Iran's alleged ammunition for Russia's war in Ukraine: The secret journey of the cargo ships accused of supplying invasion
Iran has secretly supplied large quantities of bullets, rockets and mortar shells to Russia for the war in Ukraine and plans to send more, a security source has told Sky News.
The source claimed that two Russian-flagged cargo ships departed an Iranian port in January bound for Russia via the Caspian Sea, carrying approximately 100 million bullets and around 300,000 shells.
Ammunition for rocket launchers, mortars and machine guns was allegedly included in the shipments.
The source said Moscow paid for the ammunition in cash.
It was not possible to independently verify the volume of the alleged military assistance. One expert cautioned that the amount sounded high.
However, Sky News understands it is suspected that Iran has been shipping an amount of ammunition to Russia to help replenish its stocks on the frontline in Ukraine.
Russian supplies are thought to be running low after more than a year of President Putin's full-scale war.
The alleged assistance is on top of previous allegations that Tehran provided Moscow with hundreds of deadly drones, which have played a part in attempts to destroy Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
"Russia continues to use Iran as a 'rear base'," the security source said, describing the close military ties between the two countries.
Western and Ukrainian officials have also warned that Iran might supply far deadlier ballistic missiles but there has been no evidence of that happening yet.
As well as the Iranian support, concern is growing in western capitals about the potential for China to start supplying Russia with weapons - a move that the United States has warned would have "severe consequences" for Beijing. China has denied the claims.
The 'secret' cargo ships
The security source said the two general cargo ships allegedly involved in transferring ammunition from Iran to Russia were called the Musa Jalil and the Begey.
Both sail under the Russian flag.
Sky News has approached the owner of the ships in Russia for comment on the claims but has so far not received a reply.
Russia's Ministry of Defence and Iran's Foreign Ministry have also yet to respond to a request for comment.
The source said one of the ships is thought to have departed Iran on around 10 January and the other on around 12 January.
Between them, the two vessels were thought to be carrying about 200 shipping containers filled with weaponry, according to the source.
The source said they were confident in their assessment of the amount of ammunition that was being transported.
"Two hundred containers on two ships are capable of carrying this amount of munitions," the source added.
What the marine tracking data tells us
Research by Sky News' Data & Forensics Unit supported the general claim about the movement of the ships, though the dates slightly differed.
It was not possible to independently verify what was being transported by the vessels.
Maritime shipping tracker MarineTraffic placed the two ships at the Iranian port of Amirabad on the Caspian Sea on 9 January. Satellite imagery from the following day obtained by Sky News shows at least one of the ships still at the port.
According to the maritime tracking data, the Musa Jalil left the port at around 10am local time on 10 January, while the Begey departed on the same day.
On 12 January, again according to the tracking data, both ships stop off the coast of Turkmenistan for a couple of days. The reason for this is not known.
The Musa Jalil and the Begey then travelled across the Caspian Sea, arriving at the Russian port of Astrakhan on 27 January. They remained at the port for several days before leaving on 3 February, according to the tracking data.
The security source did not confirm the name of the port in Iran that the two ships left from, nor which port in Russia they arrived at.
The source did confirm that the ships travelled to Russia via the Caspian Sea.
"Iran sent two cargo ships to the combat zone in Ukraine, carrying approximately 200 new shipping containers that contained ammunition for the Russian fighting in Ukraine," the security source said.
What's in the cargo?
The source listed the alleged cargo as comprising approximately 100 million bullets of varying sizes - 5.56mm, 7.62mm, 9mm, 12.7mm and 14.5mm - to be used in weapons such pistols, assault rifles and machine guns.
The ships were also carrying a range of other ammunition, the source said, including approximately 300,000 shells, such as 40mm grenades for grenade launchers, 107mm anti-tank rockets, and mortar shells of different sizes - 60mm, 81mm and 120mm - as well as artillery rockets (130mm, 122mm and 152mm) and armour shells (115mm and 125mm).
In addition, the source said there were close to 10,000 flak jackets and helmets on board.
"Russia pays for the ammunition in cash and by doing so, bypasses the western sanctions on it, ignoring the sanctions on Iran," the source added.
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Iran choosing 'wrong side of history'
Asked about the claims, Ukraine's ambassador to the UK said he was not surprised that Iran was allegedly supplying ammunition to Russia and said he expected there would be more such support, but he urged the Islamic Republic to stop being on the "wrong side of history".
Vadym Prystaiko told Sky News the fact that Russia has to ask what he dubbed a "coalition of weak nations" such as Iran and North Korea for help underlined the difficulties it was facing on the battlefield, using up its own stockpiles of munitions against Ukrainian troops.
The level of artillery fire in Ukraine has not been seen since the Korean war - straining supply lines on both sides.
A Ukrainian brigadier has claimed the Russian military had been firing between 60,000 to 70,000 artillery shells a day.
US officials have put the top rate at 20,000 daily.
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Both Ukraine and the US have said the level has dropped because of stocks running low.
"They - allegedly the second biggest army in the world - (are) running out of resources, which is a great result for the Ukrainian armed forces," the Ukrainian ambassador said in an interview at the embassy in London.
The envoy said western sanctions were impacting Russia's ability to use its defence industry to replenish stocks fast enough but more work was needed to shut down other routes.
"We still have actively to pursue the Iranians and the rest of these regimes to stop the supply to Russians to fuel this war in Ukraine," Mr Prystaiko said.
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former senior British military officer, said an influx of 300,000 shells from Iran, while helpful for Russia, would not last long given the rate of fire.
By contrast, should China decide to make its vast munition stockpiles available to President Putin's war machine that would be "very, very difficult for Ukraine", he added.