What to Expect From Putin’s Rogue Friends

A breakdown of Moscow’s allies and why they support Russia’s invasion

20 January 2023

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Despite sanctions and a united front from democratic nations, Russia is continuing to push ahead with its attack against Ukraine. But which regimes are supporting Putin and his imperialistic pursuits, and what capabilities do they have in arming Moscow in their war against Kyiv?

Being a pariah state in the international arena is not a bright prospect. However, against the backdrop of humiliating military setbacks in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin manages to rely on his old friends by pure coercion or a cold “business-as-usual” logic to help him get the upper hand in Ukraine and launch a possible new offensive in 2023. He is ready to close his eyes as potentially millions of deaths from newly mobilised, inexperienced Russians and throw more troops into the “meat grinder” in the Donbas region.

Looking forward, several questions arise: who are Putin’s allies in his illegal invasion, and why shouldn’t they be underestimated by the West? Perhaps most importantly, who will survive the 2023 winter of attrition: the Ukrainians or the Russians?


Iran: Putin’s Closest Bedfellow

The unprecedented nine packages of sanctions have not fully paralysed Russian military capabilities to stop waging its war against Ukraine. As Putin can still gather those allies that he can possibly find to launch a renewed offensive.

The National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, fairly called the Russian-Iranian bromance a “full-fledged defence partnership”.

Iranian drones Shahed-136, marked by Russians as Geran, continue to kill civilians and destroy critical energy objects, having plunged Ukrainians into darkness. In return for Tehran’s generosity, Putin promises to support them with helicopters, air defence systems and training. These drones cost Putin less than ballistic missiles, up to $20,000, and their swarms exhaust the Ukrainian air defence system, which is set to be ramped up in a couple of months with the first Patriot systems.

UK Ambassador Barbara Woodward stressed at the UN Security Council that Russia terrorises Ukrainians “with weapons sourced from Iran”. As Russian military stocks have dramatically dried up, Putin is in a constant quest for any weapons from those countries that still support him and fear losing Russia as their strategic partner. Iran is most certainly on this scarce list of friends.

Iran continued, to some point, to deny all allegations of supplying any arms to Russia. Later, after the Ukrainian side had gathered enough evidence to prove the contrary, Iran was forced to acknowledge its supply, but before the full-scale invasion kicked off. However, Zelenskyy’s recent speech in the US Senate ignited harsh rhetoric from the Iranian authorities, who warned not to test their patience by shifting the blame.

Putin paid a visit to Tehran on 19 July 2022 to highlight his importance in the region and discuss the Astana peace process. However, the behind-the-scenes defence partnership with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei topped the Kremlin’s agenda.

Both have common enemies – the US and NATO – and strongly believe that this war is legitimate and justifiable. Both are isolated and willing to wage their own game to survive in the long run. Hence, it came as no surprise that in the aftermath of this visit, Ukraine became a major victim of Iranian kamikaze drones.

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Ukraine Spy Chief Kyrylo Budanov pointed out that “Russia acquired 1,700 so-called Shahed exploding drones from Iran”. What matters is the Iranian indirect participation in Putin’s war and the deepening of military cooperation between the two authoritative regimes, which will bear severe security consequences for Ukraine and its allies in the long term.

The alliance of such isolated powers is reminiscent of the antebellum period during the 1930s and shouldn’t be underestimated by the West but rather be nipped in the bud. Two states are obsessed with their nuclear potential, and it is their trump card against the West. The democratic community – particularly the US and the EU – should keep it in mind and constrain Iran’s nuclear hunger.

At present, being afraid of more sanctions, Tehran refuses to supply Russia with ballistic missiles, but the temptation to tip the scale in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, which is only possible with Russian help, could prevail in the long run. Moreover, Iran is being squeezed by international sanctions, and Russia seems to be a viable lifeline for getting revenue. So, further sugarcoating of Putin’s military demands will likely proceed, and the two authoritarian regimes will strengthen their strategic cooperation not only on Ukraine but also on other vital geopolitical interests for both players.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal will become a severe headache for the Biden administration in light of the tight bromance between Putin and Tehran. The dilemma of whether to negotiate or impose more sanctions will further prevail, and this choice will not be an easy one.

CSTO: On the Brink of Collapse

Since the invasion, Putin has been trying in vain to get his CSTO on board against Ukraine and NATO. Yet, all the meetings have come as a blow to Putin’s imperialist ambitions.

Armenia is invested in its conflict with Azerbaijan and accuses Russia of inaction against Baku’s “aggression”. Kazakhstan’s multivector foreign policy will not fall victim to Putin’s wishes as well.

Other players, except Belarus, are cautious about making any radical moves. These stances are supported by the majority populations of the CSTO countries not supporting Putin’s war.

Another alarm bell for Putin is that Armenia will not host CSTO drills due to Russian impotence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

By and large, the image of Putin’s powerful security block led by a dictator is under serious challenge and could soon fall apart. It presents a chance for the EU to reach out to these countries and cautiously get them on the democratic path to tackle the Russia-Iran-Belarus axis and mitigate Chinese influence in the region.

Belarus: Lukashenka Is Still a Threat

Despite the negative attitude from Belarusian society regarding the potential participation in the ongoing invasion, Minsk, unlike Tehran, has taken an active part in the armed conflict since the first day. From the territory of Belarus, the occupants managed to proceed to Northern Ukraine and commit crimes against humanity in Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka (the Kyiv region). Ukraine was prepared for the whole-scale invasion from various directions, but the attack from Belarus back on 24 February was “a stab in the back”.

