The Russian drone plant that could shape the war in Ukraine

A satellite image of a drone manufacturing site in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in Russia. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES
A satellite image of a drone manufacturing site in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in Russia. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES

Summary

In a high-tech college and manufacturing complex in the Russian steppes, Moscow is aiming to scale up production of the weapons it needs to gain a battle advantage.

Early last month, cellphone footage captured a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle slowly winding toward its final destination in a new installment in the spreading drone wars—a drone itself was being used to hit a site where enemy drones were being made.

The target was a high-tech college and manufacturing complex in the Russian steppes where Moscow is aiming to scale up production of the weapons it needs to gain an advantage in Ukraine.

Around 20 people were injured when the drone slammed into the dormitories at the Alabuga Special Economic Zone, many of them young engineering students hired from East Africa. Russian authorities said the manufacturing facilities were unscathed. Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said the blast caused significant disruption to production. The Alabuga Special Economic Zone didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the Kremlin.

The attack highlighted an important new aspect of the war in Ukraine, military experts say: the speed with which Russia can scale up production of Iranian-designed surveillance and attack drones, drawing on Chinese components, an African workforce and logistics networks that Iran honed during its own yearslong standoff with the West.

Drones are playing an increasingly significant role in current conflicts, particularly in Ukraine. Russia has launched dozens of attacks using Iran’s Shahed drones, whose telltale buzz has earned them the name “mopeds" among Ukrainians.

Their low cost compared with the expensive missiles Ukraine uses means air-defense units have sometimes resorted to machine guns to shoot them down. Iran unleashed a swarm of drones in its recent attack on Israel, attempting to overwhelm Israeli air defenses and allow ballistic and cruise missiles to sneak through, a tactic Moscow also uses.

With Ukraine now building its own drones—which have struck oil refineries and other critical infrastructure deep in Russian territory—there is a race to gain an edge in drone warfare.

Soon after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukraine successfully used Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones to slow the initial march on Kyiv, radically changing Moscow’s plans for the war. In response, Moscow approached Iran for access to its drones, building on the growing commercial and security links between the two countries.

Since then, Russia has launched over 4,000 Iranian-designed Shahed attack drones, according to the Ukrainian military, enabling Russia to target power plants and other critical sites deep inside Ukraine. While the initial models were shipped directly from Iran, more recent strikes were carried out with devices entirely manufactured in Russia, say military experts.

Moscow has since leveraged key alliances to build out its defense capabilities.

Senior Biden administration officials said in early April that China had provided Russia with optics, microelectronics and other dual-use materials that could be used in drones, along with other military hardware. A research arm of the Ukrainian military said in September that Russia was sourcing engines for the Shahed attack drones from China, identifying a company called Beijing MicroPilot UAV Flight Control Systems as a supplier.

In 2020, a United Nations report identified the company as a possible source of engines in Shahed drones found in attacks by Yemen’s Houthis and Iran on Saudi oil facilities the previous year. The engine has a rotary configuration, making it more efficient than piston engines and ideally suited to long-range drones. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars when constructed with high-grade materials, but the price can be cut to a few thousand if cheaper materials are used and longevity isn’t an issue, as would be the case in a suicide drone, experts say. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But also key are Russia’s deepening ties to Iran and more African states. The manufacturing operation for the Iranian-designed drones, tucked away in a pair of hangars at the Alabuga Special Economic Zone, on a tributary of the Volga river, shows how the different elements come together.

Russian business executives sealed the deal to build the drone plant in late 2022 when they flew to Tehran with a lucrative offer: $1.7 billion to be paid partly in gold bars. The unusual terms, corroborated by The Wall Street Journal with U.S. security officials, were revealed in February by a hacker group called the Prana Network, which said it broke into email servers associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The plan is for the Alabuga facility to churn out 6,000 Shahed attack drones a year, in addition to surveillance drones, according to a contract between the plant’s Russian managers and their Iranian partners leaked by the Prana Network and that was independently corroborated by two advisers to the British government. At the end of April, the factory was ahead of its production schedule, having already supplied 4,500 of the promised Shaheds, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based defense-focused think tank.

Russian soldiers are already being trained to operate the drones in Syria with instructors from both the Revolutionary Guard and Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, according to Ukrainian military intelligence and a former Syrian officer with conflict-monitor group Etana.

