Putin’s New Tools of Terror

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin’s new strategy: bring the war to as much of Ukraine’s population as possible. Photo: Ilya Pitalev/SPUTNIK/AFP
Julia Ioffe
October 18, 2022

Over the summer, reports began to surface that Russia was purchasing drones from Iran. The Shaheds, as these U.A.V.’s are called, have primitive navigation systems and are more missiles than drones, crashing into their targets and exploding rather than delivering a payload and returning home, thus earning them the nickname of “kamikaze” or suicide drones. In June, Russian military officials were said to be touring Iranian facilities, inspecting the goods. In late August, Russia began receiving its first deliveries. Then, on Monday, October 17, dozens of Shaheds, looking like sinister paper planes, rained down on Kyiv, destroying buildings, terrorizing the city, and killing four people, including a young pregnant woman and her husband. 

Ever since the Ukrainian attack that severely damaged Vladimir Putin’s prized Kerch bridge to Crimea, this has clearly been the strategy: to bring the war to as much of Ukraine’s population as possible and to paralyze the country’s infrastructure ahead of the winter. Today, Volodymyr Zelensky announced that one third of Ukraine’s power stations have already been destroyed—in just the past week. Now the Ukrainian government is warning its citizens that they have to start preparing for a winter without heat, water, and other essentials. This is Russia taking the battle to Ukrainian civilians, trying to exhaust the population and to push them into submission. Now, the Kremlin has new tools in its terror arsenal: the Shahed drone as well as short-range missiles, which Iran has promised to supply Moscow. 

The greater involvement of Iran marks an interesting shift in the war. We are now approaching the nine-month mark and both sides have used up a lot of ammunition. While Ukraine is now largely supplied by the West for munitions, said military analyst Michael Kofman, “Russia has been fighting alone.” And now, “Russia has significantly depleted its arsenal of long-range precision guided weapons. They’ve also expended a lot of their drone systems, which were a laggard in their military-industrial complex, many of which had only recently entered serial production.” Iran, meanwhile, has plenty of the kinds of cheap, simple drones and munitions that Russia needs to maintain its campaign of terror on Ukrainian cities.

It is also a new turn in the Russian-Iranian relationship, which has always been a fraught one. “It is a complicated relationship because there are both shared interests and contradictory interests, and a fair amount of disrespect and distrust on both sides,” said Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some of this dates back to Russia’s imperial history but is papered over by a shared disdain for American hegemony.” In places like Syria, where Iran and Russia were part of a coalition holding up the regime of Bashar al Assad, Alterman explained, the alliance was far more rocky than it seemed on the surface: “It was just two fairly unprincipled actors who found common cause and not more than that.”

Russia, which sees itself as an unjustly deposed superpower reclaiming its rightful place on the world stage, views Iran as a small regional power that can be used as it sees fit. After all, traditionally, it has been Russia that supplies Iran with weapons, like complex air defense systems and fighter jets. That’s as clear a demonstration of the power dynamic, at least as far as Moscow envisions it, as you can get. And even though Russia is turning to Iran for relatively simple weapons—and ones that don’t seem to work too well at that—and though it is not getting them for free, it still has to turn for help to a country it very much sees as a junior partner. Given the image that Russia was projecting before thundering into Ukraine, it’s a hell of a look to be asking Iran for help after running out of basics less than a year in, all while losing to a country it so condescends to that it doesn’t even think it’s a real country.

Here’s another surprising aspect of this weapons deal. All this while, as the West sanctioned and isolated Russia, we were waiting for China to come to Moscow’s aid. But it hasn’t. For a while, China walked a very fine line of not trying to keep both the White House and the Kremlin at bay. But in recent months, Xi Jinping has started to sour on Putin and his war, which has brought such volatility and instability to the world. Though he hasn’t chucked Putin overboard just yet, it’s clear that this isn’t what Xi signed up for back in February when Putin promised him a blitzkrieg to Kyiv. So when it is Iran that steps up to help, it highlights another quiet but important absence.

One more thing to note here. As Alterman pointed out, Iran doesn’t really want Russia as a partner. It wants China. “If the Iranians had their druthers, their allies would be the Chinese not the Russians,” Alterman explained. “They see China as a stronger, more admirable country with a stronger economy.” I can’t help but glance into the future, a few years ahead, and wonder what will happen to the Russian weapons export market. Russia and the U.S. were always neck-and-neck in the running for the distinction of being the world’s biggest weapons dealer. With it came money and a lot of geopolitical power and prestige. 

As the war in Ukraine drags on—and all signs point to a drawn-out conflict—it’s hard not to see how Russia’s export industry doesn’t suffer. As more and more equipment gets chewed up in the war, factories will inevitably become overwhelmed by orders from the Ministry of Defense for the front, displacing all outside clients. And this, in turn, creates an opening for China to snap up old Russian clients, especially those who never much liked being a Russian client to begin with—even if they may not, in the end, like being beholden to China either. Still, it is yet another way that Russia is failing to bolster its standing in the world, which was, according to Putin, the whole point of this misadventure to begin with.