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U.S. sanctions man for trying to arrange arms deal between Russia and North Korea

Washington — The Biden administration has sanctioned a Slovakian man who U.S. officials said attempted to facilitate an arms deal that would have given Russia access to weapons and munitions from North Korea in exchange for aircraft, food and other material. 

The Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting Ashot Mkrtychev, the man accused of trying to arrange the secret deal. Officials said the episode is the latest sign that Russia is searching for ways to replenish its military capabilities as it continues to suffer losses amid heavy fighting in Ukraine.

"We know that between the end of 2022 and early 2023, that [Mkrtychev] worked with North Korean officials to attempt to obtain, as I said, over two dozen kinds of weapons and ammunitions for Russia" in exchange for aircraft, raw materials and commodities, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on a call. He said any such arrangement would violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Treasury Department said Mkrtychev "confirmed Russia's readiness to receive military equipment from the DPRK with senior Russian officials," using North Korea's official diplomatic name. The department said Mkrtychev worked with a Russian official to locate commercial aircraft that could be delivered to North Korea. Thursday's sanctions mean all of Mkrtychev's property and interests in the U.S. or in the possession of U.S. persons are blocked. 

"Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. "Schemes like the arms deal pursued by this individual show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and the DPRK. We remain committed to degrading Russia's military-industrial capabilities, as well as exposing and countering Russian attempts to evade sanctions and obtain military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine."

Mkrtychev joins the growing list of individuals and entities the U.S. has sanctioned since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago. The U.S. and its allies announced a new round of sanctions last month targeting more than 200 people and entities, including both Russians and third-country actors.

U.S. officials have previously issued public warnings that Russia is seeking to replenish its military stockpiles through deals with other countries as it struggles to replace weapons, shells and ammunition. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that China was considering providing "lethal support" to Russia, and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.

Xi made no promises to provide weapons to Russia and China officially it considers itself an "impartial" observer to the conflict, but the two leaders issued a statement saying it was necessary to "respect legitimate security concerns of all countries," an apparent swipe at the West.

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