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New roles for Russia, North Korea, Iran in global arms trade

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As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues and its weapons supply dwindles, it appears the country is seeking alternative ways of replenishing its arms stockpiles. Iran has reported a 40% increase in arms sales to foreign states, with Russia being a significant recipient. Russia has also been attempting to buy artillery from North Korea.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan breaks down changes in the global weapons trade and explains how Russia, North Korea and Iran are all finding themselves in evolving roles.

Excerpted from Peter’s May 13 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

We’ve got some new players in the global weapons trade, and let’s just say that I prefer the old gun runners.

Traditional suppliers like France and the U.K. are still providing weapons to their allies, but Russia is now seeking out weapons for its conflict in Ukraine. This has enabled countries like Iran to emerge as sellers of advanced drones and leverage test data from a real war.

The impact of weapons like this on weaker states could be devastating. From destroying infrastructure to disrupting government functions, we could very well see the dynamics of low-level conflicts completely shift.

Hey everybody, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado. And today we’re gonna talk about recent changes to the global weapons trade. Now, there are some usual suspects that are still in play. Now that stands France, United Kingdom, still providing weapons to their allies, as well as their cash we call quasi allies. And most of this stuff tends to be pretty standoff weapons free, that links you into supply chain network that is as much political and strategic as it is technical. So for example, when the United Arab Emirates buys things like f 16, it’s not because they’re necessarily planning on flying them, they buy the best available, because they want to make a big splash in the checkbook of American arms manufacturers for political reasons, their their purchasing relationship with the United States. And so the more advanced stuff like say, the F 35, they will probably never fly. Anyway, that is continuing to pace. And the Chinese, of course, are involved to the problem with the Chinese is nobody trusts the supply chain in times of conflict, because the Chinese have proven that they’re willing to extend or withdraw technical support based on other concerns. And so if you want some cheap stuff, that’s unlikely to
be too useful in the long run, the Chinese are definitely there for you. But the more advanced stuff, the Chinese really don’t like to share the good stuff. So you know, I would suggest they’re not a player, but not a huge one. When you consider the size their manufacturing base, the two, the three countries, however, who have really changed in the last couple of years ago, the first one, of course, is Russia, who is now involved in its own hot war. And instead of selling weapons to the wider world, it’s buying weapons from the wider world, specifically, from the countries that it wants sold to, it’s buying this old equipment back, because they know they can’t absorb too much technology. And they know they need more bullets on artillery rounds and everything else.
The other two players who have changed the first one has also slipped on the rankings. And and that’s North Korea. I hear it’s a technical issue.
North Korea has many, many things, but a technological superpower does not. And while it in the past has produced a large number of weapons for export, the quality of them hasn’t really improved over the last 2025 years. So they are seen in the face of more advanced systems a little bit of competition. I don’t mean to suggest they’re not a proliferation risk, things like intercontinental ballistic missiles, or nuclear programs, those are still things where they are in the top 10 in the world. But it’s not like they’re this gaping source like they used to be. And one more thing about the North Korean military, you know, it’s huge. And they spend a lot of their efforts simply keeping up with what they’ve already built, keeping it updated. So, in this the Ukraine war has been a godsend because the Russians came in and bought something like 10 million artillery shells from them that were half century old. And so the North Koreans are spinning up their industrial process to keep their own systems applied, they don’t have a lot of spare capacity for mass exports. And that leaves the new kid on the block country that usually we think of as a weapons purchaser, rather than a seller and that is Iran. Iran started about seven years ago started to get into the world of drones when it launched and attack across Iraqi airspace to target to the GWAR oil fields in Saudi Arabia. And since then, they’ve been using the Yemen wars cover to basically test out all their new kit. And now with the Ukrainian war, they’re selling stuff for the Russians. And the Russians are replying with a lot of real time weapons information, and are starting to admission into their satellite network. So the Iranians are getting much better test data than they’ve ever had before. And this is allowing the Iranians to produce these things at scale, no Wien, there is a long term consumer in the Russian space. And it’s also allowing them to expand their industrial plant that’s necessary to sell these things on a wider market. So we’re seeing things like the Shaheed drones, that have become famous in Ukraine for tacking Power Systems popping up in wars throughout the Middle East and in Africa. And in this, we’re seeing kind of the curl of the wave of a new wave of weapons technology, that it’s not so much that it’s super accurate, although compared to say, the ballistic missiles not too long ago, it is, it’s that you can attack a specific target with precision at a significant standoff distance, the sheets can easily go 1000 kilometers, and some of the better versions can even go further. And while the words might not be massive, against an unarmored target, it’s pretty much guaranteed kill and use them to target buildings rather than, say moving cars or something like that.
As we are discovering throughout the Ukraine war, it is much cheaper to launch these attacks than it is to defend against them. And when you look at places that have limited infrastructure, where the power of the state is Ain’t Great. Those are the places where these sorts of weapons systems are going to have an outsized impact. So for example, just pick one out of the box, the civil war that’s currently going down in Sudan, there aren’t a lot of fixed places that are worth something. And those that are in existence can get hit by drones very, very easily. So for weaker states, this evolution and technology is almost the kiss of death if you get into an armed conflict, because there’s no way you can afford to defend your fixed sights. So the only solution is to buy a bunch of these weapons and hit the other guy first. So the conflicts that we’ve been seeing that have gotten steadily more involved in bloodier since about 1990, in this part of the world, Sub Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East, and maybe to a lesser degree, Central Asia, you should expect to see a lot more activity like this. And you should expect it to do some real damage not necessarily in a military sense, but to the ability of a government to function. Because if you can start taking out things like power centers, and every once in a while drop a drone on the presidential palace. The disruption that’s going to have to a system that is already pretty weak, is fairly extreme. Today, or Iran is the primary purveyor of things like this, but you know, no offense to the Persian scientists, they’re not top notch, and it’s not going to be too long before other countries get in on that particular action, as these weapons become the new normal for low level conflicts around the world.

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