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  • Will Kingston-Cox

'An unholy alliance': Why is Iran helping Russia in Ukraine?


On 17 October, Ukraine was bombarded by a wave of “kamikaze” drone strikes targeting critical infrastructure in Kyiv, Dnipro, and Sumy, which left thousands without water or electricity. Yet another tactic out of Sergei Surovikin’s savage playbook, Ukrainian civilians were once more terrorised by callous, indiscriminate warfare methods. Russian usage of these so-called “suicide” drones illuminates Iran’s increasing role in supporting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; an unholy alliance which seems set only to strengthen as the war continues.

Often referred to as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones, loitering munitions are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which are loaded with explosives and passively wait in the air after deployment, until a ground-based operator commands the drone into an identified target. Unlike traditional “fire-and-forget" drones, loitering munitions are purposely designed to be flexible “single-use weapons”. Costing roughly $20,000 per unit, loitering munitions also provide a cost-effective, yet deadly, means of attack.

“Kamikaze” drones have been used extensively by both the Ukrainians and Russians since the invasion’s onset. Ukraine has been utilising both its own domestically produced loitering munitions, such as the RAM II and ST-35 Silent Thunder, and the US-manufactured Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost. Nevertheless, it is the Russian’s usage of “suicide” drones, in particular those supplied by Iran, which has sparked international outcry. Moscow currently produces and uses two types of domestic loitering munitions – the KUB and the Lancet. However, sanctions imposed by the West, coupled with resolute Ukrainian resistance, have created significant supply issues for Vladimir Putin, divesting Russia of the capabilities to produce their own loitering munitions.

Such shortages have, in part, solidified this unholy alliance between Moscow and Tehran as Russia becomes somewhat dependent on Iranian-produced drones. They have received an estimated 3,000 Iranian Shahed-136 drones thus far. On 19 October, the US, UK, and France formally accused Iran of selling drones to Moscow, in an explicit violation of a UN Security Council ban against the supply and transfer of such munitions. Nate Evans, spokesperson for the US Mission to the UN, identified that “recent evidence [suggested] Russia illegally procured Iranian UAVs that it is using in its war on Ukraine”. Attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure in recent weeks by Shahed-136s – or Geran-2s in Russian nomenclature – were estimated to have shut down 30 percent of Ukraine’s power network. Moreover, on 20 October, the White House stated that US evidence suggests Iranian troops are “directly engaged on the ground” in Crimea, supporting Russian drone attacks on Ukrainian civilian and infrastructural targets. John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said that “a relatively small number” of Iranian personnel has been identified in Crimea, believed to be assisting Russian forces in launching Iranian drones against Ukraine, predominantly because of Russia’s unfamiliarity with the Iranian technology.

Such a view is supported by declassified US intelligence which revealed Moscow faced severe technical difficulties with Iranian Shahed-136s received in August. In response to Iran’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict the US, alongside its Western allies, have imposed fresh sanctions on Tehran, set to compound Iran’s economic hardships.

James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, announced that the United Kingdom would impose asset freezes and travel bans on the “individuals...[who] have caused the people of Ukraine untold suffering”. They included Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, chairman of the armed forces general staff responsible for overseeing Iranian supplies to Russia, and Brigadier General Saeed Aghajani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force UAV Command.

The new sanctions come at a precarious time for the Iranian government. Widespread antigovernment protests over the death of Mahsa Amini in September at the hands of Iran’s morality police has drastically destabilised the regime’s hold on power, and has attracted renewed international condemnation.

So why is Iran, at a time of such domestic and international opposition to the regime, deciding to support the Russian ‘pariah state’ in its invasion of Ukraine? John Kirby, offering the view of the Biden administration, said that Tehran’s support for Moscow “[is] another sign of how isolated both Russia and Iran are, and [that] they have to rely on each other”. He added that “the Supreme Leader should answer why Iran has directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons [allowed] Russia to kill civilians and damage civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. It’s just another example of Iran’s desire to export violence, and both Iran and Russia need to be held accountable for it”.

Geopolitical experts believe that an isolated Russia, now proficient in sanction avoidance schemes, will be eagerly assisting their counterparts in Iran to do the same, for mutual benefit. After all, Tehran is actively seeking to vitalise its strategic relationship with Moscow amidst US-Israeli operations to “lay the groundwork for a security alliance with Arab states”, which would counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Through the provision of loitering munitions, Tehran can mitigate its current economic woes - greatly compounded by Western sanctions - and demonstrate its strategic capabilities to its regional foes.

So, such an unholy alliance between Tehran and Moscow is rational for both regimes to pursue, as Western sanctions and international resistance to both intensifies. The West’s attempt to isolate Iran and Russia on the international stage, rendering them as ‘pariahs’, leaves both countries with little choice but to align themselves as strategic allies, both economically and militarily.

As the war in Ukraine and protests against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei upscale, it is wholly reasonable to assume this alliance will strengthen and solidify. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which Iran’s military involves itself in Crimea, and wider Ukraine, on the ground. Such a move may cement Iran’s status as a Russian proxy.

Image: Flickr / alkhaleej online



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