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Russia's Reliance on China and North Korea for Arms Amid Western Sanctions



In the intricate web of global politics and economic survival, the relationship between Russia, China, and North Korea has emerged as a focal point. As Russia faces persistent Western sanctions following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it has increasingly turned to China and North Korea to sustain its military operations. This article delves into how these alliances are shaping Russia's arms manufacturing capabilities and the broader geopolitical implications.

China’s Role in Russia’s Military Sustenance

Publicly available customs data reveals that China is exporting over $300 million worth of dual-use products to Russia every month. These products, identified as “high priority” items by the United States, the European Union, Japan, and the United Kingdom, are essential for Russia's weapons production. While monthly transactions have seen fluctuations, with a peak of over $600 million in December 2023, China remains Russia’s largest supplier of these controlled products.

Dual-use items are critical components used in the manufacturing of weaponry such as missiles, drones, and tanks. These include microelectronics, machine tools, telecommunications gear, radars, optical devices, and sensors—products that Russia struggles to produce domestically. Approximately 90% of Russia’s imports of goods covered under the G7’s high priority export control list are from China, highlighting the indispensable role of Chinese exports in sustaining Moscow’s war effort.

Surge in Chinese Exports to Russia

Chinese exports to Russia have surged by more than 60% since the invasion of Ukraine, with many analysts referring to this trade as a lifeline for Russia’s economy. High priority items like semiconductors, telecommunications equipment, and machine tools have become pivotal for Russia, especially given the severe constraints on its own production capacities. Machine tools alone accounted for nearly 40% of the year-on-year rise in Chinese dual-use exports in 2023.

Despite stringent Western export controls, China’s General Customs Administration continues to report bilateral transactions, further complicating the enforcement of these controls. The decline in the number of countries willing to export dual-use goods to Russia, with Turkey, Malaysia, and Armenia being notable exceptions, underscores China’s unique position as Russia’s primary supplier of high-priority items.

North Korea’s Pivotal Role in Munitions Supply

North Korea has also emerged as a crucial player in replenishing Russia’s military supplies. According to South Korea’s Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, North Korean munitions factories are operating at full capacity to produce weapons and shells for Russia. This partnership is rooted in a quid-pro-quo arrangement where North Korea provides millions of rounds of artillery shells in exchange for food and other necessities from Russia.

Since August 2023, North Korea has shipped approximately 6,700 containers to Russia, equating to over 3 million rounds of 152 mm artillery shells or more than 500,000 rounds of 122 mm multiple rocket launchers. This heavy exchange underscores the critical role of North Korean supplies as Russia struggles to maintain the momentum of its military operations. In a fact sheet released by the US State Department, North Korea has delivered over 10,000 containers of munitions or related materials to Russia since September.

Strategic and Geopolitical Implications

The deepening ties between Russia, China, and North Korea present significant geopolitical ramifications. The technological support provided by China and the munitions supplied by North Korea are pivotal in sustaining Russia's invasion of Ukraine, despite the heavy toll of Western-sanctioned shortages. Moreover, the alliances put Russian President Vladimir Putin in a precarious position, granting China unprecedented access to Russian resources and infrastructure. This concession creates a dangerous dependency on a partner with significant economic clout and strategic interests.

From Beijing’s perspective, supporting Russia diverts Western attention and resources away from the Indo-Pacific, aligning with its strategic interests. However, the political ramifications for Russia are substantial. By allowing China to integrate deeply into the Russian economy and infrastructure, Putin risks turning Russia into a subordinate partner, echoing concerns seen in other nations entrapped in economically lopsided relationships with China.

Concerns within the International Community

The involvement of private firms versus state-backed entities in these transactions is a significant concern for U.S. policymakers. While China claims plausible deniability regarding direct state involvement, the deep links between the Chinese state and its private sector make it challenging to separate the two. As a response, the United States has imposed sanctions on numerous Chinese entities and warned of further measures if the support for Russia’s military continues.

The potential technology transfer between North Korea and Russia also alarms international observers. North Korea’s pursuit of advanced satellite and nuclear-powered submarine technologies from Russia could significantly enhance its military capabilities, posing a further threat to international security.


The alliances between Russia, China, and North Korea have profound implications for global security and the balance of power. As Russia grapples with Western sanctions, its increasing reliance on China’s dual-use goods and North Korea’s munitions highlights a strategic pivot towards these nations for sustenance. While this provides short-term relief for Russia’s defense industry, the long-term geopolitical consequences could leave Moscow more vulnerable and subordinate, altering the dynamics of international relations.


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