Much of what Russia is looking for involved artillery needed to drive back a Ukrainian offensive that has reclaimed land in the north and to speed up a Russian offensive along the Black Sea.
The rockets are wanted to keep peppering civilian infrastructure; the drones, to pin-point Ukrainian medium-range weaponry.
But arms boutiques open to Russia are hard to come by, especially since China appears unwilling to supply rockets, or any other weaponry, from its own collections. The tight market has prompted Moscow buyers to look to North Korea, an eager seller, and Iran, which by supplying some hardware, hopes to pit Russia on its side in its long-running dispute with Washington.
The Russians are also sequestering antique Soviet-era rockets from around St. Petersburg.
All this certainly represents a turn in a war that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t expect when he launched it in February.
The contest was expected to last a few days. Instead the “special military operation,” as Putin calls it, is in its seventh month. Ukrainian tenacity combined with a cornucopia of evermore sophisticated US and NATO weaponry has allowed Ukraine to resist, mount a counteroffensive in northeast Ukraine and stymie Russian advances in the south.
Recently, the Ukrainians have been assaulting Russian arms depots behind front lines using US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to strike Russian ammunition caches beyond the front lines.
Russia had been counting on economic problems centered on curbed fuel supplies to turn Western European populations against helping Ukraine. The European Union has so far been able to contain opposition in Hungary, France and Italy, and to build up its fuel supplies to curb economic hardship.
At the same time, a measure of unease has surfaced behind Putin’s domestic information blockade, with occasional breakouts of public opposition to the war and especially to Putin’s management of it.
The transfer of weapons from St. Petersburg suggests supply problems. A Finnish media outlet, Yle, published satellite photos that showed anti-aircraft weapons having been removed from near the city. Four of 14 anti-aircraft batteries have been moved to Ukraine, according to Yle.
US officials said that Russia is also purchasing large amounts of artillery shells from North Korea. The International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank estimates that the Koreans possess some 20,000 artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers.
Pyongyang figures it can spare large amounts of them—especially older ones—because it increasingly relies on rockets as central to its defensive and offensive capabilities, US officials say.
Russia may yet shop for more and higher value arms from the country. “As North Korea has recently brought new classes of ballistic and cruise missiles into production, these too may be considered by Russia to supplement its own productive capacities as such weapons have been rapidly expended in Ukraine,” North Korea expert A.B. Abrams told Military Watch Magazine.
The impacts of such acquisitions may take a while to materialize. North Korea needs to prepare its shipments and then to transport them by rail across the expanse of Siberia and eventually to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Iran has entered the bazaar with Shahed-136 drones of its own manufacture, US officials say. But much of the first batch, which arrived in Russia in August, “experienced numerous faults,” US Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told a Pentagon briefing.
If they finally work, the initial delivery of Iranian arms were the first of what will amount to be multiple transfers, according to US officials. Most Russian drones are equipped for surveillance, not to launch air strikes.
It is unclear whether Russia has the wherewithal to properly equip the new troop horde he is injecting into the war, especially the heavy weaponry needed to hold back the Ukrainians. At the beginning of this year, Russia possessed about 13,000 tanks, of which only 3,000 were in operation. The rest were stored in reserve, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. These will need to be refurbished for combat. It is also unclear when crews that have been out of training for a while will be prepared to operate them immediately.
That is perhaps why Putin made ominous warnings about what he would do if Ukraine, equipped with Western weapons, strikes Russian territory. He also accused the West of “nuclear blackmail” and advised that Russia has “lots of weapons” of its own. It was an ironic threat given the number of times Putin has threatened the West with a nuclear holocaust over the Ukraine conflict.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries,” he said.
He didn’t say exactly what that meant.
Last week, US President Joe Biden warned that Russian use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would “change the face of war” and the American response would be “consequential.”
He didn’t specify what that meant, either.