Russia’s use of Iranian drones in its Ukraine campaign

Sometimes television interviews play out well and in the several minutes on air I get to present without interruption a script I prepared based on questions submitted in advance. My answers typically go well beyond the intentions of the questioner. I strive to set out a point of view that I know is being overlooked in media, whether mainstream or alternative media. My media hosts kindly see this as a fair trade-off that brings in many new viewers.

Sometimes, like last night, the interview is handled by journalists unfamiliar with me and with our little trade-offs, so that my planned programmatic statement does not get aired.  So be it.  In the given case, I use this space to deliver the message manqué about the Russian use of drones in their ongoing military campaign in Ukraine.

My questioner was particularly interested in my view of the legalities of Russian deployment of Iranian drones that, under existing UN sanctions, they should not be acquiring. Moreover, the illegal transactions are aggravated by the reported presence of Iranian technical staff in Crimea to help the Russians master the use of these unfamiliar weapons. My response was and is: ‘legalities’ are irrelevant to the present situation of a dirty war in which the United States and its NATO allies are violating whatever ground rules there are for ‘proxy wars’ and are de facto co-belligerents through their secondment of military officers to guide Ukrainian military units on the ground and by their sharing real time military intelligence with the Ukrainians, not to mention by their deliveries of their latest most lethal weapons systems to one side in the conflict.

To speak of ‘violations of international law’ in these circumstances is to revert to the wooden language of John Foster Dulles at the State Department during the height of the First Cold War. This approach was nonproductive then and remains so today.  When nations are at war, even proxy war, the only law is ‘might makes right.’  The United States has maintained its global hegemony over the past thirty years precisely on that basis and there is no reason whatsoever to deny to the Russians equal access to that modus operandi.

Yes, the Russians are lying when they deny, as they have done in the United Nations over the past week, that they procured and are using Iranian drones on the battlefield.  Yes, the Iranians are lying when they say the same. But polite lies such as these are one of the key arts of diplomacy, along with use of double standards when evaluating the actions of an enemy and displays of self-righteous hypocrisy.  Nothing new here under the sun.

From this, I turn to what I consider the more relevant question:  why are the Russians using these drones?  Does it mean their own weapons stores have been run down? Does it point to some manufacturing deficiency of the Russian military-industrial complex?  These are the innuendos put up by Western media commentators when they are not bashing the Russians for violating international law over trading with Iran.

I believe there are two operative principles on the Russian side. The first is to use sparingly their most advanced weapons systems, such as their hypersonic missiles, which can evade all air defense systems but which are by nature very costly to produce and should be used only at the highest value targets. Moreover, these most deadly weapons in the Russian arsenal must be held in reserve to the greatest extent possible for use against NATO forces in Europe if the war escalates further.

For these reasons, the Russians have been using in their latest drive to destroy the Ukrainian electricity infrastructure their more vulnerable high precision cruise missiles including, in particular, the Iskander and Kalibr.  As we have seen in the past few days, the Ukrainian military claims to shoot down 50% or more of these incoming missiles, depending on the density of the local air defense systems.  At the same time, for the smaller targets like power substations, the Russians are effectively deploying Iranian drones, which, by their nature, are much more difficult for traditional air defense systems to down.  When the Russians begin to receive still larger and more powerful drones from Iran which they have recently ordered, we may presume that they will be directed at more ambitious targets as well. The cost-benefit analysis speaks in their favor.

Since some readers have questioned the relevance of what is said on Russian political talk shows to decision-making in the Kremlin, I point out here that procurement of drones, and also of ground to ground missiles from Iran was tipped on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov program nearly two months ago and I reported on this at the time.  Panelists on that show also recommended procurement of artillery munitions, missiles and other equipment from North Korea. This materiel is easily usable by the Russians because it consists largely of copies of what the Russians and Chinese produced in the recent past. I fully expect us to find the British and American press making accusations about the appearance of North Korean weapons in Ukraine in the coming month or two.  Yes, this ‘violates international law.’  And so what? It is patently absurd to expect countries that are under draconian international sanctions not to trade with one another for their own best national defense.

