In Other News – Iranian Weapons in Russia Reveal Putin’s Limitations – 10/21/2022

October 21, 2022

Iranian weapons in Russia reveal Putin’s needs and limitations, geopolitical realignments abound. This week, Tehran’s relationship with Moscow made headlines after Ukraine accused Russia of using Iranian-made drones to attack Kyiv and stated that Ukrainian air defenses have shot down over 200 Iranian-made drones in the past few weeks. US Intelligence officials also reported that Iranian military personnel were in Crimea in the capacity of drone trainers and tech support workers after the Russian military suffered “operator and system failures early on” in its attempts to effectively use the weapons.

Tehran has publicly denied the accusation of selling Iranian weapons to Russia, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman even had the audacity to offer “dialogue and negotiation with Ukraine to clear these allegations”. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, has also denied use of the Iranian equipment. Meanwhile, US Intelligence officials are concerned that Russia isn’t going to limit its purchases to Iranian drones but could be trying to buy surface-to-surface missiles from Tehran. In early September, the US Treasury’s OFAC designated a Tehran-based air transportation service and several Iranian corporate entities for the involvement in supplying drones to Russia, and it’s likely that more sanctions are to come.

Iran and Russia, in addition to sharing the false narrative that the West is an instigator that’s responsible for their immense social and economic problems, have prior on-the-ground experience collaborating on the battlefield. Although the Moscow-Tehran relationship is long marked by competition and opportunism, the nations can work together well enough when there’s common interest. Of note, many of the same Iranian and Russian leaders involved in securing a 2015 bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation between the two nations are still involved in government and military leadership positions today.

While that deal was designed to coordinate operations in Syria, which they did, over the years personal relationships have developed, and the nations have collaborated on sanctions evasion and other energy initiatives. Tehran also knows that Russia won’t criticize its leaders for violently curbing internal dissent, which has been steady ever since 22 year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini recently died in the hands of the government after being arrested for wearing her hijab improperly. And Tehran can also depend on Russia to threaten Israel with retaliation if Israel moves to supply Kyiv’s military with technology or weapons.

But as much as the Iranian drone revelation reveals about Moscow’s relations with Tehran, we can also learn a lot from what we’re not seeing. That the Russians needed to resort to Iranian-made weapons indicates that they’re not getting what they might have wanted from China, which has been a concern since the onset of the war. Thus far, Beijing has primarily supported Russia by parroting the Kremlin’s propaganda and refusing to condemn Putin in the international arena. Beijing has also maintained essential economic dealings with Moscow, often price gouging Putin in the process, yet China’s been careful to avoid violating certain sanctions and Russia’s tech needs have been hurt in response.

China’s also been creeping into traditional Russian turf while Putin’s been distracted looking west. Central Asian countries, who typically look to Russia as a regional negotiator have taken advantage of Russia’s weakness to express their grievances about Moscow and hold independent meetings with China. Beijing has also invested billions in regional infrastructure development and has paid special attention to deepening relations with Kazakhstan- a key regional actor that borders both China and Russia. While Russia has traditionally played policeman and ensured that even unpopular regional leaders were able to maintain their positions, it’s also true that over a year since Taliban control of Afghanistan other Central Asian nations haven’t seen an increased threat or needed Moscow’s protection.

With multiple variables clearly at play, we can anticipate traditional regional allies testing the waters, and enemies finding areas of opportunity. The same week that Iran was making headlines for the drones, an advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader proclaimed that Saudi Arabia and Iran should reopen their embassies to solve their problems “in a better way.” Indeed, the geopolitical order that was initially rocked back in February continues to actively evolve and shape political strategy in the greater region.