Ukraine’s military has shown the Guardian evidence that at least some of the Iranian-made drones used by Russia in its war were probably supplied after Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February.
Ukraine said it first noticed that Russia was using Iranian-supplied weapons in September. Since then, Russia has successfully used them to target Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure, causing serious power shortages.
Last week Iran acknowledged for the first time that it had given Russia drones, but said they were sent before the war in Ukraine broke out.
However, in a large room somewhere in Kyiv where Ukrainian military intelligence has dismantled captured Iranian drones the manufacturing date on the propeller of a Mohajer-6, an Iranian spy drone, reads February this year. As the propeller is just one of many components needed to make the drone, the February date indicates that the drone would have been supplied – if not made – after the invasion, according to Vasyl, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence, who cannot give his surname because of security reasons.
Vasyl, who has been involved in pulling apart the drones, said the technical quality of the drones was surprisingly good. “We think that Russian specialists were involved but that’s just a theory,” he said, commenting on how Iran was able to develop the drones despite being under sanctions for decades. “Either the Iranians went [to Russia] or they have Russian specialists working there.”
Though the Mohajer-6 drone does not have outer markings indicating that it is Iranian-made, components from inside the drone shown to the Guardian appeared to have Farsi markings.
The Mohajer-6 can release rockets and is intended to be used multiple times. The other two drones being analysed are what are known as “kamikaze” drones, as they implode and are destroyed on impact. They did not have any Iranian markings, but like the Mohajer, they have been shown off by Iran at multiple weapons expos, said Vasyl.
Vasyl said several components used to make the drones were manufactured by western companies. But the components were banal and not included on the non-proliferation list, intended to control the sale of parts that can be used by the militaries of regimes under sanctions, such as Iran. Vasyl said Iran had managed to manufacture replicas of many components originally produced in the west, such as an exact copy of a well-known German engine.
Russia’s own weaponry stockpiles have been severely depleted by months of fighting, say western and Ukrainian intelligence officials, leaving it in search of help from allies such as Iran.
In addition to more drones, anonymous western officials told CNN that Russia was planning to buy Iranian ballistic missiles. The same officials said that Iran had sent 450 drones to Russia and would send another 1,000 units of weaponry, including the expected missiles.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s air force said despite the recent deliveries of air defence systems from its allies, Ukraine still did not have the required equipment to defend itself from the Iranian missiles.
The Iranian weapons have been instrumental in Russia’s strategy to disable Ukraine by cutting its energy supplies in the rear – while it attempts to recover momentum after several defeats on the battlefield.
Since early October, Iranian technology has helped damage more than 30% of Ukraine’s energy system, according to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Ukraine’s authorities have introduced daily blackouts to stabilise the grid but predict that if Russia continues to attack, there could be a total blackout in some places this winter amid sub-zero temperatures.
After the first barrage of Iranian-supplied drones was used by Russia, Ukraine downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran by revoking the accreditation of the Iranian ambassador to Ukraine. Ukraine’s envoy to the Middle East and north Africa, Maksym Subkh, told Ukraine’s ZN that breaking diplomatic ties was on the agenda and Zelenskiy would make a decision in the coming weeks.
Zelenskiy said on Sunday that if Iran were not supplying Russia with arms, the world “would now be closer to peace”.
Rob Lee, a military expert with the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “The Russians are using loitering munitions more effectively – recently some Iranian, some Russian – and if they get the surface-to-air missile from Iran, that could be significant, too. A lot of this comes down to trying to predict the level of external support for Ukraine and for Russia and that’s difficult.”
The confirmation, albeit limited, that Iran had supplied Russia against Ukraine sparked a row in Iran this week as some voiced concerns over the country’s close ties with Moscow. Some argued that Iran should have condemned the war in Ukraine, while other Iranians point to Zelenskiy’s relations with Israel as a reason to support Russia’s war.
On Wednesday, during a visit to Tehran by Russia’s security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, Iran’s counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, called for dialogue to end the war and offered to play a role in resolving the conflict, AFP reported.