Russia’s private military Wagner Group, which has some 50,000 forces fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Moscow, is being supplied with arms and ammunition from North Korea, according to White House national security spokesperson John Kirby.
The Wagner forces are comprised of some 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts, Kirby told reporters at a White House briefing on Friday (Jan 20). He also said Wagner forces have been active in battles in Bakhmut and Soledar, in eastern Ukraine, where some of the heaviest fighting was seen this month.
“As his military continues to struggle in Ukraine, President [Vladimir] Putin is increasingly turning to Wagner, which is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, for military support,” Kirby said. “Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
North Korea has now joined the fray.
DPRK Involvement Made Public in November 2022
The first reports of arms deliveries from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) date back as far as November 2, 2022, when the United States first condemned Pyongyang for transferring arms to Russia for its war on Ukraine.
At that time, Kirby cited US intelligence reports that said that DPRK was “covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while obfuscating the real destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as though they are being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa.”
The Center for Strategic & International Studies noted in its analysis of Kirby’s assessment that Iranian and North Korean support would not change the course of the war, pointing out the US has the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity to track the North Korean ships, with other nations detaining the cargo at customs to prevent it from reaching the battlefield.
“Actions through the UN Security Council on these arms transfers will be difficult given the Russian veto,” the Center observed.
North Korea Delivered Rockets and Missiles to Russia
“In recent weeks, we have seen … North Korean officials falsely deny that they have provided arms to Wagner,” Kirby told reporters in his briefing Friday (Jan. 20) at the White House.
“North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year,” he said.
“On November 18, five Russian rail cars traveled from Russia to North Korea. The next day, November 19, North Korea loaded those rail cars with shipping containers and the train returned to Russia,” he said.
A satellite image of the delivery was shared with reporters showing a Russian train travelling to North Korea, ostensibly to collect arms for the Russian war effort.
“While we assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner has not changed battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, we do expect that it will continue to receive North Korean weapons systems,” he said.
“We obviously condemn North Korea’s actions, and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately,” he added.
North Korea, Wagner Group Deny Involvement with Russia in Ukraine
Last month Pyongyang’s foreign minister called media reports about its arms shipments to the Wagner Group “groundless” and denied involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Initial earlier reports about North Korea’s involvement by Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun said North Korea had shipped munitions, including artillery shells, by railway to Russia last month, with more shipments expected in the coming weeks.
“The Japanese media’s false report that the DPRK offered munitions to Russia is the most absurd red herring, which is not worth any comment or interpretation,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement carried by the KCNA.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin likewise denied the reports as “gossip and speculation.”
Prigozhin wrote a brief letter this weekend posted to Telegram in English, asking which crime his company is accused of. The letter, addressed to Kirby and posted on the Telegram channel of Prigozhin’s news service, read, “Dear Mr Kirby, Could you please clarify what crime was committed by MPC Wagner?”
The European Union had already imposed its own sanctions on Wagner in December 2021, Reuters reported.
The mercenary group has been active in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique and Mali, as well as Ukraine, and has been described by its owner as a fully independent force with its own aircraft, tanks, rockets and artillery.
Wagner Group Named as ‘Significant Transnational Criminal Organization’
On Friday the Treasury Department announced it will designate Wagner as a “significant transnational criminal organization” and will impose additional sanctions next week against the group and its support network across multiple continents.
“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity,” Kirby said.
Declaring the Wagner Group a Transnational Criminal Organization under US executive order 13581 freezes any U.S. assets of Wagner and prohibits Americans from providing funds, goods, or services to the group.
“With these actions and more to come, our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is this: Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose, and target those assisting Wagner,” he said.
Last month the US Department of Commerce designated Wagner as a “military end user” . . . to ensure that it cannot access equipment anywhere in the world based on US technology or production equipment, Kirby noted.
US, Western Parts Found in Iranian Drone Downed by Ukraine
However, US sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining high-end materials have been less than effective in preventing the Islamic Republic from manufacturing combat drones for Russia to use in Ukraine.
Parts that were produced by more than a dozen US and Western companies were found last fall in an Iranian drone that was downed in Ukraine, according to a report by CNN.