Finally, I add a word about the Russian objective of destroying the energy infrastructure of Ukraine.  Our Western media propaganda sees only one motive here: to freeze the Ukrainian civilian population and so to take revenge on them for Russia’s losses on the field of battle in the East and South of the country.  I do not deny that demoralization of the Ukrainian civilian population is one factor in the ongoing Russian attacks.  Again, pointing to the Solovyov talk shows, I heard mention there of how the hardships pending in advance of winter may compel another 9 million Ukrainians to emigrate and go to Western Europe, where they seem to be so loved. All comparisons of the coming freeze in Ukrainian cities with the Stalingrad battle, which Western media have put up on the screen to elicit horror in our righteous citizenry, are rubbish:  the Ukrainians have cars, they have access to international buses and trains and they can pick up and leave whenever they wish to.

Apart from further removing the Ukrainian civilian population from the theater of war and so freeing up the Russian military to storm cities, the ongoing attack on the Ukrainian power grid has one overriding purpose: to disrupt the logistical chain that brings Western military equipment to the Ukrainian military forces in the East and South of the country via the (electrified) Ukrainian train network. If that is disrupted, and the regular flow of equipment and munitions is halted, then the Ukrainian war capability will be knocked out and the war will come to an end, finally, with unqualified capitulation to the Russians.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

19 thoughts on “Russia’s use of Iranian drones in its Ukraine campaign

  1. “under existing UN sanctions”
    What are you talking about? All UN sanctions against Iran have expired in 18/10/2020 as per the JCPoA (UN resolution 2231)!


    1. I was wandering about that too. I know that in the last legs of Trump’s presidency, Pompeo tried very hard to push, with various schemes, for the continuation of UN sanctions on Iran, including arms exports/imports, all unsuccesfull.


    2. For legal international sanctions to exist or any state of reality or fact to be true, it need only be written on White House Press briefing paper used in press conferences to US media reporters. The White House spokesman said so. If it’s written on his piece of paper, it’s proof that it’s a true fact.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think the Russians are necessarily lying when they deny they have procured Iranian drones and are using them in Ukraine. As I understand, they are manufacturing them in Russia under licence, and declare this with their own name ‘Geranium’ rather than Shahad. This may seem a technicality, but in general I find official Russian announcements scrupulous in observing the facts. It would be more accurate to say they have procured Iranian ‘technology’.
    The value of the drones, from what I can make out, is that they are relatively cheap and because their guidance system is inbuilt and pre-programmed, detection and interception (based on satellite signals these days, as is everything) is especially difficult. They are crude in that sense, but ruthlessly efficient.
    As for the sanctions point – already noted in comments – it’s worth adding Ayatollah Khamenai’s response, that the US had previously dismissed them as no more than Photoshop fantasies, but now they are forbidden to export them. It should also be noted that Russian-Iranian co-operation in military matters runs deep and surprisingly long. Remember Russia was already hijacking American drones over Ukraine in 2014, the first evidence of this outside of Iran, and it would be reasonable to assume even then, Iranian advisors were on Russian ground somewhere.


  3. Trains don’t only run on electricity. If the grid doesn’t work, diesel locomotives will bring in the weapons. The destruction of Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure is indeed primarily aimed at making life for the civilian population as miserable as possible. The idea is to wear down the will to battle, both in Ukraine and in the West. It is a cruel and primitive strategy of “jakoś to będzie”, as the Poles say. It won’t work.


    1. “If the grid doesn’t work, diesel locomotives will bring in the weapons.” – this seems a very superficial statement to me:
      1) I saw various sources saying that diesel locomotives are only from 30% to 20% of the entire locomotive park of Ukraine. If you have different numbers, let me know.
      2) Typical diesel locomotives used in Ukraine (ЧМЭ3) is four times less powerful than the most abundant electrical locomotive (2ТЭ116).
      3) You need to bring in a lot of diesel for diesel locomotives, and I heard from somewhere that all the fuel is now imported to Ukraine, since no properly functioning oil refineries left. Not sure if it is exactly true though.
      My opinion is that the three points above make your statement very simplistic in nature. If you have different numbers for the points I am making, please share.


      1. I agree. It is SOP for USA invasions to knock out the enemy electrical grid basically immediately. Clearly it works. Russia should have started doing so around Feb 24. IMO Russia blundered in not doing so and I don’t care if India and China would cared or not. And because Putin slow walked this SMO, we are right now seeing reports this very minute that Ukraine has a dirty nuke, will use it, and the West will blame Russia. In other words a false flag…another totally predictable (and predicted be me and others) US SOP. It is with sadness I say Russia has only herself to blame, because she should have wrapped this up long ago by taking Ukraine grid beginning on day 1.


