WASHINGTON – Russia is trying to buy “more capable and more lethal versions” of Iranian attack drones as its weapons stocks run low ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, the White House said Monday.
Tehran has already provided Moscow with more than 400 armed drones for use in Ukraine since August as part of an “unprecedented defense partnership,” according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“Russia has expended most of these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], using them to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure,” said Kirby, accusing Iran of “directly enabling Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.”
In return for the drones, he went on, Iran is asking for “billions of dollars worth of Russian military equipment,” including attack helicopters, “some radars” and Joachim 30 combat trainer aircraft.
However, Russia – which is already strapped for troops in Ukraine – would need to provide Iranian forces with training on the systems.
“These are not items that are intrinsic [or] organic to their inventory,” Kirby said. “We would have to assume that there would be some measure of training by Russia on that.”
While Ukraine has benefitted from continued military support from the US and more than 50 other nations in the Pentagon-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Russia has been forced to rely solely on its own weapons stockpiles or contributions from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
“We are using the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities and we are prepared to do more,” Kirby added. “We will also continue to impose costs on the actors involved in the transfer of Iranian military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine already.”
In addition to the drones, Tehran has also provided Moscow with artillery and tank rounds as well as training on the drones – though both Russia and Iran continue to deny any military links.
Defense experts for months have been closely watching the burgeoning relationship after most of the world isolated Russia following its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
“It is very concerning anytime we see adversaries working together,” head of US Central Command Gen. Michael Kurilla told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
In September, Russia asked North Korea for rockets and a “significant number of artillery shells,” the latter of which was secretly delivered in November, Kirby said at the time.
“We have been clear with nations all around the world … that we don’t believe now is the time to be making it easier for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to kill Ukrainians and to continue to try to rob them of their sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
Now, with Russia facing few options to bolster its forces, officials fear Beijing and its advancing military could provide Moscow with weapons as the two totalitarian states grow closer.
“As of right now, we don’t have any indications that China has provided lethal assistance to Russia,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday.
But Russia is not alone in requesting aid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been asking partner nations in recent weeks for additional weapons donations – especially fighter jets – in time for its predicted attack meant to liberate Russia-held territory in the coming weeks.
The US to date has declined to sent Ukraine jets, and both Kirby and Ryder confirmed Monday that there has been no change in its position.
“I think you could just track back all the recent packages of assistance that we’ve announced and see how much we’re prioritizing the kinds of capabilities that Ukraine themselves have said that they need, and that includes a heavy emphasis on on air defense, such as the Patriot [missile defense] systems,” Kirby said.
However, the US continues to provide other weapons it had previously been hesitant to send. For example, Washington agreed in January to send M2 Abrams tanks after initially declining to do so.
Ryder said Monday the first 31 tanks had recently arrived in Europe, and American troops are preparing to train Ukrainians on the systems.
“Those crews are expected to arrive and begin training within the next couple of weeks,” Ryder said. “This extensive training program for Ukrainian crews and maintainers is intended to prepare them for their critical roles ahead and effectively operating the one tank and defending Ukrainian people.”
As for other Zelenskyy requests, Kirby said “there’s not that much left on the shopping list that hasn’t been checked off,” other than some additional ammunition, which is in the works.
“We’re focused on is making sure that he’s got the tools, the training [and] the capability, so that when he’s ready to step off [into a counter-offensive,] he can do so confidently,” Kirby said. “We have provided the vast, vast majority of the kinds of capabilities that the Ukrainian said that they needed to be able to conduct offensive operations here in the Spring.”