By Can Kasapoğlu*
1. Iranian Loitering Munitions Threaten Ukraine
The Russian military has intensified its drone and missile salvos, hitting Ukrainian population centers continuously. Recent weeks have seen a dramatic increase in strikes from Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions. On May 30, 29 Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones targeted Ukraine. During the night of May 28, the Russian military unleashed 35 Shahed-136 drones, along with 40 cruise missiles, while May 26 witnessed 23 Shahed-131 or Shahed-136 striking Ukrainian targets.
The 87 Shahed loitering munitions launched by Russian combat formations within the latest four-day period mark one of the most intense barrages of the conflict thus far. Ukrainian air defenses managed to intercept a large proportion of these. Nonetheless, three dangerous developments bode ill for Kyiv.
First, the Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 baselines, renamed Geran-1 and Geran-2 by the Russian defense industry, have been receiving upgrades that make them more dangerous. These assets now have more lethal warheads and more powerful engines. They may soon see even further upgrades and modifications, especially regarding sensors and command-control architecture.
Second, the current operational tempo suggests that Iran has been able to supply Russia with a large quantity of loitering munitions. Iran and Russia will also soon establish a joint drone production plant inside Russia, so Putin’s war machine will have no shortage of these weapons systems. Worse, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can start sending more advanced drones and even ballistic missiles to the Russian military anytime.
Third, Russia is improving its ability to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defenses. By integrating drones into mixed strike packages alongside cruise and ballistic missiles, Russia can use joint missile and drone warfare efforts to launch systematic saturation attacks, the nightmare scenario for any modern air defense system.
To address the Iranian threat, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Rada are preparing a comprehensive sanctions bill that will last at least 50 years. Yet the only way to stop Iran’s aggressive efforts may be to restore the international sanctions architecture that existed prior to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
2. Drones Strike Moscow
On May 30, several drones hit Moscow in a sensational strike. The timing was noteworthy, as the salvo came after yet another barrage of loitering munitions and missiles targeting Kyiv. More importantly, while the strike did little damage, it came a few weeks after a kamikaze drone attack targeted the Kremlin, an attack that US intelligence says Ukrainian actors likely carried out.
While no evidence currently supports a conclusive assessment of the May 30 strike’s origins, our preliminary weapons identification efforts spotted at least one piece of drone footage released by Russian Telegram sources that suggests the strike bears similarities to Ukrainian partisans’ previous drone strikes targeting the Ilsky Oil Refinery in early May. According to available assessments, the drones in question have a range of between 600 and 1,000 kilometers and carry a KZ-6 charge. The KZ-6, weighing only 1.8 kilograms, can be adapted for aerial bomb roles via modifications in its fuse configuration. While the KZ-6 demolition charge would not cause large-scale damage, it can be highly effective against flammable targets.
Available footage from Moscow showed Pantsir short-to-medium range air defense systems engaging—and sometimes intercepting—the incoming drones. From early this year, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have deployed these air defense systems to protect Moscow.
The diplomatic aftermath of the May 30 strike played out along a predictable narrative arc. The Russian Defense Ministry immediately blamed Ukraine, labeling the incident a terrorist attack. While the Ukrainian side officially denied involvement, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelenskyy, said that they enjoyed watching the drones in Moscow’s skies, specifying only that Ukraine was not “directly involved” in the attack. The Ukrainian Air Force declined to comment, a stance the press perceived as an attempt to assert strategic ambiguity.
These mixed signals suggest two possible scenarios. The strike may have been a false flag operation, meant to galvanize the second wave of mobilization in Russia. Alternatively, it may have been orchestrated by Ukrainian elite units trying to inflict sensational and distracting damage ahead of their long-awaited counteroffensive. In this case, the next phase of the war will likely see large-scale drone warfare duels deep inside each nation’s territory.
