Ukraine war: Western components found in Iranian-made drones used by Russian army, expert warns

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By Jorge Liboreiro
A Shahed-131 UAV documented by Conflict Armament Research in Ukraine in November 2022.
A Shahed-131 UAV documented by Conflict Armament Research in Ukraine in November 2022.   -   Copyright  Conflict Armament Research.

The Iranian-made drones used by the Russian army to attack Ukraine's essential infrastructure and plunge the war-torn country into darkness are made "almost exclusively" of components manufactured by companies based in Europe, the United States and Asia, a report has found.

The findings, released by Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based organisation that tracks the use of illegal weapons in conflicts, throw into question the long-established regime of United Nations sanctions on Iran and pile further pressure on the European Union and its allies to close up loopholes.

Through several trips to Ukraine, the Conflict Armament Research team was able to collect and analyse two models of so-called "kamikaze" drones -- the Shahed-131 and the Shahed-136 --, which self-destroy once they hit their target, together with the Mohajer-6, a tactical and combat drone.

The three unmanned aerial vehicles showed multiple similarities with other Iranian-made drones that had been previously documented in the Middle East between 2017 and 2022, leading investigators to conclude the drones used by Russia to wage war on Ukraine had been assembled in Iran.

Teheran is one of the few allies Moscow has left on the global stage.

As a new barrage of drone strikes hit Kyiv, Euronews spoke with Damien Spleeters, Deputy Director of Operations at Conflict Armament Research, in order to find out how these highly sensitive components of Western origin could end up in Iran.

"We found (in the drones) components from different European countries," Spleeters said, referring to satellite navigation systems and engines.

"Usually, very often, manufacturers have very little visibility and control over where their products will end up. So, we are trying to identify and triangulate distribution channels that may be problematic in the sense that they were used by Russia or Iran to acquire those components."

Spleeters explained that while some of the Western components found in Iranian-made drones were supposed to be monitored under current sanctions, others were simple commercial items that could be freely purchased.

"Not everything is controllable. It would be unrealistic to think that we can control every single model of component that can be used in drones or other weapons," the analyst said.

"But certainly, the tracing, the record-keeping, the visibility on the supply chain can be improved. That can lead to better due diligence efforts."

Conflict Armament Research.
A Mohajer-6 UAV documented by Conflict Armament Research in Ukraine in November 2022.Conflict Armament Research.

Russia also exploited this availability and began to stockpile material prior to the invasion, when trade with Europe and the US was mostly unencumbered. 

It's unclear how long this inventory will last. Some of the cruise missiles recently built within Russia and used to attack Kyiv contained Western components, Spleeters warned.

"I don't think we should fool ourselves: (Russia) knew that sanctions would be coming and they knew it would be maybe more difficult to acquire the material they need to continue to build weapons," he said.

"But those stocks are finite. It is not made to run forever."

With no end in sight for the Ukraine war, the European Union and its partners are attempting to close up loopholes and strengthen their sanctions on the Kremlin.

The latest package from Brussels features a ban on exports of EU-made drones bound to Russia, Iran or any other country suspected of oiling Vladimir Putin's war machine.

"It is crucial for sanctions and sanction mechanisms to be based on evidence. That means that if you want to effectively stop Russia from acquiring the components they need to make weapons, you first need to know what components they are actually using, what components they need to continue to make those weapons and how they managed to acquire them," Spleeters told Euronews.

"And once you have that information, it becomes a little bit easier to enforce control and stop Russia from acquiring those components."

Watch the video above to learn more about Iranian-made drones.