China, Russia, Iran, North Korea—the CRANKs | May 2024


CRANK Call is a monthly review of developments involving cooperation, and at times contention, among China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea (the CRANKs).

May 2024 Highlights

Putin-Xi summit shows growing Beijing-Moscow ties, and their limitations

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mid-May visit to China showcased growing cooperation between the two countries following Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2022. However, the meetings also demonstrated the unequal nature of the relationship, with Russia clearly in the inferior position.

Putin met with Xi in the city of Harbin rather than Beijing, chosen to highlight technology and military cooperation. The two sides announced that St. Petersburg State University is set to open a 1,500-student joint program in science and engineering with the Harbin Institute of Technology, which is known for its deep ties to the People’s Liberation Army and China’s defense technology programs. China has greatly increased its sales of industrial items that can contribute to Russia’s arms production—primarily machine tools and electronics—since Western sanctions reduced Russia’s access to those items in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. Russia desperately needs Chinese industrial goods, and while Russia’s defense sector might still have some technologies that China lacks, this list is shrinking even as its contents become more sensitive.

Putin and Xi also discussed the proposed Power of Siberia 2 pipeline, which could increase Russia’s natural gas sales to China by up to 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year. There was no apparent progress on that front, as China’s economic growth has slowed in recent years and Beijing has leveraged various potential suppliers against one another and weighed various supply options from Russia, including Arctic LNG and additional gas via existing pipelines through Central Asia. Press reports suggest that the gas price remains a significant obstacle in the Power of Siberia 2 talks.

Republicans on House Select Committee on the CCP call for investigation of Chinese support for Iran’s military

All 12 Republicans on the select committee have sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen requesting that Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) investigate six Chinese companies suspected of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The Biden administration has been cautious in sanctioning Chinese companies over ties to Iran, as China has purchased increasing volumes of Iranian oil, fearing higher oil prices and a broader disruption of U.S.-China relations.

Russia delivers fuel to North Korea in violation of UNSC resolutions

The U.S. government disclosed that Russia has supplied refined petroleum to North Korea this year in volumes exceeding the annual limit set in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions resolutions. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that in March alone, Russia shipped more than 165,000 barrels of refined petroleum to North Korea. As Western sanctions on Russia continue, Moscow appears increasingly willing to ignore Security Council sanctions, which originally required the Russian government’s support (or abstention) to take effect.

South Korea believes Russia used North Korean artillery shells in Ukraine

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) stated publicly on May 12 that Russia’s military has apparently used 122mm 1970s-era multiple rocket launchers from North Korea in Ukraine. North Korea’s supply of dated but plentiful arms and ammunition appears to be the quid pro quo for Russia’s provision of military technologies and fuel to Pyongyang in recent months. Will North Korea—like the United States—take the opportunity to replace aging arms sent for use in Ukraine with more modern weapons?

Russian technicians provide on-site assistance for North Korean satellite launch

A senior South Korean government official revealed on May 26 that a large number of Russian technicians traveled to North Korea to assist in the launch of a reconnaissance satellite. This comes amid several new developments showing enhanced defense cooperation and illustrates the breadth of the expanding Russia-DPRK relationship.


—Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) has announced plans for additional cooperation with six North Korean universities to enhance the capabilities of North Korean experts and to promote and spread the Russian language and culture. (SP News)

—A North Korean delegation led by Minister of External Economic Relations Yun Jong-ho visited Iran for nearly ten days. The delegation attended Iran’s 6th Export Potential Exhibition, which opened on April 27, and held talks with government and private sector leaders regarding the development of bilateral trade. (Voice of America News)

—North Korea expressed interest in cooperation with Iranian automaker Saipa during a recent trip by an official delegation from Pyongyang to Tehran, according to a social media post uploaded by the company. (Joong An Daily)

—Russian state media reports that Russia has started developing a nuclear power plant for its planned joint lunar station with China. Yuri Borisov, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, announced the effort. (Reuters)

—Russia has now been the top crude oil supplier for China for twelve consecutive months, averaging 2.25 million barrels per day (bpd). (Reuters)

—The Chinese Yuan has become one of the primary trading currencies in the Russian economy. The Yuan now accounts for nearly one-third of Russia’s trade. (Newsweek)

—Russia’s State Duma ratified a free trade agreement that encompasses the states of the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia and four post-Soviet states) and Iran. (TASS)

—U.S. intelligence agencies report Chinese, Iranian deepfakes during 2020 election campaign. (CNN)

—China, Russia, Iran used OpenAI’s generative AI programs in disinformation efforts. (New York Times)

Recent Analysis

Russia-China Economic Relations: Moscow’s Road to Economic Dependence (Janis Kluge, SWP Berlin)

A Match Made in Heaven: China-Russia Tech Cooperation and Canada’s National Security (Canadian Global Affairs Institute)

CRANK Perspectives

The Fate of Humanity and the Ukrainian Crisis: The Chinese concept of the world order and the role of the main participants in the conflict in it. (Russia in Global Affairs, in Russian, English via Google Translate)


Editor-in-Chief, Paul Saunders
Editor, Greg Priddy (

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