Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine raises stakes for US, Europe

Russia’s escalation of its attacks on Ukraine using Iranian kamikaze drones and targeting critical infrastructure ahead of winter is raising the stakes for the U.S. and its allies to quickly send air defense systems to the country.

The use of Iranian drones is also putting pressure on the U.S. and Europe to punish Tehran, even as they hold out hope to revive the comatose nuclear deal.

“It is clear that in the emerging cold war between the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, the Iranians have clearly chosen their camp,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director with the International Crisis Group.

Russia’s escalating attacks on cities across Ukraine with the Iranian drones have killed more than a dozen civilians since last week, including a six-months-pregnant woman and her husband.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 30 percent of Ukraine’s power stations had been destroyed, causing massive blackouts across the country, with officials telling residents to conserve their electricity as much as possible and stock up on water. 

“The world can and must stop this terror,” Zelensky said in his evening address Monday. 

“In order to guarantee the protection of our skies, we need significantly more modern air defense systems. And this is not only Ukrainian interest. The fewer terrorist opportunities Russia has, the sooner this war will end.” 

German air defense systems arrived in the country last week, and Spain has committed to sending its own “Hawk” air defense systems. Counter-drone equipment from NATO and more U.S. air defense support is said to be on the way. 

The escalation in drone attacks follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appointment of Gen. Sergei Surovikin — dubbed “General Armageddon” in Russian media for exercising brutality in Syria’s civil war — to lead the Ukraine war effort. 

Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute, said that “the drone use from the Iranians would have happened anyways” and that “Surovikin is being appointed and being tasked to do this.”

The U.S. and allies have issued statements of condemnation against the use of Iranian drones and are reportedly readying targeted sanctions against military sales from Iran.

Vaez, of the International Crisis Group, said these measures will fall short if they’re not followed up with concrete military defense.

“Statements are not going to make any difference. What will make a difference is boosting Ukrainian ability to shoot down these drones and exhaust Iran’s ability to affect the dynamics of the conflict,” he said.

How the White House and European allies respond to Iran’s rising role in Ukraine will also weigh on efforts to preserve a pathway to diplomacy with Tehran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

“The door for diplomacy will always remain open. But, as of now, we don’t see a deal coming together anytime soon,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani denied selling any weapons being used in Ukraine and said accusations to the contrary had “political ambitions and it’s circulated by Western sources.”

The White House has said Iran is lying about not sending drones and missiles to Russia, and the European Union has said it is “gathering evidence” of “alleged” Iranian-drone use.

Ramani said Europe’s response pointed to efforts to preserve negotiations surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the nuclear deal, even as talks remain largely frozen.

“It feels as if, in my view, the European reluctance to sanction Iran over this is due to the fact that they do not want to provoke things too much while the JCPOA negotiations are going on, is less about trying to be on a fact-finding mission,” he said. 

The Biden administration is intent on reviving the deal that former President Trump withdrew from in 2018. Iran began breaching the terms of the agreement in 2019, increasing its stockpile of uranium fuel that can be used for a nuclear weapon.

Vaez said that the totality of Iran’s bad behavior reinforces the argument that its nuclear activity needs to be constrained by the deal, but that U.S. and European politicians are under public pressure to isolate Tehran — including in response to Iran’s brutal crackdown on women-led, anti-government protests. 

“The dealmakers are politicians and they take into account the political costs of their action, which has gone through the roof because of what has happened in repression of the protesters in Iran and also Iran’s support for Russia in Ukraine,” he said. 

Tags Iranian drones Iranian drones JCPOA Kamikaze drones Russia-Ukraine war Russian war in Ukraine US-Iran relations Volodymyr Zelensky
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