How Russia is Burning Down the Sanctions House – and What to Do About It

Decaying trust: Russia’s actions strike right at the heart of international security. Image: generated with ChatGPT

The ballistic missiles that Russia fires into Ukraine not only bring death and destruction, but also fundamentally delegitimise international sanctions.

In October 2023, RUSI’s Open Source Intelligence and Analysis team shed light on the munitions pipeline from North Korea’s port of Rajin to Russia’s port facility at Dunai. Earlier this year, US officials and media outlets noted that Russia is now using ballistic missiles acquired from North Korea in its aggression against Ukraine. Debris collected from the frontlines suggests that the weapons are KN-23 and KN-24 short-range ballistic missiles, which have an estimated range of 800 and 400 kilometres, respectively. Although discussions have tended to focus on the weapons’ effectiveness, perhaps even more damaging is the impact of their use on norms around international sanctions and the non-proliferation of WMDs.

To be clear, Russia’s acquisition of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons from North Korea is a serious violation of international sanctions. After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1718, which among other prohibitions imposed an arms embargo on the country. The Security Council strengthened the embargo again in 2016 with Resolution 2270 to include prohibitions against related financial transactions, training and advice.

If its arms-related violation of these Resolutions were not bad enough, Russia also appears to have provided technical assistance to North Korea’s satellite programme – another violation of Resolution 2270, which specifically ‘prohibits the DPRK from engaging in any form of technical cooperation with other Member States on launches using ballistic missile technology, even if characterised as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle’.

Russia is Helping North Korea Bust Sanctions … and Norms

The international sanctions regime against North Korea serves two important objectives. The first is pragmatic – to deprive North Korea of the revenue it uses to advance its WMD programmes. Unfortunately, the international community has not been particularly successful in achieving this objective.

North Korea continues to circumvent international and unilateral sanctions globally, generating illicit revenue that allows it to advance its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. Some of this revenue come from selling its military wares to despots and dictators in war-torn countries like Sudan, Angola, Mozambique and Uganda. Furthermore, there is scant evidence to suggest that North Korea is ready to engage in any meaningful dialogue over its nuclear weapons programme.

The second and perhaps equally – if not more – important objective is to demonstrate the international community’s commitment to upholding norms against the further proliferation of WMDs.

While Russia’s recent actions are the most transparently abhorrent, the reality is that the country has been chipping away at international sanctions against North Korea for some time

Historically, norms around the proliferation of WMDs have received widespread support. More countries have ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which puts forward an ambitious objective to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and related technology, than any other treaty. UN Resolution 1540, adopted in 2004, is a cornerstone in shaping action around preventing non-state actors from acquiring WMDs. Yet, despite the near political gridlock, the Security Council was still able to adopt Resolution 2663 in November 2022, which extended the 1540 mandate for an additional 10 years.

By acquiring ballistic missiles and conventional arms from North Korea, Russia is not only failing in its responsibility to uphold its international commitments; it is also flying in the face of decades of norms-building around WMD non-proliferation, in which Russia itself played an important – if not integral – role.

This is why Russia’s actions are so pernicious: they strike right at the heart of international security in yet another sign of decay, diminish trust in international organisations, and send a poor message to UN member states about their obligation to comply with sanctions resolutions against North Korea, which were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter – meaning they are binding on all member states.

While Russia’s recent actions are the most transparently abhorrent, the reality is that the country has been chipping away at international sanctions against North Korea for some time. The UN Panel of Experts’ biannual reports, which detail North Korea’s sanctions-evasion activities, have long implicated Russia in aiding and abetting North Korea’s sanctions evasion. Despite its repeated claims to the contrary, for example, Russia has continued to hold accounts for North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank – a UN-designated entity.

Russia’s Sanctions Violations Also Create Significant Risk for Third Countries

It is no secret that despite its aggression against Ukraine and condemnation from the West, Russia continues to court economic and political support from its partners and allies throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Russia’s violation of UN sanctions against North Korea, however, puts these countries at considerable risk.

Over the past year, Moscow has been on an all-out diplomatic blitz to shore up its arms trade with India, build closer energy and economic ties with Brazil, and secure important natural resource supply chains throughout Africa. Dealing with Russia, however, may also mean dealing with North Korea – that is, indirectly supporting North Korea’s sanctions-evasion activities, which is also prohibited by the UN sanctions resolutions.

Turning a blind-eye to the role and importance of the Global South will only hasten Russia’s attempts to burn down the house

Russia has already demonstrated that it is willing to exploit global maritime flag registries, financial systems and corporate registry services to obfuscate its arms purchases from North Korea and evade Western sanctions. In late January, for example, an investigation by The Insider – an independent investigative journalism outfit – uncovered a Russian sanctions-evasion network operating from Brussels that helped procure machine tools used in the country’s arms manufacturing process. The network underscores the ease with which Russia can circumvent sanctions through shell companies, fraudulent documentation and outright corruption. But it also puts third-party countries at serious risk.

What is to be Done?

Unfortunately, because of Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is unlikely the country will face any repercussions – other than perhaps a strongly worded statement from the P3 (France, the UK and the US). This also means that Russia will suppress any investigations by the Panel of Experts into its weapons purchases from North Korea. Thus, it is unlikely to publish an official accounting of Russia’s violations.

Other international organisations, like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – the body that promotes anti-money laundering and terrorist financing rules and regulations – should step in to provide stronger guidance to members on the risks of violating international sanctions against North Korea via business with Russia. Early last year, the organisation moved to suspend Russia’s membership of the organisation, noting that the country’s actions ‘unacceptably run counter to the FATF core principles aiming to promote security, safety, and the integrity of the global financial system’. However, more is needed.

Furthermore, turning a blind-eye to the role and importance of the Global South will only hasten Russia’s attempts to burn down the house. The West needs to demonstrate the value of upholding norms and adhering to a rules-based system on terms consistent with the Global South’s values and interests. This may mean, for example, avoiding heavy-handed threats of secondary sanctions and instead demonstrating the broader risks and consequences of Russia’s violation of the sanctions against North Korea.

Ultimately, it is imperative that the West focuses on repairing and strengthening norms around the non-proliferation of WMDs, especially the importance of adhering to international commitments. The consequences of Russia’s blatant violation of its international obligations go far beyond the pragmatic effects of further enabling North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes – it undermines trust and rots the foundation of the rules-based system.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Aaron Arnold

Senior Associate Fellow; Former member of the UN Panel of Experts for DPRK sanctions

Centre for Finance and Security

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