The arrival of the Iranian drones helped fill a crucial gap in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
London: Just before midnight on Friday 19 August, two Russian Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft took off from a military airfield near Moscow. Their destination was Mehrabad International airport near Teheran. Satellite imagery, time-stamped 1.17 am Saturday 20th, shows the two aircraft parked close to two hangers on the airfield. Six hours later they had gone. What was the purpose of the visit? What were they carrying?
A clue came from the Biden administration. Speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter, an official said that one plane carried $150m in cash and a number of captured UK and US weapons to Iran in exchange for a large number of deadly drones for Russia’s use in its war against Ukraine. Iranian scientists and engineers working for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are well known for their ability to “reverse engineer” weapons systems obtained on the black market. They would have been particularly excited to receive Russia’s side of the barter, reported to be three much-wanted weapons: a British Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW)—a “fire and forget” lightweight shoulder-fired weapon; a US Javelin anti-tank missile; and a Stinger anti-aircraft missile. These had all been shipped to Ukraine for their use against the invaders, but had “fallen into Russian hands”.
For their part, the Iranians supplied Russia in excess of 200 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which included more than 100 Shahed-136 and Shahed-191 drones, nicknamed “kamikaze” drones because they are designed to crash into their targets and explode on impact. They are capable of delivering explosive payloads at distances of up to 1,500 miles. The rest of the load was the larger Mohajer-6 single-engine multirole UAVs, able to carry guided missiles or bombs.
The arrival of the Iranian drones helped fill a crucial gap in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Russia is believed to have up to 2000 military surveillance UAVs, it has relatively few attack drones of the type that can precisely attack targets deep inside enemy territory. Which is where Iran comes in. Since August, Russia has deployed hundreds of Iranian-made drones against Ukraine, many being used in strikes against civilian infrastructure targets such as power plants. This is clearly a war crime. Russia’s actions are contrary to the Geneva Convention which prohibits military forces from deliberately attacking civilians—or the infrastructure that’s vital to their survival.
Moscow shifted to a strategy of relentless air assaults on Ukrainian cities after being forced to abandon Ukrainian territory captured early in the war. Its use of a combination of cruise missiles and Iranian self-detonating UAVs, packed with explosives, has deprived millions of Ukrainian citizens of electricity and running water, deliberately contravening the Geneva Convention.
Last week Russia continued to hit more energy installations and civilian buildings in one of its heaviest aerial bombardments of the war, using many of those UAVs obtained from Iran in August. According to the World Health Authority, more than half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is now either damaged or destroyed, and some 10 million people are currently without power. This, as temperatures are predicted to plummet as low as -20C (-4F) in some areas. “Put simply, this winter will be about survival”, Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told the BBC.
The WHO has documented 703 attacks by Russia on Ukrainian health infrastructure since its invasion began. “Ukraine’s health system is facing its darkest days”, said Kluge. “Due to the attacks, hundreds of hospitals and healthcare facilities are no longer fully operational, lacking fuel, water and electricity to meet basic needs. Maternity wards need incubators, blood banks need refrigerators and intensive care beds need ventilators”, he said, adding that “all require energy”. The WHO has reported that up to 3 million people could flee their homes in search of warmth and safety, as temperatures plunge.
Writing about this in the Atlantic under the title, “Russia’s Vindictive Rage”, Tom Nichols argues that “the Russians are killing innocent civilians as imperial retaliation for their defiance. Putative military objectives have vanished; Moscow’s goals have devolved into infuriated bloodletting. Each Russian retreat brings a rain of Iranian drones against civilian targets, and the Kremlin isn’t even bothering to make military arguments for these strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure and homes. Such bombings are civilian reprisals that are no different from the Nazi reprisals against the French in WWII.” Arguing that Vladimir Putin is guilty of war crimes, Nichols insists that “the laws of war do not permit terrorising civilians into submission” and that the UAV attacks “seem to have no other purpose than the intentional murder of civilians for the sake of salving the ego of the incompetent Russian military and placating their desperate commander-in-chief”. Strong stuff, but many around the world would agree.
Despite all this, even nine months after being invaded by Russia, Ukrainians still have a sense of humour. They now joke that the country’s notoriously poor public services have improved since Putin’s decision—instead of waiting weeks for electrical or water repairs, things get fixed in a matter of hours, they quip. And while the missile and drone attacks are deepening their anger towards Russia (even those formerly pro-Russia Ukrainians are now spitting blood against Putin) they are also taking some solace and pride in the ingenuity behind the limited restoration of power in some areas and the resumption of some water supplies after drone attacks.
At the same time that Ukrainians desperately try to repair the damage and restore some form of life-supporting energy to Ukrainian homes, Russia continues its onslaught against Ukrainian infrastructure. But they are now facing a problem. According to Western officials, Russia’s stockpile of cruise missiles is running extremely low and the Kremlin is increasingly relying on Iranian drones. It’s well known that the weakness of Iranian UAVs is that they fly relatively slowly and are therefore susceptible to being shot down by small arms and other systems. Russia’s tactics have therefore been to use them en-masse in the hope that some of them get through, but this relies upon a large and constant supply.
Earlier this month, Russian and Iranian officials quietly finalised a deal in Teheran that would allow Moscow to begin manufacturing thousands of UAVs on Russian soil within months. Iran will transfer designs and key components which will allow Moscow to set up its own production line and dramatically increase its stockpile of the relatively inexpensive but highly destructive weapons. As a sign of the urgency, a separate delegation headed by Nikolai Patrushev, Russian Security Council Secretary, travelled to Teheran on 9 November to discuss not only the production of drones in Russia, but also the provision of the first Iranian-made surface to surface missiles for use against Ukrainian cities.
On Wednesday, President Zelenskyy appealed to the UN Security Council to take action to stop Russia, from using missiles and UAVs to strike civilians and critical infrastructure. “In just one day we have received close to 70 missiles. That’s the Russian formula for terror,” he said, claiming that Russia’s latest attack had killed civilians, damaged several hospitals, schools, transport and critical energy infrastructure, and caused blackouts in much of the country, including Kyiv, Lviv and parts of neighbouring Moldova. “These are war crimes committed by a terrorist state.”
The European Parliament agrees. On Wednesday, it designated Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, arguing that its military strikes on Ukrainian civilian targets such as energy infrastructure, hospitals, schools and shelters violated international law. As if to vindicate the EU designation, Russian shells damaged a hospital in Zaporizhzhia on Friday. Later the same day, hospital patients were evacuated from the newly liberated Kherson because of bombardment by Russia forces. Children at the Kherson regional clinical hospital were transported to Mykolaiv, and 100 patients at Kherson regional psychiatric centre were moved to Odesa for treatment because of the shelling.
Russia, of course, denies such actions, arguing that only military installations are being targeted. But the evidence is damning from the missile casings around the destroyed buildings which, according to international inspectors, irrefutably show Russian and Iranian markings,
Iranian drones have made their mark and the arrival of more, plus new Iranian surface to surface missiles, will give the Russian military more options and a lot of punch. Russia will ignore any plea from the UN and continue with its war crimes, aided and abetted by its new best friend, Iran.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.