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Putin to visit North Korea, Vietnam as his war in Ukraine stalls

In this pool photo distributed by Sputnik agency, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, center left, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, center right, visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on Sept. 13. Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un both arrived at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, Russian news agencies reported on September 13, ahead of planned talks that could lead to a weapons deal.  (Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images of North America/TNS)
By Jon Herskovitz Bloomberg News Bloomberg News

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit North Korea and Vietnam in rare trips to long-time partners as he faces renewed challenges in his war on Ukraine.

Putin will travel to North Korea Tuesday and Wednesday and go on to Vietnam Wednesday, departing on Thursday, according to Kremlin statements published Monday.

The trip to North Korea will be Putin’s first since 2000. It comes as Kim Jong Un’s regime is suspected of sending missiles and millions of rounds of munitions to help Putin in his grinding assault on Ukraine. With Kyiv now taking delivery of billions of dollars in fresh arms from its U.S. and European allies, the window for a Russian breakthrough is narrowing.

North Korea possesses some of the largest stores of artillery and weapons that are interoperable with Soviet-era systems deployed on the front-lines in Ukraine. Satellite imagery indicates the arms transfers picked up momentum after Kim visited Putin in September, when the North Korean leader toured Russian weapons plants. Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the arms transfers despite ample evidence showing them taking place.

“I believe Kim and Putin will pick up from where they left off when Kim was in Russia in September 2023 and seek to further upgrade the bilateral relationship across many, if not all, realms,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. She added this may mean the leaders upgrading a treaty adopted in 2000 to include stronger language about military and security cooperation.

“For as long as the war in Ukraine continues, North Korea-Russia relations will remain solid. What the relationship will look like after the war in Ukraine is over, that is harder to predict,” said Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades.

For months, Russia’s army has made only limited gains on the battlefield against Ukrainian troops that were running low on weapons.

Kim, meanwhile, has presided over tests of some of his newest artillery rockets and ballistic missile systems. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik has said the weapons displays may have been intended to impress Putin by showing him what North Korea could provide for his assault on Ukraine.

In return for the munitions from Kim’s regime that could reach as high as nearly 5 million artillery shells, Russia has sent to North Korea technology to help in its plans to deploy an array of spy satellites as well as conventional arms such as tanks and aircraft, Shin said in an interview with Bloomberg News. Russia will likely send military technology to Kim, increasing Pyongyang’s threat to the region, Shin added.

The stakes for Putin’s visit to Vietnam will likely be lower. He last went there in 2017, when the nation hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in the coastal city of Danang.

Vietnam and Russia have ties going back decades to the Soviet Union. Moscow was a major supplier of military aid to Vietnam during its war with the U.S. The Southeast Asian nation has since relied on Russia for weapons, including aircraft and Kilo-class, diesel-powered submarines.

Relations between Vietnam and Russia have stayed warm, with Moscow also a key stakeholder in Vietnam’s energy sector. Vietsovpetro, a joint venture between Vietnam and Russia, runs one of the Southeast Asian country’s largest oil fields in Bach Ho, which has been in operation for about four decades.