This investigation scrutinises Russia’s supply and use of drones in Ukraine, where drone warfare has reached an unprecedented scale.
It delves into Russia’s use of Iranian-made kamikaze drones and exposes how hundreds of European components, despite sanctions, have found their way to key suppliers of Russia’s drone manufacturers.
The investigation was a collaboration between Danish freelance journalist Nikolaj Houmann, the German magazine Der Spiegel and Airwars, a British-based transparency watchdog that monitors how conflict affects civilian communities.
Graphic by Júlia Nueno and Azul De Monte / Airwars 2023
The first part of the investigation, published by Der Spiegel and on Airwars’ website, uncovers the sale of components from numerous German companies to a key supplier of Russian Orlan-10 drones, extensively used by Russia in Ukraine.
This occurs despite EU sanctions imposed on the company. Components include microchips, thermal sensors, cameras, and antennas produced by German companies like Infineon, Würth and AMS Osram, often routed through intermediary hubs in China, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The second part, published by the Financial Times and Airwars, examines Russia’s covert collaboration with Iran in establishing a facility to manufacture Iranian-designed kamikaze drones on Russian soil.
A factory in Tatarstan, Russia, originally involved in agricultural unmanned aerial vehicles, has now been repurposed to support Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, the journalists revealed. Albatross, the company operating on the site, has produced reconnaissance drones for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defence ministry, with roughly 50 delivered for combat in eastern Ukraine.
US intelligence and the recruitment of UAV engineers and Farsi speakers suggest the factory plays a role in a Russo-Iranian partnership aimed at boosting Russia’s drone capabilities by producing Iranian-designed drones in Russia.
The final part of the investigation, published by Airwars, Der Spiegel and the Danish newspaper Information, is an immersive exploration of the role of the Iranian Shahed suicide drones in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Slow-moving, powerful and relatively cheap, the Shahed drones have been accused of terrorising Ukrainian cities hundreds of miles from the frontline, attacking energy grids and grain warehouses, and causing civilian casualties.
— Airwars (@airwars) September 11, 2023
Since their first documented use in September 2022, nearly 2,000 Shaheds have been launched into Ukrainian territory by Russian forces, according to analysis of open-source data by Airwars and Der Spiegel.
By tracking every reported launch, patterns in their usage and targets have emerged, providing a clearer picture of how Russian forces have turned a low-cost suicide drone into a vital component of their war effort.
The investigation significantly shed light on the companies exporting European goods to Russian military suppliers. Three months following the publication of the team’s report on the Orlan drones in Der Spiegel, the three exporting companies highlighted in the piece — Russian importing company SMT iLogic, Asia Pacific Links based in Hong Kong and
Germany’s Industrial Components Weirich — were all subjected to sanctions imposed by the United States.
In August, German authorities arrested the director of Industrial Components Weirich for involvement in supplying parts to the Russian military industry.
The journalists’ coverage of the Albatross factory garnered widespread attention and discussion. Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times, shared it on Threads, where she called it “Today’s must-read”.
The immersive investigation into the role of Iranian Shahed suicide drones in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was highly circulated and became one of Spiegel’s most-read stories during that weekend.
Following publication, international lawyers and leading human rights organisations reached out to inquire about using the data in potential future legal proceedings against Russia and Iran.
See the stories below.
Freelance: Nikolaj Houmann Mortensen
Airwars: Sanjana Varghese, Iryna Chupryna, Rowena De Silva, Júlia Nueno, Azul De Monte
Der Spiegel: Oliver Imhof, Alexander Epp, Chris Kurt, Niklas Marienhagen
- Will German electronics end up in Russian drones? ( Airwars, United Kingdom, June 20, 2023 )
- Russia deploys ‘Albatross’ made in Iran-backed drone factory ( Financial Times, United Kingdom, July 6, 2023 )
- The new Russian drone linked to Iran-backed factory ( Airwars, United Kingdom, July 6, 2023 )
- A year of the Shahed ( Airwars, United Kingdom, September 8, 2023 )