Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 5 September 2023. © Richard Kemp
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s planned meeting with Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, as revealed by US intelligence, gives us a new insight into Russia’s strategy in Ukraine as well as a warning of wider dangers for the world.
As Kyiv’s offensive wears on into its fourth month, with only limited success and a few Russian counter attacks, it is becoming clear that Moscow’s plan may be to allow Ukraine to exhaust its men, tanks, shells and missiles against the Surovikin Line’s hardest edge. The thinking could be that, once Ukraine’s Western equipped and trained manoeuvre forces have been ground down, Russia will then be able to launch its own major offensive, perhaps as early as January.
After almost two years of fighting that has been compared more to the First World War than the Second, this plan is reminiscent of the Germans’ Kaiserschlacht, the spring offensive which began in March 1918 and drove the allies back, seizing more territory than had been taken by either side in the preceding four years of war. This was achieved by the Germans bleeding the enemy dry while building massive reserves of men and munitions behind the lines, ready to unleash a devastating assault not unlike what the British aimed for, but failed to achieve, during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The problem for Putin is that, as he seeks to grind down Ukrainian forces, he is expending vast quantities of ammunition, especially artillery shells and ballistic missiles, and very large numbers of tanks. While Russia has a greater volume of military industrial production than much of the West, and continues to mobilise tens of thousands of men each quarter on a rolling basis, its core supplies remain inadequate for the level of expenditure required for a major new offensive.
That is where Pyongyang could come in. North Korea has been sending large quantities of shells, rockets and missiles to Russia for at least a year, with many of the shipments organised by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group. In July, Putin’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu was in Pyongyang, presumably negotiating further supplies. There he will have found an Aladdin’s Cave of hardware – North Korea maintains immense stocks of heavy weaponry and artillery munitions. Many are old and unreliable, but that won’t matter if Russia resorts to its old tactic for victory: utilising its sheer force of numbers, steamrollering the enemy as the Germans sought to do in 1918.
The new Moscow-Pyongyang axis is a reversal of roles from the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union and China were the top arms supplier to North Korea from its inception. Supply continued even after the Soviet collapse, only ending with the advent of UN sanctions. Supporting Russia today benefits Kim as a means of hitting back against the US, with the undoubted approval of Beijing.
But North Korea’s backing will not come without a hefty price tag. Crippled by Western sanctions, Pyongyang is in dire need of the oil, food, fertiliser and raw materials that Russia has in abundance.
A more concerning aspect of Russia’s burgeoning relationship is the potential to supply both hard currency and technology for North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, especially the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. As with its ability to provide other commodities, Russia has enormous capabilities in this field, including its own nuclear weapons know-how. This could be a game-changer in Pyongyang’s pursuit of an effective nuclear delivery programme.
Some analysts have suggested that the US exposure of Kim’s planned visit might be enough for him to cancel it. That will make no difference. The deeply embedded links between the two countries are sufficient for this deadly cooperation to continue and develop without a meeting between the two leaders.
The question that must therefore be asked is: why was there a need to plan for such a meeting in the first place? For Kim, virtually confined to the borders of his own country, it would be an opportunity to posture as a world statesman before his fellow anti-Western regimes. Putin, too, has a need to show his people that he is not isolated. But there may be something else behind it. Putin might well have in mind a bargaining chip to encourage an already wobbling US administration to pressure Kyiv into a ceasefire.
Whatever the diplomatic double-dealing, the West should now be helping Ukraine prepare in case their current offensive fails, allowing Putin to unleash his Kaiserschlacht.
The German offensive in 1918 petered out from exhaustion and lack of supplies. We cannot count on a similar fate overcoming Putin’s next move: it is questionable whether Ukraine will have the resources to hold the Russians back, let alone launch their own version of the Hundred Days Offensive which allowed the Allies, with newly arrived American forces, to drive the Germans back into their homeland.
If this apocalyptic 1918 scenario becomes reality, a monumental effort will be required from the West as well as from Ukraine – greater than has already been delivered. It will be extremely costly for everyone, with the potential consequences too terrifying to contemplate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons