Iranians brought trainers and technical support to Crimea to help Russians use drones ‘with better lethality’, White House says

Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh

20 Oct 2022

The Guardian

Iran has significantly deepened its involvement in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by providing technical support for Russian pilots flying Iranian-made drones to bomb civilian targets, the White House has confirmed.

The national security council lead spokesperson, John Kirby, said on Thursday that it was the US’s understanding that the Iranian advisers were in Crimea to provide training and maintenance – but not to actually pilot the drones – after Russian forces experienced difficulties in operating the unmanned flying bombs.  “The information we have is that the Iranians have put trainers and tech support in Crimea, but it’s the Russians who are doing the piloting,” Kirby said. “Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. These are systems that the Russian armed forces are not familiar using and these are organically manufactured Iranian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. The Russians just don’t have anything in their inventory.”

“There were operator and system failures early on. Either they weren’t being piloted appropriately and properly and were failing to reach targets or the systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customers expected,” Kirby added. “So the Iranians decided to move in some trainers and some technical support to help the Russians use them with better lethality.”

Both the UK and the EU have announced sanctions on Iran for its provision of Shahed-136 drones, a delta wing unmanned aircraft designed to fly into a target and explode on impact, which Russian forces have used extensively against Ukrainian cities.

Moscow has denied its use of the Iranian drones, but Tehran officials have confirmed it and said they will also supply ballistic missiles to help replenished Russia’s dwindling armoury.

The Iranian drones have played an important role in Vladimir Putin’s effort to freeze Ukrainians into submission by targeting power plants and other energy infrastructure. Kyiv has introduced an emergency schedule of power cuts to help stabilise the country’s energy supply, which has been badly damaged by more than 300 Russian drone and missile attacks over the past 10 days as the weather turns cooler.

The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said people needed to be “especially conscious of electricity consumption” from 7am and avoid using unnecessary appliances as he warned of local “stabilisation blackouts”.

Three energy facilities were destroyed by Russia on Wednesday, the president said, with a further strike reported in the region of the southern city of Kryvyi Rih overnight amid growing official alarm over the impact of the Russian campaign.

In video remarks to an EU summit on Thursday, Zelenskiy said Russia hoped to provoke a new wave of migration to European countries. “Russian terror against our energy facilities is aimed at creating as many problems with electricity and heat as possible for Ukraine this autumn and winter, so that more Ukrainians go to European countries,” he said.

Late on Thursday Zelenskiy accused Moscow of planting mines at a hydroelectric dam in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, posing a threat to a 400km Soviet-built long canal network. “According to our information, the aggregator and dam of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant were mined by Russian terrorists,” Zelenskiy said in his daily address.  “If the dam is destroyed the North Crimean canal will simply disappear,” and this would be “a catastrophe on a grand scale”, the Ukraine leader added.

Kirby said the US would be taking action in response to Iran’s entry into the Ukraine war.  “The United States is going to pursue all means to expose, deter and confront Iran’s provision of these munitions against the Ukrainian people. We’re going to continue to vigorously enforce all US sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade,” 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.”

Kirby said it was too early to tell whether the 10 October declaration by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko about the creation of a Belarussian-Russian joint force signified the reopening of a northern front in the Ukrainian conflict.

Belarussian troops have not been seen fighting in Ukraine so far, he said, adding: “It remains to be seen whether this constitutes some sort of major strategic shift by Belarus to get involved in Ukraine.”

Pentagon spokesperson Brig Gen Pat Ryder said: “We don’t currently have any indications of an imminent military action on that front, but we will keep a close eye on it and in the future.”