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Russia Expands Use of Iranian Combat Drones in Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal. 9/24/2022 Stephen Kalin
© genya savilov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine shot down more than a dozen Iranian combat drones across the front lines this week as Russia expands the use of a foreign weapons system that Ukrainian commanders say has inflicted serious damage on their forces.

In his nightly address on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country’s antiaircraft forces had shot down Iranian drones in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region and the southern city of Odessa, including the nearby Pivdennyi port, used for exporting grain.

The Ukrainian Air Force identified them as Shahed-136 unmanned kamikaze drones, or loitering munitions, and Mohajer-6 drones that can carry missiles and be used for reconnaissance. It published a video showing one of the drones it shot out of the sky in Dnipropetrovsk.

The Iranian drones are relatively small and fly at a very low altitude, making it hard for Ukrainian air-defense systems to detect them. At least one of the drones made it past Ukrainian defenses, hitting the navy’s headquarters in Odessa on Friday. Ukraine’s southern military command said one civilian was killed and an administration building in the port area was destroyed.

Footage broadcast by Ukrainian news channels showed soldiers unsuccessfully trying to shoot it down with small arms before it crashed in a ball of fire. Soldiers can be heard shouting, “Where the hell is air defense?”

Another online video showed one of the downed drones being towed in the water to shore.

The air force said it had destroyed seven more Iranian drones, including four Shahed-136s, in the southern Mykolaiv region on Thursday, and another one on Tuesday.

Shahed-136 delta-wing drones, repainted in Russian colors and rebranded as Geranium 2, started appearing this month over Ukrainian armor and artillery positions in the northeastern Kharkiv region, Col. Rodion Kulagin, commander of artillery of Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade, told The Wall Street Journal.

In his brigade’s operational area alone, the Iranian drones—which usually fly in pairs and then slam into their targets—have destroyed two 152mm self-propelled howitzers and two 122mm self-propelled howitzers, as well as two BTR armored infantry vehicles, Col. Kulagin said.

Russia’s use of Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine represents the most challenging expansion of Tehran’s arsenal beyond the Middle East, where Iran has used its unmanned aerial vehicles to pressure the U.S. and its allies in the region. It also highlights the deficiencies in Russia’s own drone program, which hasn’t been able to match the firepower of armed UAVs deployed by Ukraine.

The immediate battlefield impact of the introduction of Iranian drones into the Ukraine war is difficult to assess, but the deployment gives Tehran an opportunity to test out its products against North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense systems, said Bernard Hudson, former counterterrorism director for the Central Intelligence Agency.

“This allows Tehran a risk-free path to improve their drone technology and tactics and to make them more capable and lethal. The lessons of Ukraine will inform how Iran will later use these systems in the Middle East,” said Mr. Hudson, whose company works in the drone sector in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Late Friday, Mr. Zelensky said that Ukraine had revoked the accreditation of the Iranian ambassador and had reduced the number of diplomatic personnel at the Iranian Embassy in Kyiv in response to Iran sending the drones. He said he had tasked the foreign ministry with developing a response to Iranian support of Russia: “The world will know about every fact of collaboration with evil.”

Israel and the West have accused Iran and its proxies of flying armed drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and American soldiers in Syria, as well as tankers in the Gulf of Oman in recent years. Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen have repeatedly used delta-wing drones to carry out attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia.

In an interview published Saturday by French newspaper Ouest-France, Mr. Zelensky said he regretted that Israel had not provided Ukraine with antiaircraft defenses. “This shocks me because at the same time Israel exports its armaments to other countries,” he said, blaming Russian influence in Israel. Israel has previously said it opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but that it will provide humanitarian rather than military aid.

Ukraine has asked Western allies, which have already supplied billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, to provide more advanced antidrone and air-defense technologies.

In a separate incident, Ukraine’s southern military command said Saturday that an unmanned aircraft had dropped a poisonous chemical substance on Ukrainian positions, without specifying the location. It said there were no significant casualties.

In Russia, Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, who was sanctioned by the European Union in June for overseeing the bombardment of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, was promoted to deputy defense minister for logistics on Saturday. Since the beginning of the war, Russia’s army has struggled with supplying and maintaining its troops in the field, critically hobbling Moscow’s invasion plans.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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