Russia has carried out devastating attacks using Iranian-style Shahed 136 drones, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday. "Russia has inflicted serious damage on Ukrainian forces with recently introduced Iranian drones in its first wide-scale deployment of a foreign weapons system since the war began, Ukrainian commanders say," the report said.
The US has alleged for months that Russia was seeking to use Iranian drones. Russia had sent delegations to Iran earlier this year to look at Iran's drones. Iran's drone program has expanded in recent years and Iran has perfected types of kamikaze drones. Iran has also exported drones and drone advice to Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; as well as selling them to Venezuela and Ethiopia and manufacturing them in Tajikistan. The US sanctioned Iranian companies involved in manufacturing and transferring drones to Russia.
Photos of Iranian Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine
Last week, Ukrainian forces showed photos of what looked like an Iranian Shahed-136 drone with Cyrillic writing on it, illustrating that it was being used and perhaps even manufactured in Russia. The UK's Defense Ministry concluded that Russia was likely deploying Iranian UAVs in Ukraine.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and has tried to fight the war on the cheap side, using military units from the periphery and abstaining from using its own air force. As such, Russia relies on cruise missiles, artillery and now drones. Russia does not have many complex drones of its own, and Russia-Iran partnerships are growing in this regard.
The WSJ report by Yaroslav Trofimov and Dion Nissenbaum says that "over the past week, Shahed-136 delta-wing drones, repainted in Russian colors and rebranded as Geranium 2, started appearing over Ukrainian armor and artillery positions in the northeastern Kharkiv region, said Col. Rodion Kulagin, commander of artillery of Ukraine's 92nd Mechanized Brigade."
The report says that Ukrainians have reported the drones flying in pairs and then smashing into targets. The drones have been used against Iranian artillery.
"Before the current wide-scale use of the Shaheds, Russia carried out a test last month, striking a US-supplied M777 155-mm towed howitzer with the drone, Col. Kulagin said. Another Iranian drone malfunctioned and was recovered, he said," reported the WSJ.
Russia and its drones
Russia is losing ground in Kharkiv and it seems the UAVs have been deployed here, perhaps to save Russia from committing more troops as its forces are pushed back. If it can blunt the Ukrainian advance and slow it down, this will make the Russian rout less obvious.
The preponderance of evidence regarding Russia using Ukrainian drones now points to a clear alliance between the countries.
Iran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this week and Russian, Iran, Turkish, Chinese and other leaders all gathered in Uzbekistan. The story of how Russia sent delegations to Iran and then imported the drones now appears to be more clear. Questions remain about whether Russia is changing the drones once they acquire them, or are manufacturing them locally.
Western countries, such as the US and UK, are now in agreement about the Russian-Iran drone connection. The fact that the UK has also confirmed the likelihood that Russia is using the Shahed-136 is important because it builds a case regarding Russia's use of UAVs.
Russia's use of Iran's drones could have implications for the Middle East because Iran has used drones all over the region and has threatened Israel with drones. In February 2018 Iran flew. A drone from Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down. In the May 2021 war, Iran flew a drone from Iraq targeting Israel. This year it flew drones from Iran over Iraq and Syria and the US-led Coalition shot them down. Iran has tried to attack the US Tanf garrison in Syria with drones and has used drones in Iraq against the Kurdistan region.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.