Russia obtains ammunition and military equipment from Iraq for its war effort in Ukraine via Iranian arms-smuggling networks, according to members of Iran-backed Iraqi militias and regional intelligence agencies with knowledge of the process.
RPGs and anti-tank missiles, as well as Brazilian-designed rocket launcher systems, were sent to Russia from Iraq when Moscow’s campaign stalled last month, the Guardian has learned.
An Iranian-made Bavar 373 missile system, similar to Russia’s S-300, was also donated to Moscow by authorities in Tehran, who also returned an S-300, according to a source who helped arrange the shipment.
Using the arms trade underworld would signal a dramatic change in Russian strategy as Moscow is forced to lean on Iran, its military ally in Syria, following new sanctions prompted by the invasion of Ukraine.
The developments are also having a huge impact on the direction and volume of trade in the international arms trade.
Iraq has hosted US and Western troops since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the US has trained and deployed various Iraqi army and special forces to defend the Baghdad government against insurgency. After two decades of war, the country is awash with guns.
Much of it has legally ended up in the hands of Iran-backed Shia militias who oppose the US presence in the country but have been formally incorporated into Iraqi forces since 2016 as part of the fight against Islamic State.
Known for their efficiency in dismantling the Islamic State “caliphate” – and for their brutal treatment of Sunni civilians – these groups have become powerful players in the Iraqi security apparatus.
RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and anti-tank missiles owned by Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia militia’s most powerful umbrella, were transported to Iran on March 26 via the Salamya border crossing, where they were received by the Iranian military and received by sea to Russia brought, said a commander of the militia controlling the crossing.
Ḥashd al-Shaabi disassembled and shipped two Brazilian-designed Astros II missile launcher systems, known in Iraq as the license-built version Sajil-60, to Iran on April 1 in parts, according to a source inside the organization.
“We don’t care where the heavy weapons go [because we don’t need them at the moment]said a source of Hashd al-Shaabi. “Whatever is against the US makes us happy.”
Three cargo ships capable of transporting such cargoes — two flying the Russian flag and one flying the Iranian flag — crossed the Caspian Sea from the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali to Astrakhan, a Russian city on the Volga estuary, within the stipulated timescales.
“What the Russians in Ukraine need now are missiles. Transporting these requires skill as they are fragile and explosive, but if you commit, it is possible,” said Yörük Işık, an Istanbul-based expert on maritime affairs. “It’s also not the type of activity that would be captured by satellite imagery, as they can be shipped in big boxes and regular shipping containers.”
Mohaned Hage Ali, Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said: “These kinds of sophisticated weapons [rocket launcher systems] on the ground in Ukraine would make a big difference. Ḥashd al-Shaabi controls much of the border region with Iran, which would facilitate this transaction.
“Other countries like China now have to be very careful about giving arms to Russia given the new sanctions situation. And Iran, as part of this axis, wants to ensure that Russia does not lose ground in this conflict.
“If the Putin regime is destabilized, it will have a huge impact on Iran, especially in Syria, where Damascus relies on Russian air support and Russia is coordinating to avoid direct conflict between them and Israel.”
Among the sweeping economic sanctions Western nations have imposed on Moscow since the Feb. 24 invasion have included bans on dual-use items — goods with a civilian and military purpose — such as spare parts for vehicles and certain types of electronic and optical items obvious military use.
Russian manufacturers have reportedly been hit hard by the new restrictions, with Ukraine saying the country’s main armored vehicle plant and a tractor factory have run out of parts to make and repair tanks.
Revised Western estimates put 29 of Russia’s original tactical battalion groups now “combat ineffective” against an invasion force estimated at 125 battalions, or about 75% of the total Russian army of the six-week-old “special military operation”.
The heavy casualties have yielded few gains: Moscow appears to have abandoned its initial attempt to seize the capital Kyiv for the time being, instead withdrawing and repositioning its ground forces for a renewed attack on the Donbass region in the south-east of the country.
Airstrikes and artillery attacks on the cities of Kharkiv and Mykolayiv and the besieged port of Mariupol are expected to continue.
Last week, the Ukrainian secret services accused Georgia of helping Russia obtain sanctioned military materialanother possible sign of the scale of the Kremlin’s new effort to use international smuggling networks to bolster its campaign in Ukraine.
Georgian special services have received instructions from the country’s political leadership not to interfere in “East Asia” smuggling channels aimed at evading new Western sanctions, Kiev’s intelligence directorate said in a statement.
Georgian officials said the Ukrainian claims were unfounded. Relations between the two post-Soviet states have deteriorated sharply since conflict erupted over the pro-Russian government, which refused to impose economic sanctions on Tbilisi against Moscow.
US officials said so too Russia has asked China for military weapons and assistance to support its operation in Ukraine.
Russian ally Serbia took delivery of a Chinese anti-aircraft system in a secret operation over the weekend Associated Press reported, amid Western concerns about a build-up in the Balkans at the same time as the war in Ukraine could threaten the region’s fragile peace.