Vladimir Putin is running out of missiles and looking to Iran for solutions. As Monday’s attack on Kyiv with Iranian-supplied drones shows, Russia’s stockpiles of advanced systems are wearing thin. Tehran provided hundreds of drones over the summer, but reporting from The Washington Post indicates that new shipments will include ballistic missiles with ranges between 200 and 450 miles.
It’s no mystery why Russia is short of missiles: last week Russia launched a massive salvo of missiles and drones against civilians across Ukraine. Some estimates claim Putin spent as much as $700 million on the strikes, which hit everything from city parks to energy infrastructure—even though Russia’s production of missiles and other weapons is struggling in the face of Western sanctions.
Much like drones, Iran has invested in its missile program for decades in the face of heavy sanctions. According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report on Iran’s military, Iran “has the largest missile force in the Middle East, with a substantial inventory of close-range ballistic missiles (CRBMs), short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) that can strike targets…as far as 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders.”
Iranian missiles will boost Russia’s options, but aid is also on the way to Ukraine. Last Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that they would rush deliveries of advanced air defense systems to Ukraine. France, Germany, and the U.K. have also promised anti-air systems.
The U.S. and others have sent Ukraine many different kinds of air defenses, but for now President Biden is prioritizing the delivery of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, known mostly as the NASAMS. Unlike shoulder-mounted missiles like the stinger or older Soviet-era missiles, the NASAMS system is advanced enough for important missions like defending the White House and Pentagon. NASAMS will certainly help defend Ukrainian airspace from Russian planes and missiles, but just sending a few more NASAMS will not be enough to prevent attacks on civilian centers across the country from happening again.
There are two challenges to defending Ukraine from missile and drone attacks. On the one hand, Ukraine will need to cover the breadth of its front line as well as its civilian population if it wants to intercept every Russian missile or drone. Russia’s potential avenues of attack, including the border with Belarus, and southern coastline, covers hundreds of miles. Defending the whole area would require a huge number of systems like the NASAMS to reasonably catch anything Russia puts in the sky.
The other problem is that Russian attacks tend to use more than one missile or drone at once, meaning that Ukraine not only needs enough air defenses to cover a wide area, but also sufficient defenses in any one place to shoot down a preponderance of missiles or drones before they hit their targets. To make matters worse, Ukraine currently has a shortage of air defense systems, and will continue to do so even after the NASAMS begin to arrive.
Ukrainian forces are left with a difficult choice: spread air defenses thin to partially protect everyone or concentrate air defenses to fully defend the front line and urban areas like Kyiv. Given Putin’s willingness to attack civilian targets outside of major cities, it would be difficult for Ukraine to anticipate where Russia will target next with enough time to move their defenses.
Russia’s Iran-provided drones are an added complication. News that Russia was purchasing Iranian drones leaked over the summer, and since then Russia has launched attacks against military and civilian targets. The specific model of drone used in attacks, the Shahed-136, poses a challenge because it is extraordinarily long-range and much cheaper than a missile, with some estimates as low as $20,000-$30,000 per unit. The drones are one-way attack and can therefore only be used once, but the Ukrainian government has since claimed that Iran sent over 2,000 to the Russian military. Even if 2,000 is an exaggeration, a few hundred such drones and the prospect of future deliveries make them a serious threat to Ukraine in the short term.
Iranian drones are not as dangerous as a missile on an individual basis, but they can be launched in large numbers and degrade Ukraine’s air defenses over time. A system like the NASAMS is perfectly capable of downing one or two missiles but shooting down groups of cheap drones several times a month could start to deplete their limited stocks of missiles and make it harder to focus on countering larger and more capable Russian and Iranian missiles. Although Iran’s drones have not previously been used against countries that use NASAMS specifically, countries like Saudi Arabia often face shortages of anti-air missiles defending their airspace from Iranian-made drones.
Other air defenses better suited to taking down drones are unevenly on the way. France announced that they are sending Crotale air defense systems, but has not clarified when or how many. The U.S. announced that they would send systems like the VAMPIRE several months ago. However, these are not due to arrive for several months and because the VAMPIRE is a new system, it’s not clear that they can be rushed to Ukraine as quickly as systems like the NASAMS.
Iran’s support to Putin will certainly help strike Ukraine, but there is a limit to what Iran can provide. Like Western aid to Ukraine, Iran may not be willing to empty its warehouses at a time of acute global tension. Tehran has large stocks of missiles and drones, but those are key to Iran’s deterrent posture and their efforts to supply proxies and partners in the region. Once helping Russia starts to threaten Iran’s more immediate priorities, we may well see deliveries to Russia slow or consist of older platforms.