Forty of the 52 components removed from the downed Shahed-136 drone by Ukraine appeared to have been manufactured by 13 different US companies; 12 components were manufactured by companies in Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and China, according to a Ukrainian intelligence assessment quoted by CNN.
A task force subsequently created by the Biden Administration is investigating how US and Western technology ended up in Iranian drones. There has been, however, no evidence to suggest the companies were knowingly exporting their technology to be used in Iranian combat drones, according to the report.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile said in a statement earlier this month that Iran has now become “Russia’s top military backer . . . we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to disrupt and delay these transfers and impose costs on actors engaged in this activity.”
At around the same time, the Biden Administration announced fresh sanctions and additional measures targeting Iran’s aviation and defense sector. Among those sanctioned were six executives and board members from Tehran’s Qods Aviation Industries for producing UAVs for use by Russia against Ukraine.
“The United States will act swiftly against individuals and entities supporting Iran’s UAV and ballistic missile programs and will stand resolutely in support of the people of Ukraine,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the announcement.
Iran Holding Back on Missile Shipment to Russia?
Despite its shipments of combat drones, the Islamic Republic has held back on delivering faster and even deadlier drones as well as short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to Russia – at least for now.
According to a report published last month by Axios, Israeli intelligence officials say Iran wants to limit the range of missiles it plans to send to Moscow due to concerns such deliveries could violate UN Security Council resolution 2231, triggering “snapback” sanctions by United Nations member states.
The resolution bans Iran from exporting drones or SRBMs with ranges exceeding 300 kilometers (186 miles) and payloads greater than 500 kilograms (1102 lb), until October 2023.
Violation of the ban could be even more problematic for Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UNSC and one of the world powers with whom Iran signed the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal that included resolution 2231.
Following Iran’s initial denial of delivering UAVs to Russia, Tehran finally acknowledged last month that it did, in fact, supply Moscow with the kamikaze drones – but claimed it had done so before the start of the war in February 2022.
However, under a contract signed last summer, Russia purchased 1,700 Shahed drones from Iran at a production cost of approximately $7,000 a piece, according to The New Voice of Ukraine.
Russia continues to deny its use of Iranian combat drones against civilian targets in Ukraine, including the country’s civilian energy infrastructure and residential buildings.
US Warns UN Iran Mulling Ballistic Missiles for Russia
In remarks delivered at a meeting of the UN Security Council on January 13, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield warned that both Iran and North Korea are actively involved in sending arms and ammunition to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine.
“Since August, Iran has transferred hundreds of UAVs to Russia, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Russia has been using these Iranian UAVs to strike Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, depriving millions of Ukrainian civilians of electricity, heat, and critical services in the middle of winter,” Thomas Greenfield said.
“People in Ukraine today are suffering and dying as a result of Iran’s support.
“We believe Iran is now considering the sale of hundreds of ballistic missiles to Russia, also in violation of Council resolutions. We urge Iran to reverse course and not to take these steps. And we urge everyone who supports peace to ask Iran to do the same.
“DPRK officials said publicly that they would not support Russia’s war in Ukraine. But they have since delivered arms to the Wagner Group, in direct violation of Security Council resolutions.
“Last month, DPRK delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Russian Federation-backed Wagner in violation of the Council’s sanctions resolutions. And we are concerned that the DPRK is planning to deliver more military equipment to Wagner,” Thomas Greenfield said.
“We condemn the DPRK’s actions and urge the DPRK to cease these deliveries and come into compliance with the relevant Security Council resolutions. And once again, we encourage everyone to join us in that call,” she said.
Ukrainian Intelligence: ‘Iran in No Hurry to Send Missiles to Russia’
Kyrylo Budanov, head of the main directorate of intelligence (HUR) in Ukraine’s defense ministry, told The New York Times on December 23, 2022, that “Iran is in no hurry to (supply missiles) for understandable reasons – because as soon as Russia fires the first missiles, the sanctions pressure will grow” on Iran.
According to Axios, Iran plans to deliver a Fateh-110 missile system to Russia but intends to modify the system and cap its range under 300 kilometers in accordance with resolution 2231.
In return, it is believed Russia plans to provide Iran with advanced military gear, including helicopters, air defense systems and Su-35 advance fighter jets, Kirby told reporters last month.