Iran has sent trainers to occupied Ukraine to help Russians overcome problems with the fleet of drones that they purchased from Teheran, according to current and former US officials briefed on the classified intelligence, a further signal of the growing closeness between Iran and Russia since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Iranian trainers are operating from a Russian military base in Crimea, where many of the drones have been based since being delivered from Iran. The trainers are from the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian military designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States.
In recent days, the Iranian drones have become an important weapon for Russia, which has used them as part of the broad strikes across Ukraine against electrical infrastructure and other civilian targets. The deployment of the Iranian trainers appears to coincide with the stepped-up use of the drones in Ukraine and indicates a deeper involvement by Iran in the war.
“Sending drones and trainers to Ukraine has enmeshed Iran deeply into the war on the Russian side and involved Teheran directly in operations that have killed and injured civilians,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA officer.
“Even if they’re just trainers and tactical advisers in Ukraine, I think that’s substantial,” Mulroy said. The United Nations’ human rights body has said that deliberate strikes on such civilian targets could constitute war crimes.
When Iran deployed the first batch of drones to Russia, errors by Russian operators rendered them ineffective. Mechanical issues also grounded the planes and limited their utility, according to US officials.
Originally, Russia had sent its personnel to Iran for training on the drones. But as the problems continued, Iran opted to send its trainers to Crimea, according to current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The Iranian personnel are far from the front lines and are deployed to train the Russians on how to fly the drones, the officials said. It is not clear if the trainers are flying any of the aircraft themselves. It was not immediately clear how many trainers Iran had sent.
The United States has said Russia’s reliance on Iranian drones is a sign of the effectiveness of Western sanctions in cutting off Moscow from international markets, leading Russia to struggle with its domestic arms production and limiting its avenues for purchasing weapons on the open market.
After the sale of drones to Moscow, the United States imposed additional sanctions on Iranians and Iranian companies that have been involved in building and designing the aircraft, as well as companies involved in their transport to Russia.
Iran has deployed Revolutionary Guard personnel to other conflict zones. For example, in Yemen, the group’s officers have mostly stayed out of the fight directly and instead served as trainers and advisers for their Houthi proxy force, Mulroy said.
While Iran has officially denied supplying Russia with drones for use in Ukraine, US officials said that the first batch of such weapons was delivered in August.