Ukraine Situation Report: Russia’s Drone War Erupts Thanks To Iran

Russia’s Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones rain down around Odesa while a Mohajer-6 also makes its first appearance in the conflict.

byEmma Helfrich, Tyler Rogoway|
Shahed 136 Ukraine


Key areas in southern Ukraine came under attack from a number of Iran-supplied Shahed-136 'kamikaze' or 'suicide' drones today. It is by far the most high-profile and concentrated use of these types of weapons by Russian forces. Video evidence also emerged in recent hours showing an Iranian Mohajer-6 medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle being recovered from the water by Ukrainian forces, serving as the drone’s first recorded sighting on the Ukrainian battlefield. 

The evidence of Mohajer-6’s presence was shared by the Southern Air Command of the Ukrainian Air Force. Up until now, only Shahed-136s had been spotted in Ukraine, making it so the recent Mohajer-6 retrieval would confirm that both Iranian drones were included in deliveries from Iran to Russia that had occurred earlier this month. This matches our report on what drones would likely end up being used by Russia in Ukraine as part of a deal between Iran and Russia that had been in the works since at least July. The employment of these Iranian drones has the potential to disrupt the conflict in multiple ways. You can read more about this in our previous feature here.

While we have seen sporadic use of the Shahed-136s suicide drones — which are small gas-powered flying wing types that can seek radar emissions or hit static targets, over the last couple of weeks — today's onslaught makes it clear they are growing in volume. 

Multiple videos show a number of Shahed-136 UAVs cutting across the Ukrainian city of Odesa’s airspace, although some are different angles of the same aircraft. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s official Twitter account responded to these developments by divulging that the Ukrainian Army had destroyed six of the Shahed-136 suicide drones launched by Russia but neglected to provide any further information. 

In a statement to The War Zone, Andrii Ryzhenko, retired Ukrainian Navy captain and former member of that nation’s general staff, offered more context by explaining that a Shahed-136 drone strike had been successful in hitting the headquarters of a Ukrainian naval base in Odesa. He added that the UAV struck near the base’s cafeteria, killing one female affiliated with the military and injuring another who remained unidentified. Ryzhenko also expanded on the ministry’s post by confirming that Ukrainian air defenses had neutralized six drones but went on to note that one or two targets had been hit nonetheless. 

The War Zone cannot confirm the details of Ryzhenko's statements but it does fit generally with what we are seeing, although the true scope of the attacks remains murky.

A strike on Ukraine's naval base cafeteria would likely be payback for a very similar strike by Ukraine on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters on August 1st. At the time, we noted that this attack was likely a harbinger of a suicide drone war to come.

The Mohajer-6 that Ukraine recovered from the water is designed to carry out both reconnaissance and attack operations with Qaem TV/IR glide bombs or Almas missiles. The fact that the drone is so intact could be yet another intelligence boon for Ukraine and especially the U.S. and its allies.  

A Mohajer-6 UAV seen during the Eqtedar 40 defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: No author/Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine's air defenses are directly threatened by the Shahed-136s, including those far to the west where only Russian cruise and ballistic missiles venture. The drones are capable of seeking the emissions of air defense radars and homing in on them, in addition to hitting stationary targets. Above all else, they provide Russia with a plentiful standoff weapon to reach deep into Ukraine. They can also be used just as a terror mechanism, diving on population centers and hitting fairly indiscriminately with their telltale wailing scream.

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Regardless, they present a new challenge for Ukraine's air defenses which are already stressed. We described exactly this potential reality in our initial post discussing how Iranian drones in Russian hands could be a big deal for the conflict in Ukraine.

The coming days will tell just how normal widespread use of these Iranian drones will become and how effective they will actually be.

Before we get into what else is happening now, be sure to catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense’s latest intelligence update explained that Ukrainian forces have secured bridgeheads on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast. Fighting is reportedly still ongoing in Donetsk Oblast as Ukrainian forces push ahead in the occupied city of Lyman.

The ministry itself notes that the battlefield situation remains complex, but that Ukrainian forces are making notable advances in regions that Russia would need to retain control of in order to achieve the goals of its mobilization effort.

One recent development could potentially provide Ukraine with the air defense it needs to help combat the influx of Iranian suicide and attack drones. Reports coming from the Times of Israel dating back to September 12 and only now making their rounds on social media have revealed that an Israeli defense firm will provide Ukraine with counter-UAV systems. 

While reports explain that the Israeli government isn't commenting on the delivery, the independent defense firm that makes the system is managing to execute the transfer by way of Poland. Through the sale of the unnamed system to Poland, the country was able to act as an intermediary to then transfer the defensive systems to Kyiv.

This news had come just days before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky today expressed that he was “shocked” by the lack of support provided by Israel. 

It has now been two days since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of 300,000 conscripts in a televised address where he also posed a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation to dissuade the west from further assisting Ukraine. This is Russia’s first mobilization since World War II, and a corresponding set of referendums regarding the annexation of various Russian-occupied areas in eastern and southern Ukraine are slated to be finalized in the coming days. 

Both developments present the potential to escalate the conflict, which is a day short of entering its eighth month, to a formal state of war for Russia. This will be achieved through “elections” that are now underway in the Russian-occupied cities of Luhansk, Kherson, and the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions meant to decide whether these areas should become a part of Russia. These referendums are widely recognized as a sham and will give Russia the ability to say any attack on these areas is an attack on Russia itself. You can read all about the legal parameters and authorities outlined by the mobilization in this War Zone explainer, here.

Russian conscripts continue to resist and defy the Kremlin’s heavy-handed recruitment efforts, many of which appear to be going beyond the conditions outlined in Putin’s initial mobilization announcement. Terms explaining that only men who had recently served in the army and had combat experience could face enlistment seem to already be blurred. Some locals are claiming that men 50 and older are receiving draft notices, while other younger men with no military experience are receiving them as well.

One particularly revealing video shows a scene inside a Russian mustering station where it would appear that exhausted and frustrated conscripts are listening to an officer shout, “That’s it- playtime’s over. You’re soldiers now!” The man goes on to say that the draftees will get only two weeks of training and could potentially be on the front lines just days later.

To cope with their new realities, several videos have begun to surface showing Russian draftees reporting for duty in a less-than sober state. Some have even been recorded physically fighting each other, speaking volumes about the morale of those who will soon make up the Russian military and its fighting force in Ukraine.

Russian men, and in some cases their families, too, are leaving the country in droves to seek refuge in bordering nations thereby evading the mobilization.

Putin’s mobilization has already caused such an uproar that nations within Moscow's orbit are condemning it. A couple of notable examples include Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s recent exemption of his region from Putin’s military call-up, citing that 20,000 Chechen troops have already deployed to Russia since the start of the conflict. 

In a potentially historic development, former president of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj openly blasted Russia for targeting ethnic minorities in its conscription efforts. This is a rare instance of a high-ranking Mongolian official so blatantly criticizing the Russian government. There have been widespread accusations that mobilization has disproportionately (drastically) affected minorities, the poor, and those in rural areas.

We will continue to update this post until we state otherwise. 

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