The Russian army has stepped up the number of attacks by Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones, aiming a dozen such devices at a town near Kyiv on Wednesday alone. While their effectiveness is limited, the drones offer a cheap alternative to missile strikes and allow Russian forces to keep up the pressure on Ukrainian cities located far from the frontline.

President Vladimir Putin’s forces may be on the back foot in the east and south of Ukraine, but they still have the ability to strike deep into enemy territory. Such is the message delivered by Iranian-manufactured drones, which the Russian army has used over the past three weeks to strike artillery positions, ammunition depots and civilian infrastructures.

On Wednesday, a swarm of twelve drones flew straight to Bila Tserkva, a garrison town located about 90 kilometres south of Kiev, marking a first for an area that had so far been largely spared by the fighting. Six drones were shot down by Ukrainian forces, but the other half crashed into buildings, causing extensive damage and injuring one soldier.

Until then, southern cities including Odessa had been the main target of kamikaze drones and other flying devices capable of dropping bombs.

“Even if the Russians know they will not take Odessa, they want to maintain the psychological pressure on the opposite camp and make clear that the war will go on, including for the civilian population,” said General Dominique Trinquand, a former head of the French military mission to the United Nations.

Iran’s long-range ‘kamikaze’ drone

Kyiv and its allies had been expecting to face Iranian-made flying bombs. As early as July, the White House warned that Tehran was delivering drones to Russia. According to the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, Moscow “launched a satellite into orbit on behalf of Iran” in exchange for the weapons.

Despite Iranian denials, Ukraine decided last month to reduce its diplomatic representation in Tehran in protest at these allegations. Meanwhile, the US Treasury announced sanctions against four Iranian arms companies suspected of supplying the Russian army.

Until recently, drone warfare was a weak spot in Russian military operations in Ukraine. Attempts to produce domestically-built combat drones have suffered a series of setbacks and international sanctions have further hindered their development.

As a result, the Kremlin has turned to Iran for its unmanned flying vehicles. They include the Mohajer-6 observation-and-attack aircraft and, above all, the Shahed-136 kamikaze drones used by Houthi rebels in Yemen to damage oil installations in Saudi Arabia.

At 3.5 meters long and 2.5 meters wide, the Shahed-136 is a cheap and easy-to-use drone that can fly at up to 180 km/h, with a claimed range of 2,500 km.

“It reaches its target by GPS coordinates entered before take-off. It then flies autonomously, at relatively low altitude and aiming for a fixed target,” Pierre Grasser, a French researcher associated with the Sirice laboratory, told AFP.

“They make a lot of noise, like a chainsaw or a scooter”, added Nataliya Gumenyuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military command, claiming that their effectiveness is “very low”.

However, what the drones lack in reliability they make up for in stealth, allowing them to evade radar surveillance.

“They are fast and keep low, making it difficult to detect them early enough for anti-aircraft defense to destroy them,” said General Trinquand. “Drone jammers exist, but they would have to be spread out across the entire theatre of war, which is very large,” the defense expert added.

In late September, Washington announced it was sending a dozen Titan electronic jamming systems to help Ukraine fight off Russian drones. The systems are considered to be particularly effective against the Geran-2, the Russian name for the Shahed-136.

A rapidly shrinking missile stockpile

The Iranian-made Shahed-136 is seen as a competitor to the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, which the Ukrainian army has used to great effect in fending off Russian assaults. Similarly, the Shahed-136 allows Putin’s forces to destroy logistical infrastructure far from the front line, such as ammunition depots or railway junctions, without endangering Russian aviation.

Military experts say Russia has become more and more cautious with its fighter bombers in recent months, due to the deployment of increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft systems on the Ukrainian side.

The use of drones also allows Moscow to compensate for its shortage of hugely expensive ballistic missiles, like the Kalibr-type missiles, which were used to a large extent at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion and can cost several million euros apiece.

“It’s looking like their stock of ‘precision’ missiles, to use Putin’s words, has reached the end,” said General Trinquand. “Overall, their supply of high-tech equipment is running very low and is hard to replace because many components come from the West.”

While Iranian drones flying over Ukraine are cause for concern in Kyiv, they also signal Russia’s difficulties in maintaining the war effort after eight months of engagement. Above all, the new weapons in Moscow’s depleted arsenal are unlikely to change the dynamics at work on the eastern and southern fronts, where the Ukrainian counter-offensive has changed the face of the war.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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