FACT CHECK: Is Vladimir Putin Using Drones And Ammunition From Iran And North Korea?

Check Your Fact Staff | Contributor

President Joe Biden claimed in an Oct. 19 speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using drones and ammunition from Iran and North Korea.

Verdict: True

Putin is using attack drones from Iran. While it has not been definitively proven that North Korea is supplying ammunition to Russia, experts and media outlets have said it is likely happening.

Fact Check:

Biden delivered an Oct. 19 speech where he called for more aid to Israel and Ukraine, according to The New York Times. During the speech, Biden claimed that Putin was buying drones and ammunition from Iran and North Korea.

“Meanwhile, Putin has turned to Iran and North Korea to buy attack drones and ammunition to terrorize Ukrainian cities and people,” Biden said.

This claim is true. Media outlets and think tanks have documented how Iran has sent drones and ammunition to Russia. Russia bought Iranian drones and used them to target Ukrainian cities, military bases and energy infrastructure, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. CNN reported in April 2023 that “stolen western technology” powered these Iranian drones, called Shahed-136, and that Iranian-made munitions and drones have appeared in Ukraine.

Furthermore, the Washington Post reported that Russia and Iran are working together to build 6,000 attack drones. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has denied that Iran has sent drones to Russia, according to the Associated Press.

The Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in an August 2023 update to its “Iranian UAVs in Ukraine: A Visual Comparison” that “Iran provided Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to sustain Moscow’s ability to attack Ukraine after severely depleting its own stores of precision-guided munitions in the war’s opening months.”

“Since then, Iran has provided Russia with hundreds of one-way attack UAVs for its war in Ukraine. Ample evidence of such transfers has been provided to the public, but Iran continues to deny these UAVs were Iranian in origin. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has collected actual debris from attacks in Ukraine and the Middle East that we have presented in the following pages to clearly prove Iran’s support to Russia,” the agency wrote.

Some reports suggest that drone trade between the two countries has occurred since September 2022, according to Reuters. Iran first announced the development of attack drones, in cooperation with Russia, in 2016 and were allegedly used by Yemen-based Houthi rebels against an oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia in 2019, The New York Times reported.

Experts told Check Your Fact that evidence pointed to Russia using Iranian drones, though one expert said “consensus is less clear” on what North Korea was supplying Russia. (RELATED: Fact Checking Videos, Images And Posts From The October Hamas Attack On Israel)

“It is the consensus of the US intelligence community, I believe—and not just a statement  from President Biden—that supports the view that Iran has shipped lots of drones to Russia in the Shahed family of technologies (and other things).  Consensus is less clear, I think, on what North Korea may have shipped, but the working hypothesis (of the broader US government) seems to center on artillery,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Check Your Fact.

“It is largely true. Moscow and Tehran have worked together to build attack drones (this was reported in August 2023 ) has seen Russia use Iranian drones in the past. Moscow has also bought ammunition from Iran. Putin has also previously used ammunition and artillery from North Korea. Russia has sold North Korea drones as recently as September 2023, but I’m not sure the extent to which they are using North Korean made drones,” Jordan Cohen, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said to Check Your Fact.

Cohen pointed to reporting from The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Sky News, CBS News and Reuters as sources.

Leah Polk, an associate director of media relations at the RAND Corporation, told Check Your Fact that “Our folks can only point to existing public facing sources, but here are a few open source items that point to these claims being accurate” and pointed to an Oct. 13 Washington Post report that Russia may have received arms from North Korea and “an article from Conflict Armament Research that concludes that Shahed-131/136 one-way attack UASs used earlier in the war (November 2022) were made in Iran. Russia is now producing domestic variants of the Shaheds and calls them Geran-1 and Geran-2.(see here).”

The U.S. accused North Korea Oct. 13 of sending arms to Russia. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) stated in an Oct. 16 report that “[d]ozens of high-resolution images, revealed here for the first time and captured in recent months over Dunai and the North Korean port of Rajin, show the three cargo vessels repeatedly transporting hundreds of containers likely packed with North Korean armaments.”

Ukraine Weapons Tracker, an X account that tracks Ukrainian/Russian military equipment in Ukraine, shared an image showing alleged North Korean ammunition. (RELATED: X Post Misleads On Mutiny In Israeli Air Force)

“Recently, the news that the DPRK 🇰🇵 started to supply ammunition to the Russian army has become public. Here are the first ever images of what was supplied: 122mm and 152mm HE-FRAG projectiles, which are already being issued to Russian artillerymen,” the account tweeted.

Polk also pointed to Ukraine Weapons Tracker as a reputable source, saying, “There are also reports on X of Russian forces using North Korean and Iranian 122-mm rockets for the BM-21 multiple rocket launcher” and sent screenshots of an Aug. 29 post and Oct. 1 post from the account. 

Check Your Fact reached out to the White House for comment.

Elias Atienza and Anna Mock contributed to this report. 

Check Your Fact Staff