Iran Aids Russia’s Imperialist War Against Ukraine
by John Hardie
Tehran has agreed to help Moscow produce hundreds or even thousands of Iranian drones in Russia, according to new intelligence reports cited by The Washington Post and CNN. This agreement could boost Russia’s stocks of Iranian loitering munitions, commonly called “kamikaze drones,” which are helping Russian forces wreak havoc on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, and exacerbating Kyiv’s shortage of air defense systems and interceptors.
The Russian-Iranian agreement, reportedly reached in early November, is just the latest form of Iranian support for the Kremlin’s imperialist war against Ukraine. Since August, the Islamic Republic has supplied Russia with multiple types of drones, along with Iranian advisors to train Russian operators, helping Moscow compensate for its limited drone production capacity and dwindling supply of cruise missiles.
These drones include the Shahed-136 and its smaller cousin, the Shahed-131, which the Russians rebranded as the Geran-2 and Geran-1, respectively. The Russian military has reportedly fired at least 400 of these drones, and is seeking to acquire many more, along with Iranian short-range ballistic missiles. In return, Moscow has reportedly given Tehran captured US and British weapons to study.
Russia uses its Iranian-supplied loitering munitions primarily for long-range strikes against fixed targets. In addition to attacking military targets, Russia frequently employs these munitions in strike packages against Ukrainian critical infrastructure, particularly the electrical grid, but also water systems, as part of a campaign launched in early October.
Russia’s strike campaign has “disabled” almost “half” of Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure, Ukraine’s prime minister said last week, following barrages that included at least 15 Iranian-supplied loitering munitions. In an address last Thursday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “more than 10 million Ukrainians are without electricity.” And equipment shortages will likely render repairs increasingly difficult.
As temperatures drop across Ukraine, Moscow evidently hopes to erode its neighbor’s will to fight. Russia is unlikely to succeed in that respect. But these strikes will make life even harder for the Ukrainian people, while deterring the return of refugees and investment. This will exacerbate Ukraine’s reliance on economic and humanitarian aid from Western countries, where Vladimir Putin likely hopes that “Ukraine fatigue” will lead Western governments to curtail support for Kyiv. Iranian short-range ballistic missiles, which Ukraine will likely struggle to shoot down, could give a further boost to Russia’s strike campaign, especially if supplied large numbers.
In addition to harming the Ukrainian population, Iranian-supplied loitering munitions are taxing Ukraine’s air defenses.
While relatively easy to shoot down, the Iranian-supplied munitions are cheap and can be produced in large numbers, allowing the Russians to fire enough of them to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses. Russia’s strike campaign has reportedly led Ukraine to pull air defense systems back from the battlefield, in order to defend cities and infrastructure. This, in turn, has reportedly granted greater latitude to Russian fighter planes flying combat air patrols, undermining the Ukrainian Air Force’s effectiveness.
At the same time, the Iranian loitering munitions are forcing Ukraine to expend comparatively expensive surface-to-air missiles, whose stocks have dwindled over nearly nine months of war. Interceptors for Kyiv’s Buk-M1 medium-range air defense systems, which Ukraine doesn’t produce domestically, are particularly scarce. Since the war’s early days, Ukraine’s Buk-M1s, along with its S-300 long-range systems, have hamstrung the Russian Air Force, forcing Russian aircraft to fly low when they venture near the front lines. This leaves them vulnerable to man-portable air defense systems, which the West has supplied in large numbers.
But if Ukraine runs out of these interceptors, the Russian Air Force could be freed up to provide Russian troops with more effective close air support, which has been lacking so far in the war. The United States and its allies have provided Ukraine with additional air defense systems and are looking to send more. Those that have arrived proven effective. But the West doesn’t have enough spare medium-range surface-to-air missile systems to replace Ukraine’s Buk-M1s.
To help fill that gap, Washington and its allies should try to provide Kyiv with additional MIM-23 HAWK medium-range surface-to-air missile systems, building on the six already provided or promised by Madrid.
Spain and fellow NATO allies Greece, Romania, and Turkey, along with soon-to-be NATO member Sweden, collectively have dozens more HAWK systems, according to the Military Balance 2021. American allies in the Middle East have even more, and South Korea also operates the system.
Washington, for its part, plans to provide Ukraine with HAWK missiles, following refurbishment necessitated by the decades they spent sitting in storage. If the HAWK launchers in US storage cannot be repaired, perhaps they could be scavenged for spare parts. The Pentagon should also make every effort to expedite delivery of the six NASAMS air defense systems promised to Kyiv, which recently received its first two. Ukraine’s stocks of missiles for those two systems will also need to be replenished in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces need more efficient means of defending against Iranian loitering munitions. As my colleagues Mark Montgomery and Bradley Bowman have argued, Washington should fulfill Kyiv’s request for Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar systems, while seeking to expedite delivery of the VAMPIRE counter-drone system.
Finally, the Biden administration should grant Kyiv’s longstanding pleas for ATACMS missiles for Ukraine’s Western-provided rocket artillery systems. These missiles could enable the Ukrainian military to strike a panoply of high-value targets currently beyond its reach, including bases from which Russia launches Iranian drones. The administration has refrained from sending ATACMS due to fear of Russian escalation, but Washington could mitigate that risk by requiring Kyiv to use the missiles only against Russian military targets on Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and the Donbas region.
Ukraine is winning this war. But it has many months of tough fighting ahead, made even harder by Iran’s support for Russia. To emerge victorious, Kyiv will need continued military aid from the West, including air defenses. The United States and its allies should answer the call.
John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, DC.