On 19 December, at the joint press conference of two autocrats, Putin again underlined that he is not pressing Belarus to join his war, but it is the West that is trying to disintegrate both allies. The military rhetoric and muscle flexing are usual elements of Putin’s warfare, trying to intimidate or suppress the vigilance of the West and coerce Minsk to send their troops into Ukraine.

Such trips to one of the Russian key allies for the first time in three-and-a-half years are not accidents. Prior to this trip, the Kremlin was amassing its troops and military equipment in Belarus. The air alerts spread across Ukraine on a regular basis due to the raising of strategic bombers in the airspace of Belarus. Recently, Russian RF-50608 arrived in Belarus, just like on the fateful 24 February 2022.

Lukashenka’s claims about being open for negotiations and looking for reasonable talks about security and the world order is nothing more than a bluff. He is mentally preparing his people for the war along with Putin against the West. He is training and feeding newly mobilised Russian troops, the question is whether his own troops will join them in the new offensive.

Thus, the exchange of visits between two dictators is not a sign of courtesy or defiance against the West but a preparation to escalate the war in Ukraine and deepen the cooperation between two internationally isolated countries, as both perfectly understand that their imperialistic ambitions will never be satisfied.

Keep your eyes peeled on China

China has been defined as the rising challenge in the aftermath of the NATO Madrid Summit. The official position of Xi Jinping is not a big surprise: the blame is put on the West, especially on the US, for the lack of desire to accept Russia’s security concerns.

China wields huge influence on Putin, an example of it is the delay of the invasion due to the Winter Olympics Games in Beijing.

After almost one year of the war, Xi is still on the fence and tries to squeeze as much from the Russo-Ukrainian war as possible: economic, political and ideological dominance in the new world order. He doesn’t want to see either a Western victory or a Russian one. It can be assumed that, right now, China is the main beneficiary of the war. From the economic and energy points, Russia can slowly turn into China’s vassal.

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China has a lot to say on the international fora. The West should find the key to advantageous cooperation with China while showcasing that any cooperation with Putin is equal to geostrategic suicide. Iran is a great example here.

Nevertheless, in 2023, the world could witness greater strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing to safeguard core interests. At the end of the day, Xi will seek opportunities to soften relations primarily with the US and then with the EU to stop negative perceptions of China as a threat.

All in all, China is a dangerous player and a challenge. Beijing will continue to monitor the developments of the war as it plans to have a similar campaign aimed at Taiwan. So, it needs to learn the bitter lessons of Putin’s failure to be better equipped for Western reactions. China will not burn all bridges with Russia, but their no-limits partnership has some boundaries which can be used by the West and Ukraine. Xi understands that Putin is failing so he will not align with a loser.

As many experts predict, the battle for global influence between the West and China will shape the new world order for decades to come.

North Korea

Another dangerous player on the board is North Korea, which blamed NATO’s expansion for the outbreak of the war. Moreover, it recognised the sham referendums on subsuming four Ukrainian regions into Russia and constantly backs up the Russian narratives in the UN General Assembly. Unlike China, according to the US, it sold arms to the Wagner group to commit war crimes in Ukraine.

Pyongyang can offer Putin his arsenal of Soviet-style weapons to newly mobilised troops in launching a new offensive. Moreover, in November 2022, North Korea sent winter uniforms to Russian soldiers as a sign of its support.

Thus, the Korean Peninsula will become a significant political toy between Russia and China to deter US influence. The nuclearisation of North Korea will pose a severe security concern to the new world order.

Winter of Attrition

The frost has not constrained the Russian military aggression. Putin has weaponised the cold and only united Ukrainians and their Allies.

The major strategic task for Ukraine is the total restoration of its sovereignty, which means the de-occupation of all illegally annexed territories..

The frozen ground will help Ukrainians conduct their winter counteroffensive with new sophisticated weapons in eastern Ukraine and try to recapture lands in southern Ukraine. The drone battle will continue to play its decisive role: the Russian drones will terrorise Ukrainians to wear out the air defence systems and morale, whilst the Ukrainian drones will hit the legitimate military objects on the frontline and beyond.

The obvious key to Ukraine’s victory is not only Ukrainian stamina per se but also constant Western support, which is underway. In the background of vicious battles in Bakhmut and Soledar, the US, France, the UK and Germany shifted to sending more heavy offensive equipment, mainly the much-needed tanks (Bradley, Leopard, Challenger) to Ukraine, which can put a final kibosh on Putin’s demoralised army.

The key battle is set to be for Crimea and then for Donbas. 2023 will be a crucial year for this war and shape the future contours of the long-awaited Ukrainian victory on one side and the slow but sure dissolution of Putin’s weak “empire”.

Until this moment, Ukraine’s and the West’s attention must be paid to Putin’s aforementioned friends, as it is vital not to let the totalitarian axis with aggressive anti-democratic postures spread and strengthen,

The main threat for 2023 is the direct conflict between NATO and Russia, but with Putin’s losses in Ukraine, the confrontation between the West and Putin’s best friends will probably continue in a Cold-War style. However, the possible tactical nuclear strike from Russia is still a high possibility.

While Putin’s New Year’s speech hinted at a long war against the West, he clearly understands that he is not only losing the war but soon can lose power in Russia. Ironically, the dissolution of the Soviet Union for Putin was the great tragedy of the last century, now he will have the chance to witness the total destruction of his own empire in this one.


Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

This article was republished in Polish in Onet and Res Publica Nowa.

Featured image: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International; Putin and CIS.  

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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