Dozens of the M3 “Albatross" reconnaissance drones made at the Alabuga plant have obtained detailed photographic intelligence on Ukrainian positions and movements on the front line. Their manufacturer said the drones had already helped repel an attempted incursion by Ukraine on Russia’s border region of Belgorod.

Russia now produces its own warheads instead of waiting for Iranian ones, speeding up production of combat-ready weapons, said a former employee at the plant, Henry Thompson, a drone expert who previously worked for the United Nations, who has analyzed debris found in Ukraine and concluded that more recent versions of Shaheds had been made in Russia.

After another Russian drone barrage on April 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Ukraine would soon run out of air-defense missiles if the intensity of the Russian strikes continued.

Moscow’s pivot to drones is helped by tapping Tehran’s shadow logistics networks, in addition to Iran’s military technology.

Many of the front companies Iran has used over years of evading its own Western sanctions were based in places such as Hong Kong or Dubai—something Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once described as its “resistance economy."

The U.S. has blacklisted scores of such firms playing a role in Iran’s clandestine financial system. Tom Keatinge at Royal United Services Institute, a U.K. think tank, has described American efforts to shut them down as a game of whack-a-mole. The sanctions “expose small portions of a vast network momentarily, only for the networks to adapt and compensate with the formation and use of the new companies," he wrote in a research paper.

One part of Russia’s drone project involved an Iranian front company in the United Arab Emirates called Generation Trading FZE, according to the U.S. Treasury, which imposed sanctions on the company in February. The Treasury said the company, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, sold drone models, spare parts and connected ground stations to Russia. On paper, the facility would produce boats, according to the contract signed between the Russian industrial park and Sahara Thunder, another Iranian entity the U.S. sanctioned in April as a front for Tehran’s defense ministry.

To expand its drone production, however, Russia needed skilled workers to assemble them.

Initial production runs of the Albatross reconnaissance devices had largely relied on students from nearby technical colleges, but there weren’t enough of them to meet Moscow’s ambitions. The manufacturers began looking farther afield—to Africa.

Early last year, Russian businessmen from the Alabuga Special Economic Zone rented a hall at an upscale school in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and gathered an audience of young female students to hear their pitch, according to Alabuga’s footage of the event and people who attended. The offer included a skilled job paying three times the wage at home in Uganda, with an airfare, free accommodation and a university diploma to join the work-study program.

The tone was calculated to be anti-colonial, echoing some of the language of the Cold War and reflecting Russia’s attempts to use soft power to dilute Western influence in East Africa.

“They get to crack our spirit," a Russian delegate said at the event, referring to Western countries. With Moscow, he stressed, “you will never see that."

Some of the recruiters are Ugandan schoolteachers, administrators and student leaders who quietly contact former students with the right skills. Joseph Kazibwe, one of the recruiters, who also doubles as a deputy headmaster at a secondary school in Lubiri, says the Russians are interested in young women who have excelled in science subjects in high school. Kazibwe said he was unaware they would be involved in building drones.

“Our job is to identify and reach out to the suitable candidates," he said. “The Russians take full charge of the process after that. They don’t share with us their recruitment criteria and we have no knowledge of how and who they eventually select."

Over a thousand women have since gone to the Alabuga free zone from all over Africa, an additional thousand students will likely join this year’s intake, say Ugandan officials.

Promotional videos posted by the Alabuga free zone show students roaming the corridors on skateboards to the sound of techno. The salary is nearly $1,000 a month, almost double the average Russian wage.

Other footage published by the free zone showed an African woman at the site, dressed in a hazmat suit and face mask to avoid contaminating the delicate components, as she glued two wings onto an engine-equipped body for one of the Albatross reconnaissance drones. Officials in Kampala confirmed that the recruits sent to Alabuga are used to assemble unmanned aerial vehicles.

Last month they found that their new jobs come at a risk.

“Those who attacked our hostel…wanted to intimidate us," said a Kenyan woman who said she was studying hospitality at the industrial park. “You won’t scare me, because Alabuga is a strong place and we will get through this," she said in a video published by the free zone.

Austin Ramzy and Kate Vtorygina contributed to this article.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com, Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com and Matthew Luxmoore at matthew.luxmoore@wsj.com

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