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Arsenal of tyranny: an axis of dictatorships is supporting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine

Public discussions following Vladimir Putin's May visit to China largely focused on exports of obscure tubers and beef cartilage to Beijing. But despite the lack of a public breakthrough in the sphere of military assistance, China remains an essential partner for the Kremlin in its war in Ukraine. Military supplies from other allied authoritarian regimes — North Korea, Iran, and Belarus — sometimes even surpass those Ukraine receives from the West. As Russia’s own reserves of armored vehicles dwindle, support from the Kremlin’s axis of authoritarian allies is only expected to grow.

Content
  • Belarus: A launchpad for attacks, training of mobilized troops, tanks, and fuel

  • Iran: Drones and artillery ammunition

  • North Korea: Soviet shells and “Kimskanders”

  • China: machine-tools and help with sanctions evasion

Ru

Belarus: A launchpad for attacks, training of mobilized troops, tanks, and fuel

For the first six years of Russia’s war in Ukraine — i.e. 2014-2020 — Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Minsk managed to maintain a relatively independent policy. There was even limited military-technical cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine, with Belarusian petroleum products refined from Russian oil going to Ukraine for use by its armed forces at a time when they were busily fending off attacks from Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region. However, everything changed in August 2020, when a wave of popular protests swept over Belarus, exposing Lukashenko’s political vulnerability at home. Vladimir Putin responded by allocating a reserve of Russian law enforcement officers to suppress the demonstrations, thereby maintaining the regime in power in Minsk while leaving it almost wholly dependent on Moscow for survival. In February 2022, it was time for Lukashenko to repay his debts by becoming an accomplice, if not an outright ally, in the Kremlin’s full-scale assault on Kyiv.

In the early days of the invasion, forces from Russia's Eastern Military District and Airborne Troops, which had relocated to Belarus under the pretext of conducting training exercises, thus securing a foothold on the right bank of the Dnieper River, launched an offensive on the Ukrainian capital. Kyiv’s main government buildings and other “decision-making centers” are located on the right bank (the western one), an area of Ukraine that became accessible to Russian invaders largely thanks to the fact that they were able to stage their attack from Belarusian territory. Furthermore, Belarus became a reliable rear base for the Russian army, which received fuel and lubricants directly from the Mozyr refinery, had its wounded soldiers treated in Belarusian hospitals, and launched missile attacks and airstrikes from Belarusian soil and airspace.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

In 2022, Belarus became a reliable rear base for the Kremlin’s “special military operation”

Notably, Ukraine refrained from striking Belarusian territory, likely to avoid provoking Lukashenko into direct participation in the war. As a result, Russian troops in Belarus felt even safer than in Russia's border regions, which were subjected to Ukrainian strikes from the first days of the full-scale invasion. Without this “immunity,” the losses suffered by the Russian side during its retreat from the Kyiv region in March-April 2022 might have been even greater. Even after the Russian withdrawal, Belarusian airspace was used by Russian A-50 AWACS aircraft, Tu-22M3 strategic bombers, and Su-34 and Su-35 fighters to launch airstrikes.

The next phase of cooperation between Moscow and Minsk began at the end of 2022. The Belaruski Hayun monitoring group reported the dispatch to Russia of trains carrying dozens of tanks (1, 2), trucks, and ammunition from Belarusian warehouses. According to the group’s estimates, in October 2022 alone, 98 T-72 tanks, 60 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles (including 20 without turrets), and 53 Ural trucks were shipped. As of early November 2022, over 65,000 tons of ammunition had been transferred.

