Russia is rushing to replace and upgrade weaponry lost in the war. Image: Facebook

Russia is shopping for artillery, missiles and drones on a spree that turned out to be a precursor to Wednesday’s announcement of a call-up of troops to fight President Vladimir Putin’s flailing war on Ukraine.

Much of what Russia is looking for involves artillery needed to drive back a Ukrainian offensive that has reclaimed land in the north and to accelerate a Russian offensive along the Black Sea.

The rockets are wanted to keep peppering civilian infrastructure; the drones to pinpoint Ukrainian medium-range weaponry, much of it provided by the West.

But arms boutiques open to Russia are hard to come by these days, especially since China appears unwilling to supply rockets, or any other weaponry, from its own stocks.

The tight market has prompted Moscow buyers to look to North Korea, often 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 Putin didn’t expect when he launched it in February. Then, the contest was expected to last a few days.

Instead the “special military operation,” as Putin calls it, is now in its seventh debilitating 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.

A HIMARS missile launch. The US weapon has helped to turn the course of the war in Ukraine. Photo: Twitter

Recently, the Ukrainians have been assaulting Russian arms depots behind frontlines using US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to strike Russian ammunition caches beyond the front lines.

Russia had been counting on economic problems centered on curbing 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 significant 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 have said that Russia is also planning to purchase large amounts of artillery shells from North Korea. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank estimates that the North Koreans possess some 20,000 artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers.

Pyongyang could potentially 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.

North Korean missiles are reportedly being shipped to Russia. Photo: iStock

The impacts of such acquisitions, if they happen, may take a while to materialize. North Korea would need to prepare its shipments and then transport them by rail across the expanse of Siberia and eventually to Ukraine.

On Thursday, North Korea’s military said it has never exported weapons to Russia and does not plan to do so, according to its state media, rejecting US accusations of arms trade between the two countries.

“We condemn the US for thoughtlessly circulating the rumor against the DPRK to pursue its base political and military aim,” said the vice director general of the General Bureau of Equipment at North Korea’s defense ministry in an English-language statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

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 Brigadier General Pat Ryder told a Pentagon briefing.

If they finally work, the initial delivery of Iranian arms was the first of what will amount to 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 mass 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 IISS. 

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.

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.

An intercontinental ballistic missile at a military parade in Moscow, May 9, 2017. Photo: TASS / Valery Sharifulin

“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 Russia’s 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.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.