The Caspian Sea provides a direct path between Iran and Russia – and it is increasingly busy with cargo traffic, including suspected weapons transfers from Tehran to Moscow.
As cooperation between the two countries deepens, the Caspian Sea route is being used to move drones, bullets and mortar shells that the Russian government has purchased from the Iranian regime to bolster its war effort in Ukraine, according to experts. Tracking data shows that vessels in the region are increasingly going “dark” – suggesting growing intent to obfuscate the movement of goods.
Last year, data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence revealed a September spike in the number of gaps in vessels tracking data in the Caspian. That’s shortly after the United States and Ukrainian governments say Moscow acquired drones from Tehran last summer.
Russia’s use of Iranian drones increased in the fall, including against critical energy infrastructure in Ukraine. Early Sunday, Moscow launched its largest assault yet using the Iranian-made drones, according to Ukraine.
Kyiv vowed consequences for Iran’s actions, but analysts say Ukraine’s Western allies have little power to stop the arms deliveries.
“There is no risk to Iranian exports in the Caspian Sea because of the bordering countries – they don’t have the capability or motive to interdict in these sorts of exchanges,” said Martin Kelly, lead intelligence analyst at security company EOS Risk Group. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, all former Soviet republics, are the other nations with ports on the Caspian Sea.
It’s a “perfect environment for this trade to go unopposed,” Kelly added.
More background: A huge wave of Russian attacks using Iranian-made Shahed drones targeted Kyiv early Sunday, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine said it shot down most of the drones, but one person died in the onslaught.
These Shahed-series drones – the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 – are unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying precision-guided munitions, and can also be used for surveillance.
Iran appears to be modifying the drones so that their explosive warheads can inflict maximum damage on infrastructure targets inside Ukraine, according to an investigative report obtained exclusively by CNN earlier this year.
Read more about Russia and Iran’s weapons partnership here.