With the start of Russia’s mobilization in September 2022, some groups of recruits, primarily reinforcements for the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Taman Division, received training at Belarusian ranges due to overcrowding at Russian sites. Economic aid has also played a crucial role: in recent months, imports of gasoline from Belarus have helped the Kremlin stabilize consumer prices amid drone attacks on its own refineries. Additionally, it was recently disclosed that the Belarusian military-industrial complex produces sights for Russian APCs, and also for its T-72 and T-90 tanks.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko meeting on April 5, 2023.
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko meeting on April 5, 2023.
Kremlin.ru

Of course, this help comes at a cost. Despite the Russian army’s acute need for military equipment, weapons deliveries to Belarus continue, albeit with significant delays. Additionally, Russian tactical nuclear weapons were recently stationed in Belarus, likely easing Lukashenko's concerns about “threats from NATO.” Furthermore, Russian police and National Guard officers remain ready to assist the Minsk regime in the event of renewed protests.

It should be noted that Belarusian capabilities to provide military aid to Russia are far from exhausted. The country produces “Kaiman“ armored vehicles, MAZ military trucks, and MZKT chassis for heavy equipment. Additionally, the Belarusian military industry complex manufactures reconnaissance drones and multiple launch rocket systems, and it also upgrades tanks. These resources could prove indispensable for the Russian army, which is experiencing a significant shortage of certain equipment (specifics of which can be found in our front-line situation review).

Iran: Drones and artillery ammunition

Russian-Iranian military-technical cooperation dates back to the late Soviet era, when Moscow sent Tehran modest arms and equipment supplies during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). After the Soviet Union’s collapse, military shipments to Iran increased until they were almost completely halted between 2008-2015 due to international sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program. Notable deals include the transfer in 2007 of Tor surface-to-air missile systems, one of which accidentally shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines commercial flight over Tehran in 2020. Additionally, Iran and Russia cooperated militarily in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.

Almost from the outset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Kremlin needed military aid. Moscow was particularly interested in Iran's advanced drone industry. Under sanctions and unable to procure full-fledged combat aircraft, the Iranian regime developed an impressive range of drones, from reconnaissance platforms to loitering munitions. While the Russian military industry excelled in reconnaissance UAVs, Russia had almost no kamikaze drones at the beginning of the full-scale war. As pre-war missile stockpiles were gradually depleted, the focus shifted to long-range drones like Shahed-131 and Shahed-136.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

The Russians were primarily interested in Iran's advanced drone industry

Because of these drones, along with cruise and ballistic missiles, it became significantly more challenging for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to fend off attacks on both civilian and military infrastructure behind the front lines. Consequently, production of Shahed drones shifted to Russia itself at sites like the Alabuga Special Economic Zone, often utilizing forced student labor. According to agreements disclosed in 2022 through leaked documents from Alabuga, Iran committed to supplying 6,000 kits for assembling Shaheds over two and a half years.

Russian-made drones underwent significant modifications: Kometa-M antennas were installed to counter electronic warfare, the warhead the aircraft carry was upgraded for greater effectiveness, the body color was changed to black to enhance nocturnal concealment, and LTE modems were integrated to track the drones’ movements. Although Mohajer-6 reconnaissance drones were also supplied in limited quantities, they did not achieve the widespread popularity of the Shahed.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Debris of Shahed-type drones with graphic messages from Russian servicemen.
Debris of Shahed-type drones with graphic messages from Russian servicemen.
Military Informer

In addition to drones, Iran also provides Russia with artillery ammunition. Initially, Iranian-made artillery shots surfaced in the possession of Ukrainian forces, sourced from intercepted Western shipments intended for Iran-supported armed groups in the Middle East. By summer 2023, reports emerged regarding Russian-Iranian contracts for almost $2 million worth of ammunition and barrels for both tanks and artillery guns. Subsequently, Iranian shells were integrated into service with Russian forces.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Iran supplies Russia with much needed artillery ammunition

It is worth noting that the first captured samples contained Chinese shells, leading to suspicions of direct military aid from China to Russia. However, the gunpowder charges supplied with these shells were of Iranian origin, and the shell production date suggests they reached Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Subsequently, the range of ammunition expanded to include 203 mm shells of U.S. manufacture, inherited by the Islamic Republic from the pro-Western Shah's regime and suitable for Soviet 2S7 Pion guns. Recently, supplies of 130 mm shells for the M-46 gun were also reported.

