Iran-fuelled drone race shapes the war in Ukraine

Russia builds up Iranian-designed arsenal while new sanctions try to undercut its efforts

Iran's Shahed-136 drones have been launched at Ukrainian cities during Russia's two-year invasion. Getty Images
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The Iran-fuelled drone war in Ukraine is shaping preparations for the conflict's third year, as Tehran helps to build up a Russian arsenal while the West tries to sever its rivals’ supply line.

New EU sanctions agreed on Wednesday take aim at Russia’s attempts to ramp up drone manufacturing, based on the Iran-made Shahed type that has pounded Ukrainian cities.

Waves of Shahed-136 “suicide drones”, known as the Geran-2 in Russia, have been sent to loiter in Ukraine’s skies and explode with devastating effect, in a two-pronged attack with Russian cruise missiles.

Iran’s involvement has aggravated relations with the West, leading to sanctions and putting Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers into deep freeze, widening the war’s global fallout.

With Ukraine's ground offensive bogged down by landmines and Russian defences, Kyiv is putting ever greater weight on an unmanned air campaign led by a new specialist drone branch of the military.

Analysts say unmanned aerial vehicles are in high demand globally, with Iran among those poised to cash in with its heavy drone production – including in Russia's neighbour Tajikistan, where it opened a factory in 2022.

Russia relies on Iran

Russia’s invading forces in February 2022 had a relatively modest arsenal of heavy Inokhodets combat drones and Forpost reconnaissance equipment, based on a 1980s Israeli model.

But it has since been bolstered with what western powers say are hundreds of Shahed and Mohajer-type drones from Iran as well as military hardware from North Korea.

“That fact alone is a sign of weakness, that Russia is dependent on Iran for its military capabilities in attacking Ukraine right now,” said Kurt Volker, a former US special representative for Ukraine.

“They're dependent on North Korea for artillery shells. This is quite a statement about the state of the Russian military in terms of what this means going forward.”

Disassembled drones from the battlefield in Ukraine have been pored over by western officials, who believe Iran is helping Russia replicate the Shahed type in the armouries of its war economy.

Analysts at Conflict Armament Research say the Russian variant has been fielded in Ukraine, with components coming from all over the world, including China, the US and Europe.

It is thought to combine the Iranian design with “domestic, battle-tested modules” found in other Russian weaponry, with markings suggesting some Geran-2 copies were made in early 2023.

Researchers have not yet seen evidence of Russia wielding a newer Iranian model, the Shahed-107, believed to work as both a reconnaissance and combat drone.

Sanctions move

Ukraine’s allies want to tilt the balance of the air war, with seven countries announcing last week they would try to provide a million drones to Kyiv by increasing their own manufacturing.

The new EU measures, agreed in time for the February 24 anniversary of the invasion, are meanwhile meant to cut Russia’s access to drones but officials admit that targets of sanctions are “always a moving target”.

Under sanctions “it would be harder for Russia to produce these drones with Iran’s help as it would be missing key technology”, Jason Brodsky, a policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, told The National.

“But this is still a whack-a-mole approach. Iran and Russia can always employ new front companies after sanctions on old ones.”

While Russia was launching its invasion, diplomats in the West were still hopeful of reviving the nuclear deal that curbed Tehran’s uranium enrichment in return for sanctions relief.

But relations with Iran soon soured as its role in Ukraine became clear, while a crackdown on domestic protests led to sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and senior officials.

Talks on the nuclear deal collapsed – with Russia’s presence at the talks throwing a further spanner into the works – and there have been no negotiations on that front for more than a year.

In a symbolic snub by Britain, Iran was one of seven countries not invited to the coronation of King Charles III last year. It had been allowed to send a diplomat to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

As EU foreign ministers assembled this week to discuss the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg urged them not to overlook Iran’s nuclear threat.

In “our foreign policy buffet, if you will, our plate is too full,” he said. “But we must not forget to watch some very worrying developments. I am thinking of the Iranian nuclear programme.

“We are in danger of sleepwalking into a situation in which all of a sudden the non-proliferation regime on nuclear weapons is about to fold. If Iran suddenly has a nuclear weapon, we suddenly have to reckon with a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region and perhaps also in South-east Asia and east Asia.”

The fallout from the war in Gaza, with Iran-linked groups involved in fighting around the Middle East that has led to retaliatory US air strikes, has poured further fuel on the fire.

Asked by a British MP whether Iran’s Houthi allies might be using attacks on Red Sea shipping to divert the West’s attention from Ukraine, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said he was “absolutely right”, although experts say Tehran does not have total control over such groups.

“Russia and Iran are working together,” Mr Shapps said.

“The same kind of drones – sometimes the Shahed drones – that are being fired in Ukraine by the Russians, courtesy of Iran, are also being fired by the Houthis.”

Updated: February 22, 2024, 8:13 AM