      2. If diesel locomotives account for up to a third of the total number as you suggest, that surely is sufficient. The electricity grid is primarily a civilian target, not a military one. The idea is to weaken the resolve of the population (an old idea that has been proven time and again to be as ineffective as it is cruel) and to buy time over the winter until the new mobilised forces come on stream. It is a reflection of a lack of military alternatives.


      3. “If diesel locomotives account for up to a third of the total number as you suggest, that surely is sufficient. The electricity grid is primarily a civilian target, not a military one.”

        I think you are mistaken. Russia knocked out the electric trains a month or so ago, and that greatly slowed moving AUF forces south as well as making them target for Russian shelling. I believe electric trains account for about 88% of transportation in Ukraine. Also, diesel is in very short supply due to sanctions on Russia and Russia targeting fuel supplies.

        It is indisputable that taking out Ukraine infrastructure and specifically electrified trains delivers an ENOURMOUS military benefit to Russia.


  4. I don’t imagine “picking up and going” is as painless for Ukrainians as going for holiday in Europe where they can stay in a hotel until the mayhem is over. I imagine they are leaving behind a home they may not ever find again. True, they are treated better than other immigrants and not subjected to racial slurs (maybe) but they are refugees in a foreign country with no purpose and no future. Often Western newspapers offer the two aspects of the Ukrainian dilemma for the West: risk an escalation or leave the Ukrainian at the mercy of their enemies. I’m not sure that the second outcome would be worse for the civilian population than what they are experiencing now. As to Zelensky and the army, well he had the chance to flee and did not take it.


    1. The point Mr Doctorow made (and lucidly too) is that Ukrainian people are not suffering the fate of Stalingrad civilians, precisely because Russia really makes an effort to spare them. Russia never bombed a population centre – they bomb infrastructure that can be used for a military purpose. Ah, shall we use the American term “collateral damage” and delve into history, the amount of civilian deaths in American wars to compare with now?
      As to Zelensky: are you sure he still is in Ukraine? Do you even know where his luxury residences are? If you really consider him to be the captain that doesn’t leave the sinking ship, you are in for one big disappointment.


      1. It has been reported Zelensky suddenly had a $600 million bank account and mansions in Italy, Miami, Israel….shortly after Boris Johnson flew to Kiev and convinced Zelensky to break the peace agreement he had reached with Putin. I believe these reports. He is well paid to do what he is doing.


      2. I don’t claim to know where Zelensky is and frankly I do not care whether he lives or dies. I wish he had left or accepted the peace deal that reportedly Boris Johnson told him not to accept.


  5. I do not really know how to reply to nested comments above, there is not reply button, so I am replying to timbers’ “I agree. It is SOP for USA invasions to knock out the enemy electrical grid basically immediately. … she should have wrapped this up long ago by taking Ukraine grid beginning on day 1.” here. Actually, not even a reply, more like musing. May be. Even more “may be” in the hind sight. The thing is (all my subjective opinion of course), all those statements about the “brotherly people” is not just propaganda on the Russian side. It is the history, the culture, families that are deeply interconnected. I remember how many people in Russia, bloggers etc, who were extremely patriotic since at least 2014, were in total shock and extreme disbelief for a few weeks starting at the end of February. For some it took much longer than a month, some (a lot actually) are not there yet (and might never be). Because Ukraine to Russia is not Lybia, Iraq or Syria to US. I am not sure if knocking the electrical grid would have worked in terms of the Russian public opinion. It is extremely cynical and very tragic, but now the Russian people seem to be much more ready for the attacks on the Ukrainian infrastructure, than a few months back. There is also the public opinion in the global South, which, I think, is very important as well. Again, in the hind sight may be attacking infrastructure would have resulted in much less blood and suffering, but my feeling a few months back, especially with negotiations going on and shortly after, was that infrastructure was almost untouchable.


    1. I agree with about the brotherhood thing, and after all Zelensky was voted in with 73% of the vote on a promise to normalize peaceful relations with Russia and restore economic ties. So that is what the people of Ukraine want. But while we have hindsight, Russian leaders had real time reality and facts we learn about only later. Like the fact western/nato arms were pouring into Ukraine when many of us thought Russia was destroying them. Like once Zelensky was paid off by the West, this was no long a war btwn Russia/Ukraine but btwn Russia/NATO & USA. We learned about those things “in hindsight” but Russian leaders knew of it in real time.

      So, no excuse for Russian lethargy. None whatsoever.

      So that part I don’t agree. Russia should have – on Day One – totally destroyed Ukraine’s electric train system. That would have not completely stop resupplies and Western arms flows but greatly diminished and slowed them.


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