frankly, that the power equation between Russia and Iran appears to be kind of out of whack from what we’re used to.”

New friends, less influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi with Putin in Tehran on July 19.

Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images



Iran has a long relationship with Russia, though deep suspicions of Moscow and concern about alienating Western countries has lead Tehran to keep Moscow at arm’s length.

Their relations have warmed amid the Ukraine war, with a record number of meetings between senior officials this year. Despite potential for deeper cooperation on military technology, however, the support they can offer each other is likely limited.

Iranians remain wary of Russia, and “Iran cannot be counted upon to help the Russian economy withstand the impact of sanctions in any significant way,” Nikita Smagin, an expert on Iran at the Russian International Affairs Council, wrote this month.

Russia and North Korea also have longstanding ties, though Moscow has in the past kept its distance.

In April, Moscow said that as “a responsible member of the international community,” it was still complying with UN sanctions on Pyongyang — reflecting a view that stronger ties to North Korea would not have “very much merit” if they made Russia more of an international pariah, Anthony Rinna, a senior editor at the Sino-NK research group, said at an event hosted by the East-West Center this month.

In recent months, however, US officials have said that Russia is seeking to buy military hardware from North Korea and accused Pyongyang of supplying it.

Damn Kim Jong un

Putin toasts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a meeting in Vladivostok.

AP/Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo



John Kirby, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said on November 2 that the US believed Pyongyang was “covertly” trying to send “a significant number” of artillery shells to Russia by making it appear they were headed to the Middle East or North Africa.

Kirby said the US was still watching to see whether the weapons actually got to Russia. North Korea has denied the allegations, calling it a “rumor” and saying it had no “arms dealings” with Moscow.

North Korea remains broadly supportive of Russia’s war, and while it can’t offer much, Moscow “may end up seeing greater value in a stronger relationship with North Korea precisely because North Korea is one of the few states that’s been so openly supportive,” Rinna said at the event.

That may seem “beneficial” to Russia “especially if this means sort of undermining US influence in this part of Russia’s periphery,” Rinna added.

Even with Tehran and Pyongyang on its side, Moscow appears to be losing sway elsewhere in its neighborhood, and the war in Ukraine is eroding the military capability that has long been a central pillar of Russian foreign policy. The international response that the US has rallied will make it even harder to recover, Kahl said this month.

“They are not going to emerge from this war stronger,” Kahl said of Russia. “They are going to emerge from this war much weaker than they went in.”