Mar 17, 2023
THE VIDEO SHOWS a Ukrainian soldier unboxing his prize to a soundtrack of dance beats — a brand-new crate of 125mm tank ammunition. On the surface, the clip posted to social media is no different than thousands that Ukrainian soldiers have filmed depicting the day-to-day logistical drudgery of war.
But this crate, first spotted by consultants working for the open source Ukraine Weapons Tracker Project, is altogether different from the ones often seen among troops from the Ukrainian army. The crate contains Iranian ammunition made in December 2022, part of a trail of Iranian arms that have appeared in the hands of Ukrainian forces.
For months, arms trackers have noticed Ukrainian forces using artillery shells, rockets, and mortars made in Iran — with no explanation of how they appeared in Kyiv’s arsenals.
“Starting in the late summer of 2022, we have seen a consistent trend of Iranian ammunition showing up in the hands of the Ukrainian army,” a consultant from Ukraine Weapons Tracker, who goes by the handle Calibra Obscura, tells Rolling Stone.
“In particular, these have manufacturer dates going from early 2022 through December 2022, indicating that the supply is not from legacy captures by Western forces in the Middle East.” (“Legacy captures” refer to armaments seized after years of military operations by the U.S. and European allies in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Ukraine’s embassy in Washington did not respond to questions from Rolling Stone.
Iran has sided squarely with Russia in its invasion of Ukraine — and has been a U.S. adversary for nearly half a century. In 2007, the U.N. placed an arms-export embargo on Iran as part of a package of sanctions on its nuclear program. The ban expired in 2020, but U.S. and European sanctions on purchases from Iran still remain.
Despite those restrictions, Iran has still managed to export large quantities of small arms and light weapons to proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East.
But the appearance of Iranian arms in the hands of U.S.-backed Ukrainian forces is part of a shadowy, global scavenger hunt for ammunition kicked off by the furious pace of fighting. Both Russia and Ukraine have churned through ammunition, reportedly firing thousands of shells a day and depleting stocks in both countries.
With Iran on Russia’s side, there’s zero suggestion it’s supplying Ukraine directly, leaving open the question of which third party is acquiring the weapons and how.
“Ukrainians are receiving donations from everybody, anywhere, at an incredibly fast pace, and they don’t have time to ask where it came from. They’re in the middle of a war,” says Reuben F. Johnson, a defense-technology analyst with years of experience in Ukraine. “We’re also in a world where the shadowy business of ammunition and other munitions supplies goes through a lot of hands.”
The so-called shell hunger has sent Russia on shopping trips to North Korea and Iran, and led Russian diplomats to plead with China to export arms for the war effort. Ukraine, since the start of Russian aggression a year ago, has redoubled its pleas to NATO and other allied nations for more and better weaponry.
“Artillery is the number-one thing we need. Both [artillery] systems and ammunition, as well as shells in large quantities to stop Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky said earlier this month during a meeting with Latvian officials.
In response, the West has offered thousands of shells, artillery systems, and long-range rockets capable of striking farther into Russian-held Ukrainian territory. The Biden administration has withheld longer-range weapons like MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, citing concerns about its own supplies of the missiles as well as the potential for Russian escalatory responses.
The Iranian tank ammunition spotted by the Ukraine Weapons Tracker consultants is just the latest in a series of evidence showing Kyiv has managed to obtain at least some access to weaponry from the Islamic Republic.
In September 2022, the consultants spotted a video of Ukrainian forces unboxing rounds of 122mm artillery. The shells were packed in crates with the telltale style of packaging from Iran’s Defense Industries Organization familiar to arms trackers — khaki-colored crates, with packing slips marked in the same formatting seen in previous Iranian arms seizures and displays on Iranian TV.
In January, the consultants noted Ukrainian troops with multiple launch-rocket systems loaded with Iranian 122mm “Grad” rockets marked as produced in 2022. Earlier this month, they spotted troops from Kyiv’s 24th Mechanized Brigade toting Iranian-made 120mm mortar bombs with 2022 production markings.
Moscow has leaned heavily on supplies from Iran to fuel its assault on Ukraine, launching Shahed suicide drones — explosives-laden drones used as GPS-guided, propeller-driven cruise missiles — to rain destruction on Ukrainian cities and civilians. In November, Russian forces also received a shipment of Iranian artillery from Iran, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Most of Kyiv’s allies are in the NATO alliance, which tends to use standardized calibers of artillery and ammunition different from those of former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet Republics.
The U.S. and its allies have donated NATO-caliber artillery systems and ramped up production of matching shells, but finding sufficient supplies of ammunition to match Ukraine’s weapons has proved more challenging. Ammunition from as far away as Sudan and Pakistan have also appeared in Ukrainian arsenals, without any hints of how it got there.
Since the war began, Ukraine has amassed a spectrum of ammunition from international partners who’ve sold and donated spare stocks. But it’s unclear how Ukrainian troops managed to obtain the Iranian ammunition identified by arms watchers.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expelled Iran’s ambassador in September 2022, as Iranian drones were being used in Russia’s assault, and Tehran has remained firmly in Russia’s corner since the start of the war.
In the meantime, the Biden administration has debated whether it could leverage Iranian ammunition seized off the coast of Yemen in support of Kyiv.
The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the White House has considered sending Iranian weapons seized by the U.S.-led naval coalition. The Journal reported that lawyers for the administration were looking for legal authority to transfer a tranche of anti-tank missiles, assault rifles, bullets, and proximity fuzes seized in January for violating the U.N. embargo on arms exports to Yemen.