Summit Signals How Ukraine War Drives Russian Foreign Policy

The summit meeting on Wednesday between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, comes at a rare moment of mutual need.

Mr. Putin needs more munitions to fuel his war against Ukraine, the likes of which North Korea possesses in abundance. And Mr. Kim requires more advanced military technology to secure his regime, as well as food, fuel and cash to support his isolated nation. These are all things Russia could theoretically provide, apart from the challenges posed by United Nations Security Council sanctions.

That backdrop has made North Korea far more relevant than in years past for Russia, despite North Korea’s history as an impoverished, troublesome partner since the breakup of the old Soviet bloc. And it underscores the extent to which war aims continue to serve as an overriding priority for Mr. Putin, as his invasion of Ukraine nears the 19-month mark.

“The war is now the organizing principle of Russian foreign policy,” Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said, noting that North Korea could not only provide Russia with munitions but also support the Kremlin’s effort to push back against what Mr. Putin describes as Western hegemony.

When Mr. Putin launched his invasion last year, North Korea was one of the first and few countries to declare support. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July and toured an arms exhibition there, during which North Korea showed off missiles, drones and other weapons.

When Mr. Kim previously traveled to Russia by train, in 2019, for a meeting with Mr. Putin the talks were dominated by nuclear disarmament. This time the negotiations could be more substantive, as they take place in a country at war and at a time when Russian military stocks are depleted.

Russia is concerned about North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program, analysts say. Following the North’s six underground nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017, Russia and China both joined a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing increasingly harsh sanctions. But it has become a secondary concern as its conflict and confrontation with the United States deepens.

North Korea also functions on a wartime footing. Despite international sanctions and domestic economic hardship, the nation operates one of the world’s largest standing armies and a vigorous defense industry.

“This has historically been a very mercantile, transactional relationship,” said Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Those two components of the relationship seem to be in closer alignment at this moment than they have been for many years.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that North Korea was shipping artillery shells and rockets for Russian fighters in Ukraine. They fear that Mr. Kim’s meeting with Mr. Putin could result in additional arms deals.

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