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Iran Sends Drone Instructors to Crimea to Help Russian Army

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WASHINGTON — Iran has sent trainers to occupied Ukraine to help the Russians overcome problems with the fleet of drones they purchased from Tehran, according to current and former U.S. officials briefed on secret intelligence. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Iranian trainers work at a Russian military base in Crimea, where many drones have been deployed since they were delivered from Iran. The instructors are from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military that has been designated a terrorist organization by the US.

In recent days, Iranian drones have become an important weapon for Russia, which uses them as part of large-scale attacks on electrical infrastructure and other civilian targets across Ukraine. The deployment of Iranian trainers coincides with the increased use of drones in Ukraine, demonstrating a deeper involvement of Iran in the war.

“Sending drones and trainers to Ukraine deeply plunged Iran into the war on the Russian side and directly involved Tehran in operations that killed and injured civilians,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and retired CIA officer.

“Even if in Ukraine they are just trainers and tactical advisers, I think this is important,” said Mr. Mulroy. The United Nations’ human rights body said deliberate attacks on such civilian targets could constitute a war crime.

When Iran sent the first batch of drones to Russia, the mistakes of the Russian operators neutralized them. Mechanical problems also grounded the planes and limited their use, according to American officials.

Initially, Russia had sent its personnel to Iran for training in drones. However, Iran chose to send its trainers to Crimea amid problems, according to current and former officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

Officials said Iranian personnel were away from the front lines and were deployed to train the Russians on how to fly the drones. It is unclear whether the instructors flew any of the planes themselves. It was not immediately clear how many coaches Iran had sent.

The United States said Russia’s reliance on Iranian drones is a sign of the effectiveness of Western sanctions in cutting Moscow off from international markets, leading Russia to combat domestic arms production and limiting ways to purchase weapons from the open market.

Following the sale of the drone to Moscow, the United States imposed additional sanctions on Iranian and Iranian companies involved in the construction and design of the aircraft, as well as on companies involved in its transportation to Russia.

Some of the Iranian cargo planes designated by the United States are US-origin Boeing 747s that were publicly watched and filmed as they made their way in and out of Moscow in recent weeks. None of the footage and satellite imagery analyzed by The New York Times revealed what the plane was unloading in Russia. A message was not immediately returned to Iran’s mission at the United Nations.

The deployment of Iranian trainers was previously reported by The Daily Mirror.

Iran has deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guards personnel to other conflict zones. Mr Mulroy said that in Yemen, for example, the group’s officers were mostly out of direct combat and instead served as trainers and advisers for the Houthi proxy forces.

Iran has officially refused to supply Russia with drones for use in Ukraine, while US officials said the first batch of such weapons was delivered in August.

These include the Shaheds, which are disposable drones used to detonate and destroy targets but have a range of more than 1,000 miles. Iran also sent the larger Mohajer-6 drone, which is used for surveillance and can carry up to four missiles.

Many people were killed in airstrikes by Iranian drones this week in Kiev. On Monday, an Iranian-made kamikaze drone crashed into a residential building and exploded on impact, killing a young couple, including a six-month-old pregnant woman.

Drones were also used to hit parts of the nationwide power grid. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin appears intent on tearing down Ukraine’s energy infrastructure to shroud the civilian population as the days get colder.

“He went on a strategy of terror to make life miserable for the Ukrainians,” said Mr Mulroy.

But American military analysts said it makes little military sense to use drones as a terrorist weapon.

UAVs were to be used more effectively at the forefront of the military battlefield in Kherson or Donbas. Using them for civilian targets shows that Putin is desperately trying to break Ukraine’s will to fight, according to military analysts.

“The Russians are wasting very high-quality Iranian-supplied ammunition, cruise missiles, and drones in these irregular attacks on civilians and infrastructure targets that do not really cause permanent damage and are not in any way coercive. Ukraine will surrender,” said Mason Clark, a Russian military analyst at the Institute for War Studies.

Christian Triebert Contributed to reporting from New York.