Russia is using more Iranian drones to bomb Ukrainian civilians, says US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said that the Russian army is intensifying its use of Iranian drones to target civilian areas.

“The Kremlin continues to intensify its bombardment of Ukraine, using Russian missiles and Iranian drones to strike more civilian targets across Ukraine’s territory and to put more innocent civilians — Ukrainians in the crosshairs,” Mr Austin said at the Pentagon during his opening remarks at the 22nd meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

This comes after the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a helicopter crash in a rural part of the country as they returned from a meeting on the border with Azerbaijan.

After the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Iran became one of its key allies while it faced widespread condemnation and sanctions from the West. The country has been accused of supplying Russia with exploding drones that have severely damaged Ukrainian cities. Mr Raisi rejected those allegations last fall, claiming that Iran hadn’t supplied such weaponry since the invasion began.

But Iranian officials have made contradictory comments regarding the drones. Meanwhile, officials in both Europe and the US have argued that the large numbers of drones being used reveal that the deliveries of such weapons have increased since the beginning of the war.

Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. participated in a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Monday (Getty Images)
Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. participated in a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Monday (Getty Images)

“Air defense will be high on our agenda today,” Mr Austin said ahead of the meeting on Monday. “And I’ll be urging all of our valued allies and partners to reassess their ability to get Ukraine the air-defense capabilities that it so urgently needs.”

Despite Mr Raisi’s death, it’s unlikely that Iran’s domestic or foreign policy will see great changes. That’s according to Jonathan Panikoff at the Atlantic Council, who wrote: “While Raisi held the title of president, his authority was constrained by Iran’s supreme leader, within whom ultimate power is vested in the Islamic Republic.”

Writing for the council in January, Olivia Yanchick noted that Iran has not only supplied drones but also artillery shells and missiles and that Russia is using Iranian technology to establish its own mass production of drones. The drone deliveries have allowed Russia to increase its attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, published on the Kremlin’s website, that "Raisi was an outstanding politician whose entire life was dedicated to serving his homeland”.

"As a true friend of Russia, he made an invaluable personal contribution to the development of good-neighborly relations between our countries, and made great efforts to take them to the level of a strategic partnership," he added, according to the Kyiv Post. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022 (SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022 (SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari wrote in May last year that Iran has been “essential” to the Russian war effort but added that it’s “bankrolling an imperial agenda” that Iranian leaders have claimed to detest.

Mr Putin called Iran’s interim president on Monday and made clear that Russia wants to deepen its relationship with the country following the death of Mr Raisi.

In a readout of the call, the Kremlin said, "Both sides emphasized their mutual desire to further consistently strengthen comprehensive Russian-Iranian interaction for the benefit of the peoples of the two countries.”

On Monday, Mr Austin noted that Russia is trying to “carve out a buffer zone along the Ukrainian border”.

“If Putin prevails, tyrants will conclude that they can also try to invade and conquer their sovereign neighbors,” he added. “That will leave Europe under Putin’s shadow and make the world more violent and chaotic. So Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and security matters to us all.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report