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ConflictsMiddle East

Who is supplying Russia with drones?

Stephanie Höppner
October 17, 2022

Suicide drones are said to have been used to attack the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Tehran has denied supplying Moscow with the equipment. What do we know about drone imports?

Fragment of an exploded Iranian-made drone in Ukraine
The Ukrainian military identified this object as part of an Iranian-made droneImage: Ukrainian military's Strategic Communications Directorate/AP Photo/picture alliance

They are demoralizing and deadly — and Russia is using them in its war against Ukraine: drones, likely from abroad. They can fly at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour), and make so much noise doing so that they can be heard long before they strike.

Iranian suicide drones?

According to Ukrainian authorities, Russia used Iranian suicide drones to attack the capital, Kyiv, for the first time earlier this month.

Writing on the messaging service Telegram, the region's governor, Oleksiy Kuleba, claimed that six explosions were registered as the drones impacted near the city on the night of October 4. He said a total of 12 drones had been dispatched with the aim of destroying infrastructure.

According to the website Military Factory, suicide drones, or loitering munitions, are unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) loaded with explosives. The Ukrainian military claims that it shot down the first such Iranian UCAV in mid September.

Iranian UCAVs being launched during military maneuvers outside Tehran
Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) were tested near Tehran on August 25Image: Iranian Army Office/ZUMA/IMAGO

Since then, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk told the AFP news agency, more than two dozen further Iranian UCAVs have been spotted in southern Ukraine. Half of them were shot down. Most suicide drone attacks she said, targeted the sea port of Odesa, in Ukraine's south, where they killed civilians.

Suspicions that Iran may be supplying Russia with drones were voiced months ago. In late August, the US government cited intelligence suggesting that Moscow was trying to acquire Iranian drones for its war in Ukraine — especially because Russia was no longer able to produce its own as a result of Western sanctions, which has made the acquisition of key components extremely difficult.

According to AFP, Russia has now acquired Iranian Qods Mohajer-6 drones. The unmanned combat drone can carry a payload of up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) at speeds up to 200 kph. Beyond that, smaller HESA Shahed 136 suicide drones with a range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,554 miles) have also been purchased. Iran has officially denied deliveries.

How deadly are the drones?

Even though drone attacks have repeatedly resulted in deaths, experts have said they are not very effective. Jeremy Binnie of the British defense analysis company Jane's Defence Weekly told AFP that they are not very reliable because they are not particularly well made. Moreover, their explosive payload is also "relatively meager." In his estimation, the weapons will not have much of an effect on the course of the conflict.

What's fatal, however, is the fact that they are very difficult to detect with radar, as a Ukrainian officer told the US online news site Politico. She told the outlet that her unit in Kherson recently lost two fully manned tanks after they came under attack.

Military spokeswoman Natalia Humenuik said that they also put more "psychological pressure" on the civilian population. The sound of the drones, she said, often triggers fear among already agitated civilians.

Turkish drones made in Ukraine?

This summer, Moscow also signaled interest in acquiring Turkish combat drones. But manufacturer Bayraktar made it clear in August that it would not sell to the Kremlin.

"No matter how much money they offer, it is out of the question for us to give them drones in this situation. At the moment we are clearly and wholly supporting the Ukrainian side," Haluk Bayraktar, CEO of the Turkish arms manufacturer, told the BBC.

A Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone seen on a runway at night
The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 is seen as an effective and inexpensive alternative to Western dronesImage: BAYKAR/AA/picture alliance

Currently, the Ukrainian military is having success with the Bayraktar TB2. The TB2 has become extremely popular with the Ukrainians after helping them destroy numerous Russian artillery systems and armored vehicles.

It has been reported that the Turkish company is planning to build drones at a factory in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the plan on September 9, after a meeting with CEO Bayraktar.

The TB2 is 6.5 meters (21 feet) long and has a wingspan of 12 meters. It can stay in the air for more than 24 hours and has a top speed of 220 kph. And, according to experts, it is also cheaper than similar models from Western manufacturers.

Israeli-made drones?

There has also been speculation about the use of Israeli-made drones since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In mid-March, the online newspaper Times of Israel reported that photos purporting to document Russian drones shot down by Ukrainian forces were said to be made in Israel.

The photos, whose authenticity have not been independently verified, showed the remnants of a Forpost-R drone, including a stamp bearing the name Israel Aerospace Industries, an Israeli airplane and rocket manufacturer.

However, the Forpost-R is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone produced by Russia. It is a copy of the Israeli IAI Searcher, which Russia was licensed to build several years ago. 

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton.