As recent reports of a Russian strike on Poland are reassessed in light of new facts, it is justified to give a sigh of relief. But that shouldn’t give way to complacency. The risk of escalation between NATO and Russia is still high, and it’s important that Washington reevaluate its policies, given the stakes. Because initial intelligence indicates that Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile strayed into Poland, it’s worth revisiting recent developments in the air war. In particular, Washington has increased the risks to Ukraine by incentivizing Iranian-Russian cooperation through drones.
Russia’s employment of Iranian drones in Ukraine is recent but not a paradigm shift. Despite much consternation in Washington and Kyiv, this Iran-Russia cooperation has little military impact. Washington should recognize that overreacting is likely to bring Russia and Iran closer and invite further military collaboration. Their long-term partnership may prove far more deleterious to US interests than these short-term transactions. In other words, these drones are not a game changer.
Contrary to the Washington consensus, Iran and Russia don’t act in opposition to the United States for the sake of it. Necessity has bred cooperation.
The use of drones has not changed the air war nor has it resulted in success that Russia could capitalize on. The Russians are falling into the fatal conceit of western defense intellectuals, namely an inordinate focus on effects-based operations, which aim to produce strategic outcomes out of kinetic engagements. Russia employed a standard “5 rings” strategy of targeting command centers and energy infrastructure. Because Russia’s massive use of cruise missiles hasn’t achieved the desired effects, it has repurposed other munitions alongside Iran’s drones as a cost-effective way to attack Ukraine in a contested airspace. Iran’s poor man’s air force cannot do what thousands of cruise missiles couldn’t.
While the volume of drone attacks will likely saturate Ukraine’s air defenses, it is not enough to cripple Ukrainians’ will or means to resist. Therefore, Iran and Russia’s marriage of convenience will last only as long as it is mutually beneficial.
HOW THE US BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER
Russian and Iranian interests don’t naturally align. Iran has been subject to Russian invasions from the 1600s through World War II, and even the Islamic Republic’s founding motto of “Neither East nor West” specifically rejected alignment with Russia. Russia has consistently opposed Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs through UN resolutions. Russia and Iran compete in Syria for influence, and Russia cooperates with Iran’s chief enemy, Israel. Recently, elements of Iran’s conservative clergy have spoken out against Iranian involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Iran and Russia have always harbored mutual distrust. This latest deviation from the mean should make us question why this change has occurred. The principal reason is shortsighted US policies.
Iran has been stagnant economically from years of “maximum pressure” sanctions under the Trump and Biden administrations. Russia’s lapse in trade following Washington’s imposition of sanctions in February 2022 meant that Iran and Russia had an incentive to cooperate, especially given shortages in materials such as aircraft parts and computer chips.
Beyond the economic advantages of aligning in response to western sanctions, both Iran and Russia feel pronounced threats from the United States. For example, some elements of Russian state media view the Ukraine war as a NATO war, and the United States’ blank-check assistance to Ukraine coupled with training and intelligence sharing only exacerbates that fear. Iran likewise views the United States as an existential threat, and Washington’s promises to “free Iran” from the current regime makes Iran far more prone to bandwagon with other nations in US crosshairs.
THE URGENCY OF MEANINGFUL OFFRAMPS
Contrary to the Washington consensus, Iran and Russia don’t act in opposition to the United States for the sake of it. Necessity has bred cooperation. By turning the screw on Iran and Russia, the United States has reinforced the worst tendencies in both.
Coercive leverage stems from potential gains or losses, not unceasing pain. Washington nullifies its negotiating power by throwing the kitchen sink at Iran and Russia regarding sanctions and military posturing. If good and bad behavior both bring pain, there’s no reason to change course; Iran has no incentive to stop proliferating drones, and Russia has no incentive to negotiate an end to the war. Of course, Russia and Iran can still be split, but doing so requires a counterintuitive approach.
That approach means meaningful offramps to both Russia and Iran. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently advocated, the United States should push for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine. Likewise, the United States shouldn’t abandon negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Sanctions, coercion, and saber-rattling make Iran and Russia more likely to draw together. Washington should offer an alternative. Don’t force Russia and Iran into a shotgun marriage.
Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.