Caucasian knot: Ayatollahs supply Putin with drones via Armenia for the war in Ukraine

The drones that bombed Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving the country and neighbouring Moldova without power, may have been imported into the Russian Federation from the Islamic Republic of Iran via the Republic of Armenia, according to a number of analytical reports.

According to Ukrainian online publication “the United States has already issued warnings to Armenia regarding its close relations with Iran and Russia”.

During his visit to Yerevan in summer 2022, CIA head William Burns warned Nikol Pashinyan’s government to “stay away” from the close military alliance between Iran and Russia. But Armenia ignored Washington’s warning.

As a result, on September 30 2022, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) included Armenian company Taco LLC in its sanctions list because of its interaction with Russia’s Radioavtomatika. The Russian corporation procured foreign equipment for the military industry by circumventing embargoes through paying Taco to supply spare parts and arrange the procurement process through Armenia, OFAC said.

On November 14 2022, the US Treasury Department turned its attention to Russian company AO PKK Milandr, specialising in microcircuits. In Armenia, Milandr has set up a company, Milur Electronics, with which it circumvents sanctions and “places orders in foreign factories, manufactures integrated microcircuits and carries out sales abroad.”

Military cargo at Armenian airports – transit from Iran to Russia

According to Polish magazine New Eastern Europe, the ayatollahs are supporting Putin in his war against Ukraine. At the same time, the authorities in Yerevan have been assigned the role of obedient transitors of goods and technological cargoes, helping Moscow to circumvent EU, US and UK sanctions. According to operational data cited by the publication, Tehran transports Iranian-made drones and missiles through Armenian international and military airports.

Specifically, the alleged flights were registered on August 21 and 29, and also on September 4 and 5 2022. At the Yerevan – Zvartnots International Airport, Soviet Ilyushin-76MD aircraft were spotted, which were believed to be transporting Iranian drones to the Russian Federation.

Also, Iran Air Cargo, a cargo subsidiary of Iran Air, was detected operating flights through Yerevan airport to and from Moscow. Iran Air Cargo, Iran Air and Safiran Airport Services have already been sanctioned by the US, after intelligence indicated that the companies had delivered Iranian drones to the Russian Federation in transit through Armenian airports.

Moscow has been using Iranian drones and missiles transported through Armenia for its terrorist attacks against Ukrainian energy and water infrastructure for months. On October 30 2022, the Armenian Ministry of Defence admitted that Tehran was transporting drones. In the same month, the Iranians had donated 600 missiles to the Armenian armed forces – just as Yerevan is in a sharp border conflict with Baku over the “blockade” of the unrecognised separatist region of Karabakh.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani claimed in December 2022 that Kyiv’s claims about alleged drone deliveries to Russia were “baseless.” In February 2023, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called Ukraine for negotiations, saying that Kyiv “did not provide a single document for the supply of drones to the Russian Federation“.

Moscow and Tehran shower Yerevan with hundreds of millions in trade

Center for Naval Analysis analyst Samuel Bendett commented to Forbes in November 2022 that Yerevan also expects to receive drones from Iran. According to Bendett, Armenia could be interested in the Shaheed and Ababil and Mojahed drone models, which have been used by Iranian proxies in the Middle East. The Armenian media widely quoted this statement without any denials from the government.

The potential purchase of drones by Yerevan has a broader political and strategic context, Bendett believes: “Armenia seeks to compensate for the strengthening of the Azerbaijani-Turkish military alliance.” According to Bendett, in Yerevan they understand that Moscow “may not be as ready to defend Armenia as it was thought until now” and the country must modernise its military on its own.

The analysis came weeks after November 1 2022, when Pashinyan was on a visit to Tehran – where a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation in Energy was signed. Trade between the countries is growing: in 2022, exports from Armenia to Iran amounted to $111.2 million, 70 per cent more than the previous year; Iranian imports to Armenia were worth $599.7 million, growth of 37 per cent compared with 2021, Yerevan boasted at the time.

Against the background of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, the military partnership along the Moscow-Yerevan axis is increasingly intense: the Minister of Defence of Armenia and the Secretary of the Security Council visited Russia several times. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Pashinyan has visited the Russian Federation five times, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin six times and has spoken with him by phone 18 times.

In September 2022, joint military exercises were held, and in December an agreement on military cooperation for 2023 was signed. In February of this year the Defecse and Security Committee of the Parliament of Armenia ratified an agreement on cooperation between the intelligence services of the two countries in the field of cyber security.

What is all this for Yerevan? “Armenia is not only a key centre for the re-export of sanctioned goods for the Russian Federation and a military-technical supply base for the aggression against Ukraine, but it is also a military-logistics base for the Russian-Iranian alliance,” said.

The helpfulness of Yerevan to Moscow in the name of another percentage of the re-export of prohibited goods to Russia does not go unnoticed in Brussels. “New supply chains through Armenia were established only a few months after the introduction of sanctions against the Russian Federation,” the February 2023 European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) report said.

The authorities in Yerevan continue to tie themselves more and more politically and economically with the Kremlin – the most likely architect of the new Iran-Armenia pact, in which the latter is mostly assigned the role of a transit-logistics terrain.

Tehran is courting Yerevan, which is silent on the protests in Iran

The day is January 18 2023. In the streets of Tehran, the protests against the discrimination against women caused by the murder of the young Iranian Masha Amini by the dreaded Revolutionary Guard Corps have not yet subsided. For propaganda purposes, the First International Congress for Women of Influence was held in the capital of Iran. Among the guests of honour was the wife of the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan – Anna Hakobyan.

On February 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran mentioned Hakobyan’s visit to Tehran in one of its official statements. The scandalous visit of the Armenian Prime Minister is another eloquent confirmation of the attempts of Yerevan, which is barely connecting the two ends, to gain at least something from the large-scale transit of goods and armaments along the Iran-Russia route.

It is not surprising that before reception of Hakobyan, worthy of a monarch, on November 24 2022, Yerevan voted against the Resolution of the Special Commission of the UN General Assembly on Human Rights, entitled “Deterioration of the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic Iran”. The resolution said that the authorities in Tehran “must be held accountable”.

It is now more understandable why, since the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has at least eight times emphasised the importance of deepening relations with Yerevan. “Iran considers Armenia a close and friendly country,” he said in one such speech on June 2 2022. On October 1 2022, Pashinyan responded, “Armenia intends to develop its relations with Iran as much as possible in all fields“.

“Armenia’s security is also Iran’s security,” declared the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic, Hussein Amir Abdullahiyan, on October 20 2022, apparently “throwing a stone” in the “garden” of Ankara and Baku. The next day, his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan emphasised that the relations of the two countries are based on “a deep understanding of our common state interests”.

On February 11 2023, the President of Armenia Vahagn Khachaturian said that Yerevan “seeks to expand and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation” with Tehran. Apparently, a year after the outbreak of the war against Ukraine, in which Iranian drones are used, nothing has changed in the philosophy of the authorities in Yerevan. Pashinyan, who entered politics from the street, prefers partnership with aggressive militarist regimes in the name of his own interests, which increasingly distance him from peace with neighbouring Azerbaijan.

(Photo of Nikol Pashinyan and Ebrahim Raisi: Office of the PM of Armenia)

– Partnership Ukraine-Bulgaria

Nikolay Marchenko

Niklay Marchenko is deputy editor-in-chief of and a contributor to Kapital. He is also the author of the Russian-language online versions of the international publications The Insider and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP. He formerly was the correspondent for Russia's Kommersant in Bulgaria, and has worked for Sega, among other publications, in Bulgaria, Moldova and Russia.