A new axis of evil?
IN THE NEWS | In its war on Ukraine, Russia is increasingly relying on Iran and other pariah nations for weapons
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A terrifying buzzing sound, followed by multiple explosions, woke the residents of Kyiv early on a Monday morning. Dozens of Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with an 8-foot wingspan, swarmed the skies over the Ukrainian capital and maneuvered around buildings as they searched for targets. The Kremlin had recently purchased the new weapons and wasted no time sending them into civilian areas.
Ukrainian forces shot down most of the 28 drones, but some broke through, dive-bombing with their 80-pound warheads and killing five people, including the unborn child of a woman who was six months pregnant.
It was the fall of 2022 when this new form of terror debuted in Ukraine, using weapons Moscow bought from one of its newest friends in the region: Iran.
As the war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, the developing Iran-Russia axis has become one of Washington’s most pressing threats. The partnership has raised alarm over how Tehran might further fuel Russia’s latest conquest—and alter geopolitical alliances in the region.
Western-backed sanctions have made it difficult for the Kremlin to replenish its military stockpile—Russia has lost thousands of armored vehicles and depleted much of its ammunition—so it has turned to pariah states for help. Iran sold hundreds of drones to Moscow last year, and they first arrived on the Ukrainian battlefields in September. In addition, North Korea is supplying weaponry to Russia, and a recent report found that China has been quietly contributing equipment of its own.
Iran’s drones are responsible for wreaking havoc on Ukraine’s infrastructure, knocking out power and heat during the heart of winter and killing dozens of civilians.
Since the start of the war, half a millennium of enmity between Iran and Russia has given way to a new alliance of convenience, according to Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Today Putin’s Russia and Khamenei’s Iran are authoritarian and anti-Western/anti-American regimes at war with their own peoples and regions and see their strategic futures as increasingly intertwined,” he said in an email.
Ben Taleblu said Iran has become a regional drone power during the past three decades and is now intimately involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The White House in October said Iranian troops were “directly engaged on the ground,” helping Russian units with the new equipment.
Both Russia and Iran are struggling under a host of Western-backed sanctions, but their new partnership has created the potential for economic and military advances. Ben Taleblu said Iran has likely struck a deal with the Kremlin to procure any foreign weaponry seized on the battlefields in Ukraine. And Russia will soon supply Iran with its advanced Su-35 fighter jets, among other military equipment.
Meanwhile, Moscow purchased millions of rockets and artillery shells from Pyongyang, according to declassified American intelligence. Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014 to 2017, believes these are signs of a Russian logistics system in deep trouble.
“We know that they are now having to pull out ammunition and equipment that is almost my age, and it’s just not as effective. And if they do mobilize another 200,000 or 300,000 troops, which I think they probably want to do, that’s 200,000 people who have to be equipped, trained, housed, fed, led, all those things. Where’s that coming from?” Hodges said.
He predicts a weakening Russian regime, noting the thousands of military-age Russian males who fled the country rather than risk conscription. “When I was in Tbilisi [the capital of Georgia] in January, I could hear Russian voices everywhere because almost 300,000 of them headed to or through Georgia,” Hodges added.
But as Russia grows weaker—economically and militarily—it could pivot more intentionally toward China for support. Economic partnerships will likely increase as China takes advantage of cheap Russian energy supplies in the wake of European bans on Russian gas.
And China is another anti-Western nation supplying the Kremlin’s war machine, according to a recent Wall Street Journal review of Russian customs forms. Beijing is helping Moscow dodge Western sanctions by exporting navigation equipment, fighter jet parts, and other items necessary to resupply Russia’s dwindling resources.
Western leaders hope to offset Russia’s new supply lines and send a strong message to the rogue states of the world. After weeks of negotiations, the United States in January agreed to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, a necessary condition for Germany to send 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks.
It will take several months to deliver the tanks and train Ukrainian forces, all while Russian forces prepare for another major assault. But Hodges believes Ukraine will win the war in 2023 if the West follows through with its obligations to Kyiv. He predicts the Ukrainians will take back the Crimean Peninsula, lost to Russia in 2014, by the end of August, especially if they receive long range precision weapons.
Hodges noted one more way in which the Ukrainians have an edge on their opponents: “The principal advantage that they will always have is that they are defending their country, whereas there’s not a single Russian soldier who wants to be there.”
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