Iranian Drone Downed in Ukraine; Major Implications

September 18, 2022

3 min read

Ukraine claiming it shot down an Iranian Shahed-136 drone, if true, would be the first evidence that Iranian drones are being used by Russia. Here’s why it’s a big deal.

Russia had sent delegations to Iran to examine the drones earlier this year and the first shipment allegedly arrived in Russia in August. That Russia would be able to put them into action so quickly is surprising.

On the other hand, Russia is losing ground to a Ukrainian offensive and Moscow prefers to sacrifice either non-Russian people or equipment in its fight against Ukraine while trying to avoid the conscription of large numbers of men in Moscow for the war.

Why is this important now?

Back in July, US reports circulated that Russia was looking into Iranian drones. By August 6, Russia had already deployed the drones to the frontline. By September 7, the US had sanctioned Iranian firms involved in the manufacture and shipping of drones to Russia.

So, which drones are we talking about? According to reports, the drones are the Shahed 171, the Shahed 129 and 191. The 191 is a large Delta-wing-shaped drone, and the Shahed 129 looks like a Predator drone, similar to a small plane.

Reports also circulated that the Mohajer-6 was one of the drones Russia was looking at. The US has said that the Russians were training with the drones in early August. Were the Iranian drones operational? Will they survive the harsh environment and will Russia produce them locally?

The Ukrainian report from today shows photos of parts of a downed drone. The piece of the drone looks like part of a wing-shaped Shahed-136. This drone is launched from a canister on a vehicle and is designed to kamikaze into a target. Iran has shipped similar drones to Yemen, according to reports from January 2021. Iran has also sold its Mohajer drones to Ethiopia and Venezuela.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed an Iranian strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the first time,” Ukraine said. “Photos of the previously unknown UAV were published by the Ukrainian officer on Twitter. The remains of the device show Cyrillic inscriptions – М214 Geran-2… Analysis of the drone wing elements makes it clear that the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed the Iranian UAV for the first time. This was, namely, a Shahed-136 long-range kamikaze UAV.”

According to the AP, the Ukrainian military “said Ukrainian troops encountered the drone near Kupiansk amid Kyiv’s offensive that has punched through Russian lines around Kharkiv on the eastern front.” It is possible that Russia, feeling hard-pressed on the Kharkiv front, has used drones. Russia has been scrambling to figure out what to do as a Ukrainian offensive pushes back Russian forces in Ukraine.

The dangerous connection between Iran and Russia

Evidence of the growing Iran-Russia drone connection is important to reveal Iran’s role in Russia’s invasion.

Iran previously appeared more neutral in this conflict, but Iran and Russia have become closer allies. Russia wants to use Iran as a way to escape sanctions from the West, and Iran wants to use Russia in return.

Russia is also aiding Iran in the Iran deal talks with the West. Meanwhile, Iran is heading to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization confab this week in Uzbekistan alongside Russia. That means that these countries will be holding close talks with other authoritarian regimes.

Iran’s drone exports are important, but they won’t reverse Russia’s problems in Ukraine. Drones alone don’t win wars and it is not clear how many drones Russia has acquired.

What can Russia do?

Russia can use drones to target strategic infrastructures, such as the power grid of Ukraine, or even US-supplied weapons. That the alleged drone has Cyrillic writing appears to mean that it has some kind of Russian stamp on it. Does this mean Russia may manufacture the drones or standardize them at home?

Iran built a drone factory in Tajikistan and it is possible it could outsource that drone production to Russia. Much remains to be seen, however. One part of a wing of a drone is not enough evidence to show how deeply Russia may be seeking to use Iran’s drones in its war on Ukraine.

The Iranian drone export to Russia is important because it shows how Iran believes it has impunity to threaten countries all over the world. For instance, Iran is involved now in cyberattacks on Albania. Russia is also alleged to be behind recent cyberattacks on Montenegro.

Together, Russia and Iran are involved in numerous anti-Western aggressions. Israel is concerned about Iran backing Hezbollah and therefore Iran’s role in harming Ukraine illustrates the growing Iranian threat.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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