The Caspian Sea is probably one of the main routes from Iran to Russia for Iranian-made war drones and other support that Tehran provides to the Kremlin in connection with the war against Ukraine and Western sanctions.
An extensive CNN article of April 26 revealed military aid delivery routes from Iran to Russia, which is using Iranian-made drones to bombard Ukrainian cities far from the frontlines, including the capital Kyiv.
The CNN journalists talked to experts who track the movement of goods and, according to available data, suggest that a significant share of Shaheds, mortar rounds and other weapons that Russia buys from Iran for the war against Ukraine may be moving this way.
Data on the movement of cargo ships show that cargo ships in the Caspian Sea are increasingly turning off their transponders (an automatic identification system that is usually kept on), which suggests that they have reasons for secrecy.
Thus, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, since September, the number of ships in the Caspian Sea that hide their movement data has increased significantly. These are mainly ships flying Russian and Iranian flags, including many vessels that are technically suitable for the transportation of military cargo.
Most often, vessels in the Caspian Sea turn off the automatic identification system near the Iranian ports of Amirabad and Anzali, as well as on the Russian Volga River and near the port of Astrakhan.
Using data from MarineTraffic, CNN tracked six ships flying the Russian flag and two Iranian ships that analysts interviewed suggested were behaving suspiciously. They noticed specific patterns: ships can sail from Iranian ports to Astrakhan but do not officially enter the port there; some ships turn off data transmission on the approach to Amirabad and Astrakhan or generally move for a long time with their transponders turned off.
CNN also analyzed Flightradar24 data and found that from May 2022 to March 2023, Iranian cargo planes made at least 85 flights to Russia.
According to analysts, although some Iranian Shahed drones could have been brought to Russia by air, the sea route is much more advantageous, as it allows for much more cargo to be transported at a time.
In mid-May, the White House reported that Iran continues to provide Russia with attack drones for the war against Ukraine.
Officially, Tehran admitted that it had supplied Russia with only a small batch of kamikaze drones before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But the media have repeatedly described how Moscow receives weapons from Iran.
According to the Ukrainian side, Russia had already used more than 400 Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine at that time, and Russia had allegedly ordered 2,400 of them in total. Initially, they posed a problem for Ukrainian air defence. Still, in recent attacks, almost all or all of them have been destroyed.