In return, Iran has reached an agreement to purchase modern Su-35 fighters and helicopters from Russia and is currently in negotiations for S-400 anti-air missile systems. This equipment will undoubtedly bolster the capabilities of the Islamic Republic amidst escalating tensions in the Middle East, but the current circumstances have also raised doubts about how much hardware Tehran will be willing to part with. More advanced drones such as jet-powered Shahed-238s could be held back (even though a similar drone was once shot down over Ukraine back in January). And although Reuters reported in February that approximately 400 Iranian-made ballistic missiles had already been delivered to Russia, they have yet to be observed on the battlefield.

North Korea: Soviet shells and “Kimskanders”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has engaged in very limited military-technical cooperation with North Korea, partly due to the international sanctions imposed against the regime in Pyongyang. In contrast, in the 1990s South Korea received Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles as part of debt repayments. Nevertheless, relations between Moscow and Pyongyang have been relatively warm: North Korea was one of the few countries to recognize the 2014 annexation of Crimea and, in 2022, four more regions of Ukraine.

By 2023, Moscow found itself in need of more than just diplomatic aid. Russian production of artillery ammunition and ballistic missiles did not meet the demands of the front. Meanwhile, North Korea appeared to possess significant stocks of Soviet-caliber artillery shells, once presumed to be intended for wiping out Seoul in the event of renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. However, with the advancement of its nuclear program, Pyongyang had acquired more effective means of deterrence, reducing the need for artillery ammunition, if not entirely eliminating it. On the other hand, North Korea actively pursued the development of its missile program, with some ballistic missiles (known in the West as KN-23) demonstrating characteristics matching those of Russia’s Iskanders (at least on paper).

Massive ammunition supplies began following Kim Jong-un's visit to Russia in September 2023. According to OSINT investigators, munitions are transported by container ships from North Korean ports to Russia before being sent by rail to front-line areas. According to the South Korean Defense Ministry, a total of 67,000 containers of ammunition were delivered, a volume that could have contained up to 3 million 152 mm artillery shells, or as many as 500,000 122 mm artillery rockets for the Grad MLRS.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Massive ammunition supplies from North Korea began following Kim Jong-un's Sept. 2023 visit to Russia

Soon, munitions with a distinctive bluish hue for artillery and MLRS started appearing in Russian frontline videos, and almost immediately, Russian pro-war bloggers began expressing their concerns about the quality and accuracy of the ammunition. Nonetheless, the shells proved sufficient for sustained artillery fire, and when combined with Russian and Iranian ammunition, they provided the Russian army with a significant artillery advantage over the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

North Korean 152 mm shells for the 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled gun and the D-20 howitzer used by Russian artillery troops.
North Korean 152 mm shells for the 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled gun and the D-20 howitzer used by Russian artillery troops.
Military Informer

The status of North Korean missiles presents a murkier picture. In early 2024, there were reports of several KN-23 ballistic missile strikes on Kharkiv, one of which was scrutinized by Conflict Armament Research specialists. Since then, however, reports of the utilization of such missiles, dubbed “Kimskanders” by Russian pro-war bloggers, have dwindled. The reasons for this decline remain unclear: it could be because production and delivery capacities are lacking, or perhaps flaws were revealed during use. According to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, approximately half of the missiles veered off course and detonated in mid-air.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Approximately half of the delivered “Kim-Iskanders” veered off course and detonated in mid-air, according to Ukrainian officials

Nonetheless, North Korea’s potential to assist Russia remains largely untapped. Kim Jong-un’s arsenal comprises various weapon types, including MLRS equipped with 240 mm guided rockets (though reliable reports of their potential supply have yet to materialize). Furthermore, North Korea possesses a substantial number of tanks, notably T-54/55 and T-62M models, which Russia employs on the front lines. With forecasts indicating the depletion of Soviet-era armored vehicle stocks in Russian warehouses by 2026, the provision of North Korean tanks and other armored vehicles could help sustain Russia’s capacity for offensive operations in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the extent of what the Kremlin can offer in return remains uncertain, especially considering that nearly all modern weapons produced by the Russian military-industrial complex are allocated to the Ukrainian front. Potential offerings could involve technology transfers and the establishment of licensed production facilities in North Korea, although such endeavors risk provoking strong reactions from South Korea and Japan, both of which have thus far refrained from directly aiding Ukraine militarily.

