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Putin Keeps Sending Drones from Iran to Attack Ukraine

Ukraine Drone Attack. Image Credit: Twitter Screenshot.
Ukraine Drone Attack

Drone warfare has made its fair share of headlines during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles by both Ukraine and Russia has helped shape the trajectory of the conflict. While Kyiv is equipped with Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, Moscow has looked to a rogue ally to fill its drone supply. Since last summer, Iran-designed killer UAVs launched by Russia have hit residential buildings, armored vehicles, and critical infrastructure in Ukraine. The Iranian regime, hoping to curate a more symbiotic partnership with the Kremlin, continues to supply Moscow with its loitering munitions in high quantities. Ukrainian forces are becoming more adept at destroying these Iranian UAVs, this month taking out 14 of 17 drones launched in an overnight raid. 

shahed-136

shahed-136

Iran Shahed-136 Drone

Shahed-136. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

How Iran’s Drones Got to Ukraine

The West first became aware of the Russian-Iranian drone partnership in July, when Russian officials visited a prominent UAV airbase in Iran on two occasions. The White House revealed footage depicting members of a Russian delegation visiting Karshan Airfield to view several UAVs. By the fall, Iran sent dozens of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists to eastern and southern Ukraine to train Russian forces on how to operate the drones. Initially, the Iranian regime vehemently denied such a transaction ever occurred. Over time Tehran changed its tune and admitted to delivering lethal drones to Russia, but with the caveat that these weapons would not be used in Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s claims were proven inaccurate. Many of the country’s homegrown drones have made their way to battlefields in Ukraine. Earlier this year, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officials revealed that Tehran was emerging as one of Moscow’s most significant military backers, especially in the drone arena. On several occasions, analysts have been able to match the debris of Iranian-made UAVs that have struck U.S. assets in Syria and Iraq with the debris of drones found in the aftermath of attacks in Ukraine. 

Which Iranian Drones Are Used in Ukraine?

Analysts have deciphered prominent Russian use in Ukraine of the Iran-designed Shahed family of drones. Powered by the Chinese-produced MD550 engine, the Shahed 136 UAV has a range of a few thousand kilometers, making it the drone of choice for Russian soldiers to strike targets in Ukraine. In addition to its long-range capabilities, the Wall Street Journal noted that the Shahed 136 can be used to great effect in tandem, with one targeting a radar system and the second one hitting artillery pieces. Russia has effectively used this capability to take out nearly one-third of Ukraine’s power plants, as well as other critical infrastructure

The Shahed 131 has also been used quite extensively in Ukraine in recent months. As an earlier variant of its sister drone, the Shahed 131 hosts many of the same capabilities as the 136. The Shahed 131 is smaller, however, and it is powered by a reverse-engineered version of the Beijing Micro pilot UAV Control System Ltd MDR-209 Wankel engine. 

In early April, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces claimed to have destroyed six Shahed 136 drones launched by Russian forces. One day prior, Ukraine reportedly intercepted nine out of 10 UAV barrages. Although Ukrainian soldiers have become proficient in taking out these weapons, the Shahed family of drones remains an important staple in Moscow’s arsenal. Interestingly, Russia’s UAV barrages stopped abruptly in early to mid-February, according to the UK Defense Ministry. Analysts believe that Moscow’s Shahed UAV supply was running low. During this time, reports that Russia would deliver a fleet of its Su-35 fighter jets to Ukraine began to proliferate. Iran was likely able to procure such a deal by using its drones as the leverage it knows the Kremlin cannot deny. 

As Russia and Iran’s budding relationship continues to strengthen, additional weapons exchanges will likely occur, which could help shape the outcome of the Ukraine war. Largely isolated by the international community, the Kremlin and the Iranian regime have turned toward each other to fulfill their respective security needs. 

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.