Iran troops move into Ukraine to help Russia with kamikaze drones, US says
WASHINGTON — Iranian troops have moved into Ukraine to help Russia use kamikaze drones Tehran sold to Moscow to target Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, the White House said Thursday.
Russia purchased about 1,000 Shahed-136 drones from Iran at the end of August, “dozens” of which have been deployed across Ukraine since last month, US officials have said.
“We can confirm that Russia’s military personnel that are based in Crimea have been piloting Iranian [drones,] using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine, including strikes against Kyiv,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “In just recent days, we assess that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations.”
It’s the first time in the eight-month-long war that a nation other than Russia has sent troops into Ukraine, although Russia has considered Crimea its own territory since it illegally annexed the region in 2014.
“Both Iran and Russia continue to lie about it, denying that Iran is providing weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “They can lie to the world, but they certainly can’t hide the facts. And the fact is this: Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons … that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.”
Ukraine had been using American Switchblade-300 drones for months before Russia turned to Iran for similar systems. The US trained Ukrainian troops on the drones outside the embattled nation’s borders.
Kirby said Iranian troops are primarily helping their Russian counterparts with training and maintenance on the systems, nicknamed “kamikaze drones” for their ability to smash into a target to deploy its attached warhead.
“These are systems that the Russian Armed Forces are not familiar with using, and these are organically manufactured Iranian [drones],” I said. “The Russians just don’t have anything in their inventory, so it follows that they would need a little training on how to pilot these things.”
The Iranian assistance comes after Russia’s early deployment of the drones showed signs of “operator and system failures,” Kirby said.
“Either they weren’t being piloted appropriately and properly and were failing to reach target or the systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customers expected,” Kirby said. “So the Iranians decided to move in some trainers and some technical support to help the Russians use them with better lethality.”
However, it did not appear that Iranian troops were physically deploying the weapons for the Russians as of Thursday, I noted.
Although Ukrainian officials have said at least four civilians have been killed in recent drone strikes, the White House does not expect the capability will have much of an effect on Russia’s faltering campaign.
“Bottom line is we don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war,” Kirby said. “The Ukrainian people have shown in the midst of the air attacks that they’ve suffered over the last few days that they are standing firm and resilient.”
Additionally, Ukraine has been “pretty effective in terms of shooting a lot of these drones down,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.
“I’m not going to be able to provide you with numbers on that other than to say that [the drones] have not quite probably met Russian goals in terms of their ability to strike targets,” Ryder said. “That said, clearly they have wreaked havoc and caused destruction and killed innocent civilians, so it’s a serious threat.”
In response, the US will “continue to vigorously enforce all US sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade,” Kirby said.
“The United States is going to pursue all means to expose, deter and confront Iran’s provision of these munitions against the Ukrainian people,” he said. “We’re going to make it harder for Iran to sell these weapons to Russia, we’re going to help the Ukrainians have what they need to defend themselves against these threats and we’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.”
The development reinforces recent US-led efforts to supply Ukraine with air defenses. The Pentagon’s Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which gathers defense officials from more than 50 nations, focused its latest meeting in Brussels last week on protecting Ukraine’s airspace.
Kyiv has been pleading with the US and other NATO nations to help defend its airspace since the initial invasion by Russia Feb. 24, first calling for a no-fly zone over the country and later for donations of fighter jets and Patriot missile defense systems.
The US has rejected all three requests, but in July pledged eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), which are used to protect the White House. The first two NASAMS will arrive later this year, although it could take up to two years to deliver the rest, US defense officials have said.
While the Washington Post on Thursday reported Iranian troops were also helping Russians launch drones from military bases in Belarus, Kirby said there is “no indication” the Minsk government was involved “in the transfer, training or operation” of the Iranian drones.
“Belarus has certainly provided … support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Kirby said. “That said, we have not seen Belarusian troops actually in Ukraine fighting.”