Amid Ukraine War, Russia’s Global Hunt for Weapons Turns Up Surprisingly Little
by Ryan Brobst
Russia’s attempt to procure suicide drones from Beijing appears to have failed, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly denied any plans to provide lethal aid. By contrast, dozens of countries are willing to provide military aid to Ukraine, which has leveraged this international support to achieve considerable battlefield gains. As the war enters a critical phase, the United States should work to deter China and others from coming to Russia’s aid, while ensuring Ukraine has the materiel it needs to continue liberating its territory.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine, stated in an interview with Voice of America in February that “almost the only country that actually supplies more or less serious weapons is Iran.” Iran has transferred several types of drones to Russia, most notably the Shahed-131s/136s, which have been used in Russia’s campaign to destroy Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Tehran has also provided Moscow with some artillery and tank rounds, and the two regimes have discussed a potential sale of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles to Russia, but that deal doesn’t appear to have materialized yet. In return, Moscow is providing Tehran with a host of advanced military systems, reportedly including Su-35 fighter aircraft.
Interestingly, Budanov did not list Belarus as supplying significant amounts of weapons to Moscow, even though Russia has received large amounts of ammunition and tanks from Belarusian military stockpiles. Perhaps due to the political control Russia has over Belarus and close integration of the two militaries, Budanov considered the Belarusian military a subsidiary of the Russian military.
Beyond Belarus, a few other countries have assisted Russia in its war effort. Declassified US intelligence disclosed that North Korea has transferred artillery shells and rockets to Russia, but Budanov stated the munitions haven’t been used in Ukraine and open sources have not shown evidence of their use either.
South Africa is rumored to have transferred weapons to Russia. A sanctioned Russian ship, possibly carrying ammunition, docked at a South African naval base in December, delivering and then loading unidentified cargo. In a concerning development, South Africa then participated in combined naval drills with Russia and China in February. However, any equipment South Africa may have sent to Russia is unlikely to significantly influence the war in Ukraine.
Chinese firms have already provided some non-lethal aid to Russia, including satellite imagery for Russia’s Wagner group. China is also a critical avenue for evading Western export controls, and Chinese firms have supplied sanctioned Russian defense contractors with navigation equipment and fighter jet parts. Washington says Beijing is also considering providing Russia with lethal aid, reportedly including Shahed-like suicide drones and artillery ammunition. China quickly denied the allegation, however, reflecting Beijing’s determination not to be seen as aiding Russia in its war.
In comparison with Russia’s ragtag collection of supporters, Ukraine receives lethal aid from several dozen countries, and non-lethal aid from dozens more. According to data from the Kiel Institute, Ukraine has received roughly €138.5 billion in military, financial, and humanitarian commitments since January 24, 2022, which is equivalent to $147.6 billion.
The international coalition standing behind Ukraine offers Kyiv a comparative advantage over Moscow in their ongoing conflict. Kyiv’s largest supporter, the United States, can draw on an extensive network of allies and partners to support Ukraine militarily, economically, and diplomatically.
Fifty-four nations attended the most recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, which coordinates military aid transfers to Ukraine and has met nine times since the first gathering in April 2022. Even unlikely supporters, such as Pakistan and Morocco, have reportedly provided Kyiv with artillery ammunition and even tanks, albeit indirectly. Global support for Kyiv was on full display during the recent February 23 United Nations vote calling for Russian troops to leave Ukraine, decided 141 to 7, with only countries like Eritrea and North Korea voting with Russia.
Military aid from abroad has enabled Ukraine to stay in the fight and liberate significant amounts of territory. With Western help, Kyiv hopes to retake even more during a major counteroffensive later this year. To succeed, Ukraine will need continued supplies of military aid from abroad and new systems to strike Russian forces behind the frontlines.
Washington should work to find additional countries willing to supply weapons, either directly or indirectly, to Ukraine. A study published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in July identified more than 6,300 Soviet- or Russian-made weapon systems available for potential transfer from a variety of countries outside of NATO, with nations like Cyprus, Moldova, and South Korea among the most likely to help. The US and NATO members can also do more themselves, including providing Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, providing additional 155mm artillery shells, and delivering on their commitments to transfer Leopard 2 tanks.
The United States should also work with allies and partners to sanction companies, especially Chinese firms flying under the radar, that support Russia’s war machine by providing key industrial inputs. Doing so can also deter companies in China and elsewhere from providing lethal aid to Moscow.
Vladimir Putin has found little support abroad for his war, while Ukraine can rely on dozens of ardent supporters. If it is to succeed in the coming months, Kyiv will need its backers, first and foremost the United States, to step up in a big way.
Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.