The latest Russian attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Monday was preceded by a sound that has become increasingly familiar in the war: the buzz of a small engine, like a lawn-mower or moped, that signals the arrival of an exploding Iranian-made drone.
Russia’s use of the devices, which first appeared in Ukraine about two months ago, is considered to be a sign that it is running low on precision-guided weapons, analysts say. The drones have allowed Russia to strike energy infrastructure and civilian targets, even as it loses ground on the battlefield in the northeast and south of the country.
Here’s a look at what we know about the drones:
What is the Shahed-136 drone?
Iran’s Shahed-136 is a “kamikaze” drone, so-called because it dives from high in the sky toward its target and explodes on impact. It has a triangular wing, carries a warhead of about 80 pounds and is launched from the back of a truck. The drones have a reported range of up to 1,500 miles, meaning they can be launched far from the front.
But they are also slow-moving, noisy and fly at a low altitude. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said last week that those characteristics make them “easy to target using conventional air defenses.”
While military experts agree that Ukraine’s record of shooting down missiles has been good, Britain’s Ministry of Defense added that there is “a realistic possibility that Russia has achieved some success” by attacking with several drones at the same time.
Why is Russia using Iranian-made drones?
Russia failed to achieve air superiority during the war, and its manned aircraft face great risk when venturing into Ukrainian territory. The Shahed-136 drones can fly autonomously, circling in an area until its designated target appears. That gives Russia an option to attack without risk to its personnel. Although Iran has officially denied supplying Russia with the weapons, U.S. officials said that the first shipment was delivered in August.
Ukraine, too, has flown drones during the war, employing Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which fire missiles, to target Russian tanks and missile launchers. The United States has also supplied kamikaze-style Switchblade drones to Ukraine.
How powerful are the Iranian drones?
The British military describes the Shahed-136’s 80-pound payload as small. Still, its precision targeting gives it a potentially devastating effect. A Ukrainian officer who saw the drone used in combat said it could target a self-propelled howitzer near where the gunpowder was stored, causing a greater explosion than its warhead alone would achieve.
When the drones appeared on the battlefield in Ukraine this summer, they created a new risk to Kyiv’s forces, which were far more accustomed to Russian artillery strikes. The Ukrainian military now says it has improved its ability to shoot down the drones, hitting a majority of them. A Ukrainian official said last month that Israeli intelligence officials were providing information about Iranian drones to Ukraine.
Where have they been used?
The use of the drones was first confirmed on the battlefield in August in northeastern Ukraine, where Russian forces tested them against Ukrainian artillery and other heavy equipment. Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines around the eastern city of Bakhmut say they have been dealing with these drones in increasing numbers.
In recent days, use of the drones has also been reported deeper in Ukrainian territory, where Russia has been targeting civilian infrastructure. At least six Iranian-made drones hit Bila Tserkva, a town about 50 miles south of Kyiv, on Thursday while another six were shot down by the Ukrainian military, officials said.
On Monday, the drones were employed in attacks on the capital itself, targeting the headquarters of Ukraine’s national energy utility and also damaging residential buildings, Ukrainian officials said.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Lara Jakes and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.