North Korea has delivered rockets and missiles to the Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group for use in Ukraine, according to White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
“Today we can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner,” he said Thursday.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner Group, has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” after making millions from catering contracts for the military and state institutions. His mercenary group now has an estimated 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and is “emerging as a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said, adding that in some cases Russian troops are serving as subordinates to Wagner commanders.
“Wagner is on the ground playing a significant role there where its ill-equipped and ill-trained forces are, quite frankly, suffering heavy casualties. It seems as though Mr. Prigozhin is willing to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut,” Kirby said.
The group’s mercenaries have been involved in some of the most intense fighting in Bakhmut, he said, where about 1,000 fighters have been killed in recent weeks.
Kirby said Wagner is struggling to recruits fighters and has turned to recruiting convicts, with even Prigozhin himself traveling to Russian prisons to bring in more recruits. About 40,000 of the Wagner personnel in Ukraine are now believed to be convicts, he said.
He also said that while the U.S. does not believe the amount of material delivered to Wagner will change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, “we are certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment.”
Early last month, Kirby told reporters that Pyongyang has been covertly supplying a “significant number” of artillery shells to the Russian government for use in Ukraine and that the North Koreans were trying to obscure the destination of the shipments by funneling them through countries in the Middle East and North Africa. At the time, he said none of the shipments had been received. On Thursday, Kirby said the U.S. believes the shipment was to Wagner.
This week, the Biden administration designated Wagner as a military end user, which makes it more difficult for it to buy equipment that is based on U.S. technology or production. Wagner is reaching out around the world to supply itself and the U.S. is trying to stop it by restricting its procurement lifelines. There are likely to be more actions, like sanctions, taken against the Wagner Group in the coming days, Kirby said.
Prighozin has been sanctioned by the U.S., the European Union and the United Kingdom.
After the White House said North Korea had supplied arms to the Wagner Group, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, “The U.K. supports the U.S. assessment that North Korea has completed an arms delivery to Russia for use by the Wagner Group, which paid for this equipment and has thousands of troops in Ukraine. This is a clear breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The fact that President Putin is turning to North Korea for help is a sign of Russia’s desperation and isolation.”
Wagner is spending more than $100 million per month on the war in Ukraine.