Russia: Who Stole What For North Korea

Over the weekend Russia made a point of revealing another of their post-Cold War EW (electronic warfare) aircraft. This one is called the Il-22PP and described as an airborne electronic jammer that can block all manner of signals but particularly the digital ones (like Link 16) favored by Western warplanes. The Il-22PP was also described as being able to protect itself from anti-radiation missiles, like the American AGM-88. Since late 2015 Russia has revealed (to the public) the existence of other post-Cold War electronic warfare aircraft by using them in Syria or over Ukraine. Not so the Il-22PP, at least not yet.

An even more interesting tech mystery surfaced nearby as Ukraine denied that it had ever exported to North Korea ICBM rocket engines or the plans to build them. This comes after technical experts noted that the new North Korean ICBM was using engines very similar to those built at the Ukrainian Yuzhmash factory. During the Cold War Yuzhmash produced RD-250 engines for the Soviet 1970s era R-36M (SS-18 or “Satan” in the West) ICBM. The RS-18 was developed as a “light” ICBM, in effect, a competitor for the U.S. Minuteman series. The R-36M was designed in 1969, first tested in 1972 and entered service in 1975. It’s the largest ICBM the Russians ever built, with a liftoff weight of 210 tons and a warhead weighing eight tons. While it’s a liquid fuel rocket, storable liquid fuel is used. This avoids lengthily fueling procedures common with earlier Russian ICBMs. Modifications and upgrades for the missile produced six separate models, the last one entering service in 1990. After 2000 Russia wanted to refurbish a hundred of the most recently built (in the 1980s, for the most part) R-36Ms. Shortages of cash and resources reduced the number refurbished and as of 2016 only about fifty were operational. By 2018 only about 30 will be working and by 2020 none will. Work on SS-18 components in the Yuzhmash plant ceased after Ukraine split from the Soviet Union in 1991 and Yuzhmash converted to building satellite launchers, which it still does. Russia was a customer but since 2014 Yuzhmash has put more emphasis on non-Russian customers. Yuzhmash executives point out that the RD-250 engines showed up in North Korea recently and Yuzhmash has had nothing to do with the RD-250 for over two decades while Russia still had RD-250s and maintains some ICBMs that use them. That means Russia has the people still familiar with the RD-250 and up-to-date plans on how the RD-250 is built. If anyone has spare RD-250s (to keep existing SS-18s operational) it is Russia. Ukrainians point out that Russia has more often been a source of illegally obtained military tech than Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine were sources of stolen military technology after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it was easier to get Russian stuff to North Korea because the two share a common border. Meanwhile Ukraine sold a lot of Soviet era military tech to China, often legally (although the Russians didn’t always agree). Ukraine blames these accusations on Russian “Information War” efforts against Ukraine to try and distract media attention from the continued Russian determination to seize and hold Ukrainian territory.

Speaking of corruption (which Ukraine suffers from a bit more than Russia) there has been more publicity about prosecutions of Russian managers in space program related industries. These investigations were known long before North Korea made its “sudden advances” in ICBM tech over the last year. The corruption in the Russian space program has been widespread and became a public matter (the government prefers to deal with corruption problems quietly) when it became obvious more than a decade ago that Russia was having problems building new ICBMs or satellite launchers. Recently the state controlled Russian media has had several stories of prosecutions for embezzlement and other misbehavior explain a lot of the financial and quality control issues in firms that design and build ICBMs and satellite launchers.


Russia, Iran and Turkey want to keep the Assads in power and develop better relations with the each other. Evidence of this strategy can be seen in the Russian monitored “neutral (ceasefire or de-escalation) zones” in southern Syria, along the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Since agree to on July 7th this zone is apparently working and was initially monitored by 400 Russian military police. Russia has since moved in more (now four) battalions of military police, many of them within sight of people on both sides of the Syrian border with Israel and Jordan. These police are also being used in the other neutral zones established in August. The problem is Iran and most Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda and ISIL have not agreed to observe the neutral zone. That results in some violence, mostly from ISIL. The other Islamic terror groups are willing to unofficially observe the ceasefire.

Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey quietly agrees. Russia supports that more openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government. Recently American officials openly confirmed this “understanding” which was apparently worked out in at least one secret meeting between Israeli, American and Russian officials. The only thing that makes Russia, Iran and Turkey allies is their desire for the Assads to stay in power and keep Syria free of Sunni Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Iran and Russia back the Assads directly (with cash, personnel and weapons) and coordinate their military operations to help the Assads survive. The Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries.

