July 20, 2022 - 10:00am

Just weeks after President Vladimir Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine, the world’s largest drone manufacturer announced it was pulling out of Russia, following allegations its technology was being used on the front lines. DJI’s decision to suspend all operations would be unremarkable, given the deluge of foreign firms making a hasty exit, were it not for one important detail — it’s a Chinese company with close links to Beijing.

Now, as the war drags into its fifth month, Putin is believed to be shopping around for weaponry to replenish his country’s dwindling arsenal. But unfortunately for the Russian President, he is finding fewer and fewer foreign leaders willing or able to do deals with him. That is one of the main reasons for his visit to Tehran this week.

According to American intelligence officials, Iran is putting the finishing touches on a deal that would see “hundreds” of military drones dispatched to Moscow. Satellite imagery released to the media supposedly shows a Russian delegation inspecting the missile-equipped Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones on two occasions last month. Putin’s forces have reportedly already started training to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

For Moscow to maintain its momentum in the war, this is a vital move. Ukraine has wielded its Turkish-made Bayraktar drones with devastating effect, using them to take out vast columns of enemy armour. Russia, meanwhile, has no domestically produced attack drones on the battlefield, and the surveillance ones it does have depend on foreign components that are now embargoed.

Worse still for the Kremlin, its long-touted threats of giving up on the West and “pivoting to the East” appear to be coming to nothing. Despite warm words from both sides, China has refused to help Russia evade sanctions or supply it with armaments since the start of the war. Speculation that Beijing is distancing itself from Moscow has now hit fever pitch, with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, being forced to deny claims that Chinese Premier Xi Jinping had rejected an invitation for a bilateral summit earlier this month.

Even the most sympathetic of Russia’s European partners are now looking increasingly antagonistic. Ahead of a meeting on the sidelines of the Tehran summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan left Putin waiting as journalists snapped shots of the Russian leader cutting a lonely figure. The fact that Ankara has been supplying Ukraine with the very drones that are now causing his headaches went unsaid. 

With Russia in such a precarious position, Iran has evidently spotted an opportunity. “We need a strong ally, and Moscow is a superpower,” Reuters reports a senior Tehran official saying in advance of this week’s talks. As a major weapons manufacturer and oil producer, the country’s biggest problem has been finding partners prepared to trade with it. Now, the world’s largest country has joined the same club.

It’s not just drones that could be on the table during these discussions. Russia has the most nuclear warheads in the world, and a colossal industry behind them that could help Tehran in its long-standing ambitions to develop atomic weapons. Likewise, Iranian weaponry could help prolong Putin’s war in Ukraine, costing more lives and more aid from the West.

The ragtag group of theocracies, Communist backwaters and tyrannical states may not look much like the new world order Putin had planned, but now it’s the only one he has left.

Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist who has covered Eastern Europe for many publications.