A War Crime Coalition: Russia’s Iranian and Chinese Drones Target Ukrainian Civilians 

Paula Knack joins JiC for this guest post on Russia’s drone warfare in Ukraine. Paula was a former Legal Advisor of the Philippine Embassy and former Assistant Secretary of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She holds masters degrees in Advanced Studies in Public International Law (Leiden) and Science (Munich). The opinions below are her own.

A man walks near a factory bombed by Russian forces in Kyiv, Ukraine (Photo: AFP)

In the wars in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Azerbaijan, and Syria, huge artillery platforms with varying capabilities were connected to artillery systems and air defense sub-systems to accomplish combat operations. A major concern in such contexts is the accuracy of direct fire weaponry of various ranges to execute the mission and minimize unintended casualties, such as civilians.  Russia’s aggression in Ukraine illustrates this issue. Russia’s feuding mercenaries and ill-trained army, grappling with lack of training and low morale, appear incompetent when it comes to operating weapon systems with precision. Its troops have resorted to relentless, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against civilian infrastructure, often resulting in mass atrocities. 

The war in Ukraine rapidly developed into a so-called “drone war” in its first year. On the Russian side, drones compensate for a lack of competence in targeting and interoperability requirements for firing and defense. On the Ukrainian side, as weapons and ammunition supplies from the West diminished, the lack of a huge military arsenal has led to innovative approaches to prevent the onslaught and occupation of key cities by Russian tanks, including using drones as anti-tank weapons. 

Prior to the depletion of much of its vast war arsenal last year, Russia employed various weapons to attack Ukrainian territory. War monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported the use of unguided bombs – heavy artillery, grad multiple rockets, air dropped bombs – on urban areas. Open-source intelligence has also revealed the use of vacuum bombs, cluster munitions, as well as ballistic and cruise missiles. In Mariupol alone,87,000 civilians died after hospitals and residential buildings were targeted. After heavy artillery fire, Mariupol was reduced to ruins. 

In its attacks, Russia has repeatedly violated international humanitarian law (IHL). In Mariupol, prohibited cluster bombs and ballistic missiles were used, and mainly civilian infrastructure was targeted. Russia also used thermobaric bombs in residential buildings, violating the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and causing unnecessary suffering on the civilian population in violation of the principle of distinction under Additional Protocol 1 (AP1), ratified by both Russia and Ukraine. Despite the protected status of civilians and civilian infrastructure under IHL, due to poorly trained and/or inexperienced armed forces and mercenaries sent to the war, Russia’s troops are increasingly relying on drone intelligence for targeting. This must not go unnoticed by those engaged in accountability efforts.

Drones are Key to Russian Offensive

Originally meant for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes, drones come in various types and sizes, and can be equipped with explosives. A quadcopter with RPG-7 is typically used to block the entry of tanks in residential areas and supply routes. It is cheaper and easily transportable. It has a sustainer motor of only about 4.5 lbs. and an explosive-equipped warhead of only 1.5 lbs. Some small drones easily fit in backpacks and cost a fraction of anti-tank systems. 

The devastating impacts of Russia’s war guided by drones are apparent. In January of this year, TV news showed a hospital hit in Ivanivka near Kramatorsk. Indiscriminate attacks also hit hospitals in Chernihiv and Viliansk, killing pregnant mothers and newborn babies. The impacts of the blasts guided by drones are widespread and devastating. There is an evident intent to cause massive civilian suffering. 

It is now widely understood that drones are key to Russia’s offensive. Neither Russian soldiers nor mercenaries from the Wagner PMC group distinguish between military objectives and civilians. Even illicit drones from military and defense companies supplying Russia, which are subject to sanctions by the European Union and the United States, are still being used. Iranian-made kamikaze drones or loitering munitions targeted civilians and energy facilities in Kyiv, the Dinipropetrovsk, and Sumy regions. 

As the war rages, low-tech Iranian and Chinese drones have been increasingly deployed by Russia. While Ukrainian soldiers use drone intelligence to protect their trenches and ward off tanks, Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries, who have thousands of drones, continue to use them to target civilian infrastructure. Despite EU and US sanctions, evidence from November 2022 shows that Iran delivered long-range drones to the Russian navy. It was reported early this year that  Iran also entered into a deal with the Kremlin for drone production. The US slapped Iranian entities with new sanctions. Still, Iranian drones recently hit Kyiv after the West agreed to give tanks to Ukraine. As a result, in February of this year, the EU announced that a new round of sanctions against Iranian companies will be imposed for supplying drones to Russia which have been used to target infrastructure under Iran’s dual use regime, but which the EU controls through a ban on exports,  goods, software, and technology which can be used by Russia for both civilian and military use.

As for Chinese drones, in April 2022, Ukraine called for limiting the use of drones by SZ DJI Technology Co (China’s biggest drone maker). The US had already sanctioned the company the year prior. The US also warned China, through diplomatic channels, against providing material support to Russia during the war and lately, Secretary Blinken warned on possible lethal weapons support of China to Russia.. Even though the US declared that Wagner is a transnational criminal organization, just a few weeks ago, DJI supplied Wagner again with over 2,500 DJI Mavic 2 new drones,  in addition to providing Wagner crucial satellite imagery of Ukraine earlier . To be sure, the US too has sent drones to Ukraine, whose impacts vary from small to large. But in media, President Biden appears reluctant to escalate the war” 

Under Article 51 of The Hague Regulations Concerning the Rules and Customs of War, Wagner, a mercenary group of about 10,000 contractors and 4,000 prisoners-turned-mercenaries, is not a lawful combatant. Neither are they considered by law as special forces. Both Wagner and Russian soldiers are prone to indiscriminate bombing on civilian infrastructure guided by drones.The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenariesprovides thatthe goal of mercenaries is to overthrow existing governments and/or undermine the territorial integrity of the state for private gain. ­­Wagner recruits both trained soldiers, ordinary citizens and prisoners by promising monetary compensation and freedom. While soldiers are subject to military discipline and court martial, mercenaries are subject only to their superiors’ punishment, mostly instant death and/or mutilation as reported in Ukraine. AP1 also provides that they cannot be prisoners of war, and therefore are not subject to legal protection. It is unknown whether Russian troops or Wagner mercenaries have inflicted the most damage in Ukrainian cities as both groups are in competition for mass atrocities

Accountability for Iranian and Chinese Drone Companies

Russia has defied sanctions by the EU and the US through intermediaries. Both Iran and China are actively supplying drones and other weapons to Russia. International law is unfortunately late in prohibiting lethal autonomous weapons. The United Nations has neither prohibited nor regulated the use of autonomous weapons. Hence, democratic countries resort to sanctioning weapons as the fastest recourse against foreign drone companies involved in illegal warfare, while regulating drone use within their territories with domestic law.

Russia heavily relies on authoritarian regimes such as Iran and China for its drone supply, often with stolen drone technology. China has played a major role in supplying Iran with copies of Western technology, prompting US President Biden to call for an investigation on how US components found their way to Iran. In addition, Iran shows no qualms handing over drones to non-state actors like terrorists, rebels, private armed groups, and mercenaries. China has protested U.S. warnings.

The good news? Sanctions have been working. Russia’s weapons arsenal is depleted, its weapons supply chain disrupted, its missiles of about 5,000 now reduced to over a thousand, and its economy suffering. Countries are careful not to provide sensitive exports to Russia.

In addition, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has documented over 65,000 war crimes and trials are ongoing for captured Russian soldiers, some of whom have been sentenced. The West is also holding Russian authorities accountable through various mechanisms. Sanctions are not the only tool. Several investigations are ongoing within Ukraine, including by the International Criminal Court, after Ukraine a non-state party made 2 declarations expressing its consent to be bound by the ICC. In January of this year, a resolution was also passed by the European Parliament supporting the establishment of a new tribunal to prosecute Russia’s aggression. How Russia’s use of drones, supplied by Iran and China, plays into ongoing investigations remains to be seen.

Illicit drone companies are being identified in the hope that they can be held accountable for their complicity in Russia’s targeting of civilians. It should be recalled that The Nuremberg Trials held personally liable industrialists who economically aided Adolf Hitler’s war of aggression, including those who manufactured gas chambers. Similarly, we may soon see a repeat of this for crimes committed in Ukraine. Captured Russian soldiers and Wagner mercenaries may identify drone operators and illicit weapons intermediaries during their trials. Trials are ongoing in Ukraine and they may soon start in The Hague. Justice must be served. To those who have been traumatized and who have suffered upheaval due to the ongoing war, accountability cannot come soon enough. That includes this war’s suppliers. 


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in China, Drones, International Humanitarian Law, Iran, Russia, Terrorism, Ukraine, War crimes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A War Crime Coalition: Russia’s Iranian and Chinese Drones Target Ukrainian Civilians 

  1. El roam says:

    Great post.

    And not to forget the event of :

    “Iran–U.S. RQ-170 incident” (see link hereby).

    I quote from Wikipedia:

    On 5 December 2011, an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was captured by Iranian forces near the city of Kashmar in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyberwarfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it, after initial reports from Western news sources disputedly claimed that it had been “shot down”.[1] The United States government initially denied the claims but later President Obama acknowledged that the downed aircraft was a US drone.[2][3] Iran filed a complaint to the UN over the airspace violation. Obama asked Iran to return the drone. Iran is said to have produced drones based on the captured RQ-170 including the Shahed 171 Simorgh and Shahed Saegheh.

    End of quotation:

    One must assume, that it had significantly contributed to Iranian military industry (speaking of drones).




  2. El roam says:

    If there are problems with the link, then here:


  3. Anne A. says:

    Wow defying sanctions nonchalantly. Send this to the EU Commission. Shared this in social media. Supporting the call for accountability just like Hitler’s Holocaust officials and the companies that helped them exterminate the Jews. thanks for reminding us of that. Kudos to your blog !

  4. This article sounds as though it was written by NATO or NATO’s propaganda organization The Atlantic Council. White helmets killing Syrians are the good guys and Wagner group bad guys. China bad, Iran bad, Russia bad well the entire world are the bad guys while the US is obviously all great and wonderful. Just ask the people of Afghanistan (the US ran away), Syria where the US siphons their oil fields, Iraq illegally invaded, Libya where the US has yet to get a liter of oil and the slaughter by the US in Yemen. No criminal court for them since they can do no wrong, just ask them. I know you are the same as most NATO countries media and will not publish my comment. We can only have one side to the world view. The US and no one else is telling the truth. Three cheers for Vietnam and Cambodia.

  5. Olena Vasylenko says:

    Ukrainians are killed daily our homes our relatives. Drones and rockets are there daily to target us. Do not let Ukraine to collapse. Please continue helping us please!

  6. Victoria Recht says:

    This article written by Paula Knack is quite an eye-opener to those of us not quite familiar with the ways of war or completely comprehend the complicities involved. In reading her article made me realize the world needs leadership who understand what’s at stake in our world when Russia blatantly invades & occupies a free country and conducts an absolutely unnecessary war with extreme brutality against innocent civilians. Leaders like Putin or Trump is scary to say the least. Together they can threaten the whole int’l security system.

  7. EugeneJP says:

    Under the laws of war,civilians should not be targeted…Russia did not get any support because TV networks shows the illegal activities of Russia.

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