Russian Attrition

Among the many problems have with its population, one that gets little notice outside Russia is the sharp decline in the working age (15-64) population. The drop began in 2010 when there were about 103 million working age Russians. Unless something drastic happens to reverse the situation the working age population will continue to decline by at least half a million people a year until the 2050s.


The U.S. and Afghanistan keep finding evidence that Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban. When pressed Russian officials will talk about the Taliban are the only ones fighting ISIL in Afghanistan and need more weapons for that. This is absurd because Russia considers the Afghan heroin coming into Russia as a bigger threat than ISIL. The latest evidence of Russian arms getting to the Taliban comes from northern Afghanistan, where there is little ISIL activity but major heroin export routes to Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban has always been active up there when it comes to protecting those smuggling routes. .

Earlier in 2017 the American accused Russia of colluding with Iran, or Iranian arms smugglers, to supply the Taliban with weapons. Apparently Russia is again trying to destabilize the Afghan government so that they, and their ally Iran, will have more influence. This has been going on since the 1800s. But for over a thousand years before that warlords in Iran and northern India fought to control parts of Afghanistan, especially those areas that were part of the “Silk Road” between the Middle East (and Europe) and China (as well as stops along the way, like India and Iran.) Russia and Iran are concerned about the damage Afghan opium a.nd heroin are doing (by creating millions of Russian and Iranian addicts) but are willing to tolerate the Afghan drug gangs if the export of the drugs can be better regulated to avoid Russia and Iran. That rarely works well but Russia, Iran and Pakistan are willing to try but understand that the American in particular and the West in general would never go along. Meanwhile Western nations are the main source of foreign aid that keeps the Afghan government going. Thus the Russians supplying weapons to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

In Ukraine the government terminated a 2004 agreement with Russia to cooperate in exporting military systems that both nations contributed technology or manufacturing for. Since 2014 a lot of these systems have been withdrawn from production because of the Russian aggression.

August 3, 2017: The Russian government has gone public with denials that more Russian military personnel have been killed in Syria than have been reported. Currently the government official count is ten killed so far this year and 32 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent (or more) higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. Recent reports in the West, backed up by data supplied by Russian families who have lost someone recently in Syria, put the total so far this year at 40. The government finally admitted that there are Russian “volunteers” in Syria but they are not military personnel (even if they are being used as such and serving alongside military personnel).

To make their Syria intervention work Russia had had to resort to Russian private security companies. About half these private security firms are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.

August 2, 2017: The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russia by making it more difficult for EU (European Union) firms to business with Russia. This is important because Russia is dependent on many EU firms for key services or tech items.

July 28, 2017: Russia is trying to improve its relationship with North Korea but most of what the Russians do is more publicity stunt than economic boost. The latest example is the failed ferry. In June 2017 Russia and North Korea opened a new weekly ferry service between North Korea and Vladivostok, the major Russian port on the Pacific coast. A 1,500 ton North Korean ship was used, a vessel that carries 193 passengers plus cargo. Because Russia is checking cargo (for sanctioned items) and IDs the ferry is not getting much business. Russia continues to observe European rules on who and what can legally go to North Korea. This is done so as not to threaten trade Russia still has with European nations. Russia has also increased its exports to North Korea in 2017 but that does not amount to much as Russian trade always accounted for only a few percent of North Korean foreign trade.

July 26, 2017: Satellite photos show Russia has replaced a dozen of the older warplanes at its Syrian Hmeymin airbase. Most of the 20 or so aircraft there are now Su-34, Su-35 and Su-30SM, which are built to mainly deliver smart bombs and guided missiles. For over a year Russia was using older warplanes that could only deliver unguided bombs because Russia had quickly exhausted its supply of smart bombs by early 2016. The more modern warplanes are also more effective at air-to-air combat. Hmeymin is outside the port city of Latakia and defended by Russia’s most modern air defense system (the S-400). Russia recently signed a 49 year lease with the Assads for the use of Hmeymin airbase. The lease can be extended for 25 years at a time after the initial 49 years. Russia is also upgrading its military port facilities in the Syrian port of Tartus to that of a permanent naval base.

Full article: Russia: Who Stole What For North Korea (Strategy Page)

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