3. Russia Faces Raids in Belgorod
On May 22, the frontier towns of Russia’s Belgorod Oblast faced a large-scale armed infiltration that alarmed Russian authorities. Although Moscow’s official explanation attributed the attacks to Ukrainian nationalists penetrating the border, they may be the work of Russian paramilitary groups, such as the Freedom of Russia Legion or the Russian Volunteer Corps. Ukrainian authorities denied direct or indirect involvement in the raid. Russia takes these attacks very seriously, and appointed a high-ranking general, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, to personally oversee the counterinsurgency operations in the area.
Currently available evidence remains too scant to confidently attribute these attacks to any particular perpetrators. Yet several armed groups, from Russian and Belarusian fighters to anti-Ramzan Kadyrov Chechen battalions and the Georgian Legion, have been fighting alongside the Ukrainian military since the outset of the Russian invasion. Once the war comes to an end, these groups’ political capital and demonstrated combat capabilities could foment changes in the former Soviet space.
Gaining an accurate assessment of Russian paramilitary networks is crucial to understanding the current conflict. Whether these groups have support within the Russian security apparatus, or whether they will attract disgruntled veterans following the end of the war, are important questions that are almost impossible to answer with open-source intelligence. Yet paramilitary networks’ arsenals, including advanced man-portable air defense systems, late-generation anti-tank guided missiles with top-attack capability, high-end mini drones, and long-range sniper rifles, can have an asymmetric impact on the conflict. Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report will keep monitoring the conflict to identify such tactically game-changer arms in the hands of these paramilitaries.
Moreover, operational coordination between these groups and the Ukrainian military can pose a significant threat to Russia. Should they commence systematic sabotage activities against high-value facilities beyond the front lines when the Ukrainian counteroffensive begins, the paramilitary groups could be a nasty thorn in Moscow’s side.
While the details of the Belgorod attacks remain unclear, Moscow’s reactions speak volumes. The governor of Belgorod Oblast, Vyacheslav Gladkov, announced the establishment of territorial defense battalions numbering 3,000 men to secure the Ukrainian frontier areas. According to Telegram sources, the legal status of these border security formations will determine what weapons systems they will receive.
As one would expect, Yevgeny Prigozhin of Wagner has sought to capitalize on the Belgorod raid. The chief of Russia’s shadow military released a public letter, addressed to defense minister Sergei Shoigu, recommending the establishment of hundreds of battalions under militia formations. Prigozhin also asked for the mobilization of reserves under Wagner military command.
4. The F-16 Coalition Takes Shape
Following a virtual meeting of the Defense Contact Group, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin announced that Denmark and the Netherlands are to lead the European coalition that will train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 fighter aircraft.
Previous editions of this report have explained why Ukraine’s fighter aircraft arsenal, consisting of the Su-27 and the Mig-29, cannot match the Russian Aerospace Forces’ principal combat aircraft, the Su-35S and the Su-30SM, due to deficiencies in radar systems and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles. The F-16, which formed the backbone of many NATO nations’ fleets for decades, would do more than any other option to enhance Ukraine’s fighter aircraft capabilities.
The training and delivery timeline for the F-16 will not allow it to participate in the anticipated counteroffensive. Even when they do, Russian air defenses, such as their S-400 strategic surface-to-air missile system and Podlet-K1 radars, will prove extremely dangerous against the fourth-generation F-16s that lack stealth capabilities.
Ukraine’s transition to a Western air warfare deterrent, however, will serve it well beyond the ongoing war. It will allow Ukraine to control its own airspace, one of the largest in Europe, against a hostile Russia with revanchist intentions. In addition, the Ukrainian military’s transition from Soviet-era solutions to weapons systems aligned with NATO standards will mark one of the most important achievements for the transatlantic alliance in the former Soviet space. These defense policy imperatives will remain relevant even if Ukraine’s counteroffensive brings the current war to a close.
*About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Hudson Senior Fellow
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute, and first appeared as a part of Hudson’s Re: Ukraine newsletter series