Dark Deals on the Caspian: How Iran Ships Drones to Russia
Author: Haley Nelson
Aug 21, 2023
With the Russian economy struggling to uphold Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine, the Caspian Sea has emerged as a playground for sanction dodging and shady weapon dealings between Russia and Iran. Inconspicuous vessels without tracking systems have found their way onto the Caspian Sea, delivering weapons from Iran to fuel the Kremlin’s war machine.
In the Caspian Sea, untraceable ships carrying Iranian drones and weaponry have been tracked by Lloyd’s List Intelligence operating without mandatory tracking signals, moving cargo between Iranian ports in the Southern Caspian region and the Northern Russian ports of the Caspian Sea. This strategy, known as 'dark port calls,' has recently surged in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and off the coast of China, and now the issue is emerging in the Caspian.
The volume of dark port calls has significantly risen since sanctions were placed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Dark port calls occur when a vessel with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) turns off its signal, emits decoy signals, or transfers cargo in international waters, rendering their tracking virtually impossible. Commercial vessels operating in international waters are obliged to use their AIS to be detected by the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) tracking system, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). In just the last three months, over 600 AIS gaps by Russian-flagged ships have been detected, up from 100 detections per month in the same period of 2022.
One of these such vessels is named “Lauga,” IMO number #911060, and between July 18 and August 15, 2023, this vessel was tracked on Fleetmon moving from Russia’s Astrakhan port on the North Caspian, then stopping just outside of Iran’s Caspian Sea border. It is estimated that the ship turned off its AIS to deliver shipments to Iran, then returned to its prior position within Azerbaijan's Sea border.
This phenomenon in the Caspian is largely driven by Iranian and Russian-flagged ships, particularly those equipped for carrying weaponry. However, while covertly transporting illegal goods without an AIS signal, these fleets often manage to elude mandatory inspections, making it difficult to track what type of cargo is being transported.
In May 2023, a total of 138 Russian-flagged ships on the Caspian Sea had approximately 657 instances where their AIS signal was absent, while 48 Iranian-flagged vessels experienced 199 such instances. Moving into June, Russian-flagged ships exhibited 625 gaps in their AIS signals, while 48 Iranian-flagged vessels displayed 218 gaps. In July, the trend continued, with 630 AIS gaps observed, involving 157 Russian-flagged vessels, and 47 Iranian-flagged vessels with 192 gaps.
The majority of these gaps in tracking data tend to emerge near Iran’s Amirabad and Anzali ports, as well as Russia’s Volga River and its Astrakhan port. The Volga-Don Canal, a 63-mile-long waterway connecting the Volga and Don Rivers, serves as one of the two conduits linking the Caspian Sea to the wider world through the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov. During the Spring and Summer months, when the canal is not frozen over, Russia uses it to move warships and military supplies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Not only has this trade route played a direct role in supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it has greatly increased Russia’s trade opportunities with Iran.
The Iranian government had previously made investments in upgrading Russia's port of Astrakhan prior to the outbreak of the war, aiming to enhance its shipping options to Europe through a route that could bypass sanctions. Additionally, Iran is actively involved in assisting Russia with the dredging of the Volga River. This endeavor aims to facilitate the transportation of larger vessels and heavier shipments to the port of Astrakhan, to the Black Sea, and beyond, utilizing the Volga-Don canal. Given Iran's history of maneuvering around sanctions, there's an expectation that its expertise will offer Moscow new insights into evading sanctions.
Iran has utilized this route to deliver drones to occupied Crimea by using the Caspian Sea and the Volga-Don Canal. Furthermore, Russia and Iran have conducted joint naval exercises within the Caspian region. Suspicion has long lingered that the Caspian Sea serves as a conduit for Iran to transport oil to Russia as a means to skirt economic sanctions.
The increase in AIS signal gaps seems to have begun after the United States and Russia reported that Moscow began using Iranian drones against Ukraine in September 2022. Approximately 450 drones were reportedly sent from Iran to Russia. Two months later, in November 2022, the Iranian government acknowledged that it had indeed sold "a limited number of drones" to Russia but emphasized that these transactions had occurred before the war had started.
However, despite the Iranian regime’s claims, for the first time, in June 2023, the Biden Administration officially acknowledged that Iran ships drones to Russia over the Caspian Sea to be used on the battlefield in Ukraine. The recent surge in suspicious AIS signal activity within the Caspian Sea indicates a substantial increase in illegal arms trading.
Unlike land routes that involve crossing foreign borders and going through customs, the Caspian Sea route stands out as a highly discreet means of delivering goods subject to sanctions. This route circumvents the risk of foreign oversight, and unfortunately, Ukraine’s allies have limited authority to halt these illicit arms shipments.
Ships bearing the Russian flag are causing concerns among analysts, who worry that countries within the Caspian Region might refrain from intercepting or questioning these shipments. The presence of the Russian flag provides these vessels with an added layer of protection because countries fear potential repercussions from the Kremlin if they intervene in these covert port calls. This has made the Caspian Sea an avenue for sanction evasion and potential weapon provision between Russia and Iran.
In the past, the United States played a role in enforcing maritime laws within the Caspian, but its involvement has recently diminished. In 2003, the United States initiated the Caspian Guard Initiative (CGI) which aimed to coordinate airspace, maritime, and border control efforts for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Through this initiative, the United States assisted Caspian Region countries in securing their maritime boundaries, safeguarding crucial energy infrastructure, countering terrorist movements, preventing acts of terrorism, facilitating trade, halting the illegal transfer of weapons and drugs, and deterring any malign activities by Russia or Iran. However, this initiative soon fizzled out. And after the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed by all five Caspian states in August 2018, banning all foreign warships from the Caspian, the ability of the U.S. Coast Guard to operate in Caspian waters became inconceivable. Without this initiative in place, it has become imperative for Western partners of the Caspian Region to develop a new approach that safeguards the security interests of the area.
Dealing with the challenges posed by dark port calls requires a comprehensive strategy. This entails reinforcing regulations, improving supervision, and fostering collaboration among the United States, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
But this priority has been impeded by an outdated policy, established in 1992, that limits the United States’ ability to engage with the Caspian Region’s security sphere. Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act of 1992 “prohibits assistance, other than specified support for nonproliferation and disarmament, to the government of Azerbaijan.” This limitation bars the United States from enhancing Azerbaijan’s maritime security radar and monitoring technology, thereby constraining the United States' ability to monitor dark port calls and dark fleets operating in the Caspian. Each year, the White House administration exercises its legal right to waive this section, allowing the United States to provide appropriate aid to Azerbaijan. And, typically, the United States government supports the signing of this waiver in order to counter international terrorism, support the operational readiness of the United States Armed Forces, and protect Azerbaijan’s border security. If Azerbaijan and the United States cannot effectively collaborate in the security sphere, the question arises about how the United States can effectively navigate and monitor the growing relationship between Azerbaijan’s two neighbors, Iran and Russia.
In addition to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the G7, Western entities must work together to establish more stringent oversight mechanisms through the upgrade of radar and monitoring technologies in the Caspian Sea. These mechanisms are vital for curbing the illegal trade of weapons, protecting security interests within the Caspian Region, and ensuring that maritime sanction rules are upheld.
Given that Russia's invasion of Ukraine heavily relies on a consistent supply of weapons from its allies, it is of utmost importance for Ukraine's partners to strictly monitor the routes that facilitate this unlawful commerce. A focal point for Western attention should be the Caspian North-South Sea route. It's high time for the United States to recognize and prioritize the significance of this route in our strategic considerations.