Running on Empty: Putin goes Begging


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scrounging of crude munitions from rogue nations like North Korea and his failure to recruit mercenaries from allied Cuba demonstrates his stubborn commitment to the Ukraine war that has accelerated Russia’s demise as a world power.

The Kremlin leader has burned through Russia’s arsenal of sophisticated missiles in the 18 months since he launched his “special military operation” to conquer Ukraine. He now must rely on barter with impoverished Soviet-era allies to resupply his stalled war machine.

Putin’s offensive is also throttled by exhausted fighting forces. Mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian Defense Ministry recruits is slowed by men of draft age fleeing Russia in droves. Putin also faces a challenge in attracting domestic and foreign mercenary forces after the suspected Kremlin-ordered killing of the Wagner Group founder and infighting among generals commanding regular army recruits and those aligned with the soldiers of fortune.

Even efforts to find aid from traditionally friendly authoritarian states have failed to kick-start the morale-sapping stalemate in an unprovoked war on a sovereign neighbor.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s six-day visit to the Russian Far East last week drew headlines around the world and speculation that Putin would trade nuclear or satellite technology for artillery shells and mines from Pyongyang. For decades, the North Korean government has prioritized military investments over food and consumer-goods production for its population of 26 million. After nearly four years of pandemic-related lockdown, Kim may need food trade from Russia as well as military-related technology.

Kim’s meetings with Putin and tours of a cosmodrome, fighter aircraft and missile-manufacturing facilities were treated by Russia’s state-controlled media with the prominence once reserved for superpower summits.

The North Korean leader departed for Pyongyang on his armored train on Sunday to a musical sendoff by a military band. His attendance at a ballet performance by the Primorsky Kirov company and a visit to Russia’s largest aquarium drew as much media attention as his military-related meetings.

It remained unclear what North Korea might have agreed to sell to Russia after promising Putin in a Wednesday summit to provide all necessary support to Russia’s “sacred fight” in Ukraine.

There were also no specifics reported on what Kim got out of the visit with Putin and senior Russian defense officials. He was escorted by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the general and admiral in command of the respective Russian air force and navy for the tour of a fighter aircraft factory and inspection of the Admiral Shaposhnikov frigate in Vladivostok, home of Russia’s Pacific fleet.

White House officials speculated that North Korea is already supplying artillery to Russia but not in quantities that will make any appreciable difference in backfilling Russian forces’ profligate shelling across the length and breadth of Ukraine.

“We’ve got to see what actually shakes out of this meeting and the degree to which any kind of an arms deal was consummated,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington during Kim’s visit.

On Sunday, U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed skepticism that any arms supply from North Korea would have a significant impact on Russia’s stalled Ukraine operations. What the North Koreans are said to have on offer are Soviet-era 152-mm artillery rounds, which are heavy and difficult to transport in quantity.

“Would it have a huge difference? I’m skeptical of that,” Milley told reporters covering a NATO gathering in Oslo, Norway.  “I doubt that it would be decisive.”

Artillery shells and mines marketed or gifted to North Korea and African allies before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union have become the weapons of necessity at a time when munitions factories are lacking cash and components to replenish the country’s arsenals.

Western intelligence analysts note that Russia has revved up its military industrial complex to produce missiles, armored vehicles, drones and artillery but at a pace falling far short of keeping up with their expenditure in Ukraine.

A far less publicized search for help with his war in Ukraine, Putin’s scramble to recruit Cubans for his mercenary forces following the loss of most Wagner group fighters over the summer drew the ire of Moscow’s longtime Communist allies in Havana.

In a statement earlier this month, the Cuban Foreign Ministry denounced the recruitment effort as a “human trafficking network” and arrested 17 people collaborating with the operation to lure Cubans into the Ukraine war denounced by most developed countries as a violation of international law and human rights covenants.

Cuba is “not part of the war conflict in Ukraine,” and does not want to look “complicit in these actions,” the Foreign Ministry stated.

Putin’s efforts to replace the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine from within his own vast country have shown signs of desperation. The draft age for the latest mobilization — underway though undeclared — was recently extended to men up to the age of 30 and conscription can be enforced on older men without families and jobs.

Russian opposition supporters and Western military analysts blame Putin’s handling of infighting among his war commanders for the stagnant state of the Ukraine war. Russian forces are dug in along a 600-mile frontline protecting occupied territory from Russia’s Rostov region across the Sea of Azov to the Kherson port that secures a land bridge to Crimea. But with ammunition shortages and demoralized troops, the Russian operation has failed to take more territory in nearly a year.

Although Ukraine’s counteroffensive has made only meager gains, it has successfully harassed the occupiers from all sides. Drones and missiles believed to have been fired by Ukrainian forces have taken out significant parts of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and fired on fuel depots and other key installations in the occupied regions. Drone attacks on Russian territory have inflicted serious damage on air fields as far north as Pskov and brought the reality of war home to Russian civilians in illegally annexed Crimea and with blasts on Moscow-area suburbs.

Putin has carried out a purge of his generals and mercenary commanders since a June 23 rebellion by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Angered by what he called incompetence and brazen disregard for the lives of Russian troops being killed by the tens of thousands in a poorly orchestrated offensive, Prigozhin drove his armored column and thousands of fighters from their Ukraine war base to within 120 miles of the Kremlin. He stood down when the challenge to Putin’s military brass threatened to plunge Russia into civil war.

Two months to the day after the Wagner mutiny, Prigozhin’s private plane exploded at cruising altitude en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all 10 Wagner commanders and aides on board in a fiery crash widely assumed to have been an assassination ordered by the Kremlin.

The Russian government’s inability to sufficiently accelerate weapons production or boost the size and capabilities of its myriad fighting forces speaks volumes about Putin’s war-fighting strategy that has prioritized loyalty over competence. His most effective commanders in Ukraine have vociferously challenged the Kremlin’s prosecution of the war, leading to their demotion, dismissal, reassignment or death.

Despite Putin’s mounting setbacks, there is virtually no expectation among Kremlin analysts that he will retreat from his aggression in Ukraine or sincerely engage in negotiations to bring the disastrous war to an end.

Prigozhin’s fate lives on after his presumed execution as a cautionary tale of telling truth to power — the commander in chief.


Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Thomas Friedman in his column in the Times this week had a nice turn of phrase concerning Putin turning to North Korea for help:

    “It’s like the biggest bank in town having to ask the local pawnshop for a loan.”

  2. Lack of munitions and demoralized troops presumably leaves Putin’s Russia extremely vulnerable to outside pressures if not attacks. What country or countries are likely in line to take control?


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