Russia uses Iranian drones in strikes in Ukraine - analysis

Russia has carried out attacks on Ukraine by using Iranian-style Shahed-136 drones, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

 A drone flies above the Indian ocean, Iran, in this handout image obtained on July 15, 2022.  (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A drone flies above the Indian ocean, Iran, in this handout image obtained on July 15, 2022.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

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.

An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran (credit: REUTERS)An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran (credit: REUTERS)

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.

 A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank and armoured vehicles, amid Russia's invasion on Ukraine, in Bucha, in Kyiv region (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA) A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank and armoured vehicles, amid Russia's invasion on Ukraine, in Bucha, in Kyiv region (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)

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.  

The Ukraine-Russia War is an example of using drones in a modern war

It remains to be seen if the drones will be effective and slow down the Ukrainian offensive. Ukraine has also used drones against Russian forces. Drones are increasingly important on the battlefield.

Countries such as the US, Turkey, Iran, China and others are looking at the Ukraine conflict as an example of modern conventional war to see how UAVs perform in contested airspace. What this means is that in the past drones were usually used by hi-tech military powers such as the US and they were used with impunity over areas where insurgents could not shoot them down.

However, in recent years, drones have been used on other types of battlefields. Iran’s use of kamikaze-style drones is important because this kind of “loitering munitions” is designed to be cheap, mass-produced and expendable. It can wreak havoc on a battlefield by giving a country a kind of instant air force.

A country doesn’t have to send pilots on dangerous missions if they can use drones. The fact that Russia, a major military power, is relying on Iran, a much poorer country, for drone technology is symbolic of Russia’s attempts to fight the Ukraine war on the cheap. It also shows the emerging Russia-Iran alliance.  

Ukraine will require air defenses to stop the drone threat. Kamikaze drones can be hard to stop because they are on one-way missions. However, air defenses using radar and missiles can be effective. There are other counter-UAV systems that attempt to jam them or shoot them down and there are even systems that now use drones to stop other drones.  

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.