China: machine-tools and help with sanctions evasion

Despite the so-called “friendship without limits” between Beijing and Moscow, the People's Republic of China has not been observed providing direct material-technical support to the Russian Armed Forces in its conflict with Ukraine. However, China remains a critical supplier of military and dual-use products to the Russian defense industry, and there is evidence indicating increased shipments of precision machinery and equipment, with a significant portion of the Western-sanctioned goods that reach Russia getting there via China. The Insider recently conducted its own investigation into the specific methods used to facilitate such imports.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

China is a key supplier of military products to Russia

Thanks to Chinese assistance, Russia receives various UAV elements, including FPV drones and critical components for electronic warfare systems designed to counter these very drones. Ukrainian drone production enterprises also heavily rely on the Chinese component base. However, Russia holds a logistical advantage in this regard. Some drones are offered to Russian buyers as ready-made solutions, while others are purchased from AliExpress by Russian startups, which then pass them off as their own products.

Notably, among the ready-made drones, DJI products play an extremely significant role for both sides in the conflict. DJI UAVs serve as tactical reconnaissance tools and bombers for munition drops. DJI is associated with Russia's first direct military purchase of Chinese equipment: in 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry acquired Mavic quadcopters, which Russian servicemen could obtain for free (instructions on how to do so were even published in pro-war channels). Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Defense procured a large batch of Desertcross off-road vehicles (reportedly at an inflated price). These vehicles are increasingly being utilized at the front lines, serving as transportation for assault groups. While their use has garnered some negative feedback, in the face of a shortage of armored vehicles and means of transportation, they remain a necessary option.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

Vladimir Putin inspects the Chinese Desertcross off-road vehicle on November 10, 2023.
Vladimir Putin inspects the Chinese Desertcross off-road vehicle on November 10, 2023.
Kremlin.ru

It should be noted that the “assistance” from Chinese companies extends beyond equipment and components to include intelligence gathering. AFP reported that in November 2022, the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner PMC purchased two Chinese commercial satellites and utilized their imagery to plan operations in Ukraine, Africa, and even during their short-lived June 2023 mutiny in Russia itself.

However, despite Russia's efforts to secure direct Chinese military assistance starting from as early as the beginning of 2022, no such shipments have been confirmed. Based on comments from Chinese officials, Beijing appears intent on maintaining a cautiously pro-Russian stance on the international stage, while paying lip service to Ukraine's territorial integrity and a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

If China's stance were to shift, the Russian army could potentially gain access to a wide range of weaponry, from outdated kit to cutting-edge models. Considering that a potential Chinese conflict with Taiwan (or any other Pacific region adversary) would not be likely to burn through large stocks of armored vehicles and artillery, the potential for the transfer of such systems to Russia remains a real possibility. Furthermore, any Chinese restrictions on component supplies to Ukraine could pose a serious threat to Kyiv, at least until alternative supply routes through third-party countries and shell companies could be established — mirroring the very strategies employed by Russia to keep its military-industrial complex working.

AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) — long-range radar detection and control, sometimes interchangeably referred to by the abbreviation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) — radar patrol and guidance.



APC — armored personnel carrier. Designed to transport infantry to the rear, deliver them to the battlefield, and evacuate them.

An artillery shot is a more accurate term for artillery munitions, commonly referred to as shells — it typically consists of the projectile itself, the propellant charge providing the initial velocity to the projectile, and the casing which holds these two elements together.

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