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Source: Al-Jazeera

Jun 5, 2024

Is Iranian military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine ‘at a new level’?

Russia’s deployment of Iranian drones in Ukraine are like ‘meat marches midair’, expert warns, as conflict rages for a third year.

By Mansur Mirovalev

Kyiv, Ukraine – A Russian man who filmed a heavy drone that crashed in a field outside the western Russian village of Shirinka was jubilant.

In a video posted online on May 26, the unidentified man said the white drone belonged to Ukraine and carried “missiles”.

German military analyst Julian Roepke said the drone was a malfunctioned heavy, Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone.

“Iranian arms support for Russia at a new level,” he posted on X.

The crash landing revealed an unpleasant surprise for Ukraine.

The alleged “missiles” attached to the crashed drone were high-precision aerial bombs that were supposed to be dropped on the northern Ukrainian region of Sumy, analyst Roepke said.

Tehran supplies them to Moscow – along with cheaper, slower Shahed “kamikaze” drones, artillery shells and, reportedly, ballistic missiles. Observers say they are sent in return for the Kremlin’s international backing and far more advanced Russian weaponry that can shield Iran from potential Israeli and United States attacks.

Since 2022, Shaheds have become “ersatz cruise missiles” that allow Moscow to launch massive, frequent assaults on energy infrastructure and civilian sites, according to Ukrainian military analyst Mykhailo Zhirokhov.

“In the fall of 2022, Russians almost succeeded in plunging the entire country into darkness with the help of such drones,” Zhirokhov told Al Jazeera.

The sight and sound of Shaheds horrified Ukrainians, and the destruction they caused brought the war to the doorsteps of millions.

“I thought I saw my death,” retired nurse Oleksandra Kozodub told Al Jazeera, recalling the white, triangular Shahed she had seen in central Kyiv during a first heavy drone attack in October, 2022.

“I just sat on the asphalt and looked at it fly by,” she said about the attack that killed six, including a pregnant woman.

In dozens of subsequent attacks, swarms of the drones killed hundreds, destroyed power and transmission stations, and damaged residential buildings.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tehran’s arms put “Iran in a place where it could potentially be contributing to widespread war crimes”.

Kyiv accused Tehran of dispatching Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps servicemen to Russia-occupied Ukrainian regions to instruct Russian troops on how to launch the Shaheds.

“We strongly deny this news,” Nasser Kanani, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted by AFP as saying on October 24, 2022.

Yet weeks later in November, Ukrainian intelligence claimed to have killed 10 such instructors in annexed Crimea.

Ukrainians learned quickly how to shoot down the Shaheds with assault rifles and advanced Western air defence systems.

They derogatorily nicknamed them “mopeds” for their slow speed and the sound they make.

But Russia started assembling hundreds of modified Shaheds, which it calls Gerans, monthly near the western Russian city of Yelabuga.

They are painted black for lower visibility and have Russian-made Kometa-M antennae to suppress radio-electronic jamming.

In April, Ukraine struck the Yelabuga plant with long-distance drones.

Protokol, an independent Russian media outlet, reported in July, 2023 that Russian college students are forced to assemble the drones at the factory, working long shifts without breaks alongside dozens of young women hired from Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Shaheds and Gerans overwhelm Western-supplied air defence systems, forcing Kyiv to spend expensive missiles on them – and then the Russians launch faster and much more destructive cruise missiles.

“Unfortunately for us, [Shaheds] are a danger we’re fighting with – rather effectively,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, ex-deputy chief of Ukraine’s General Staff of Armed Forces, told Al Jazeera. “But they still get through, strike, kill people.”

He compared the swarms of Shaheds with “meat marches”, frontal assaults by hundreds of Russian servicemen to identify weak spots in Ukrainian positions.

“They’re meat marches midair,” Romanenko said.

Russia’s use of Mohajer drones has mostly been limited to air patrols and the correction of strikes over the Black Sea.

Equipped with infrared target seekers and a televised guidance system, the Qaem-5 bombs that weigh up to 25kg can glide towards their target for up to 40km (25 miles) using six tiny wings around their bodies.

But experts doubt they will become a game-changer.

Russia already uses much heavier, domestically manufactured gliding bombs that destroy the most fortified Ukrainian defence installations.

These weapons spurred a string of recent takeovers of several towns in eastern Ukraine.

The use of smaller Iranian bombs may be limited to striking tanks, said a military analyst with Germany’s Bremen University.

“Which [bombs] are better will become known by the results of their use on the front line,” Nikolay Mitrokhin told Al Jazeera.

Iran has also supplied the Russian military with limited numbers of 152mm artillery shells and 120mm mortar mines, the analyst Zhirokhov said.

“However, according to feedback from Russian military, this ammunition’s quality was inadequate,” he said.

Ukraine’s military shared this opinion after receiving some intercepted Iranian-made ammunition intended for Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the US, he said.

Reuters reported in February, citing sources in the Iranian military, that Tehran provided Russia with some 400 surface-to-surface missiles with a range of up to 700km (435 miles).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy backed the claim recently, saying that Iran supplies “not just drones, but missiles too”.

To some observers, Tehran seems to be trading quantity for quality. Iran is receiving advanced Russian Su-35 fighter jets, helicopters – and sophisticated air defence systems that it hopes can intercept potential Israeli or even US missiles.

Tel Aviv has long urged Moscow not to sell the S-300 air defence complexes to Iran.

In 2009, Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, told this reporter that he arrived in Russia to convince the Kremlin to halt the supply that may affect “the delicate balance which exists in the Middle East”.

Tehran got the S-300s only after agreeing with Washington to limit its nuclear programme in 2015.

These days, Iran may get far more advanced S-400 systems that can attack planes or missiles at a range of up to 250 kilometres (155 miles) and be reprogrammed to hit ground targets.

However, the aura of the S-400’s invincibility has been broken as they fail to protect themselves.

Ukrainian intelligence claims that from May 2023 until May 2024, Kyiv destroyed or damaged half a dozen S-400 complexes in Crimea, occupied parts of Ukraine and western Russia with US-made ATACMS missiles and Ukrainian Neptune missiles.

Meanwhile, Iran has become an essential part of the Russia-China alliance – and Beijing’s trade routes across Eurasia, Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

“Iran is an axis nation that sews together the new north-south route and the new version of the Great Silk Road from China,” he said.

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