In late December, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced a significant expansion of the Russian Armed Forces that would increase its size from 1.15 million to 1.5 million soldiers. The proposal also includes the establishment of new divisions and the recruitment of an additional 300,000 contract service personnel (Vedomosti, January 17). Although Russian President Vladimir Putin is counting on this internal mobilization to expand its military, he is also considering recruiting foreign fighters. Running low on skilled men in Ukraine, he is turning to other options, such as recruiting former Afghan forces which fought in Syria (Central.asia-news.com, November 24, 2022).
Given this possibility, the ongoing military-strategic rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran may become even more vital for Putin. Iran’s proxy militias loom large as potential options to fill the void for Russia. As cooperation between Tehran and Moscow grows, the chance that Putin chooses the Iranian militias as his “trump card” in Ukraine becomes increasingly likely.
Enter Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun
Two Iranian brigades in particular, the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun, would be decent fits for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. Putin is well aware of the logistical difficulties of equipping and training additional troops amid existing shortfalls. However, because these brigades are trained and armed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), they may appear appealing to the Kremlin.
Both brigades are also combat-hardened in high-tempo, modern conflicts, such as the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen and have proven themselves in key engagements in the Syrian Civil War, such as the Battle of Aleppo and the capture of Palmyra in 2017. The Fatimiyoun brigade was first deployed to Syria in 2014 to support Tehran’s political agenda and mainly served to strengthen Bashar al-Assad’s position against the Sunni rebels opposing him. Portraying himself as the hero and the protector of the Alawites, al-Assad needed a reliable partner to take his side amid sectarian competition and political insecurities vis-à-vis the Syrian Sunni majority. From an ideological standpoint, Iran claims that the brigades were formed with the overarching message of “protecting the Prophet’s daughters’ shrines in conflict zones” (Tolo News, February 10, 2021).
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Supported by the IRGC, the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun brigades grant Iran an easy entrance to hot conflict zones without getting Tehran’s hands dirty. What makes these brigades especially dangerous is also that they share Iran’s hatred towards the West and are comprised of a mix of Hazaras, Shia Afghans, Shiite Pakistanis, and Tajiks. The main motives for Iran to mobilize these troops are economic and religious (Ghatreh.com, March 21, 2021). Persecuted in their homelands, for example, Shia Hazaras join these brigades in the hopes of a “meaningful life.” Some are guided by Shia jihadism, while others join out of a sense of gratitude and dreams of improved living conditions and stability (e.g., Iranian citizenship) upon their return home. But the main motivation is financial, as most fighters are enticed by the promises of a salary and financial benefits for their families.
Many fighters in the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun Brigades also have a criminal record, which Iran exploits as an opportunity to pressure them into joining the proxy groups in lieu of their being jailed or deported (Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, October 24, 2022). The majority of the men in the Fatemiyoun are Afghans or other refugees seeking refuge in Iran. Lacking rights and economic opportunities, these men join Tehran’s proxy groups in return for promises of a good salary (paid in dollars), a residence permit, and financial benefits for their families back home. These conditions are rarely met, however, and the fighters who join Tehran’s proxy brigades often serve Iran with no real benefits in return (Diyaruna, December 26, 2021).
How Can These Brigades Support Russia?
While the potential involvement and success of these two brigades in Ukraine is still yet to be seen, the help they can provide to Russia will impact the war’s trajectory. The Fatimiyoun is often used flexibly and inserted in a conflict where an “extra boost” is needed. Their presence on the battlefield can catch the enemy by surprise, a factor that can strain an opponent’s defenses.
Both of these brigades are part of a broader network of proxy groups designated as terrorist organizations, such as the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. In fact, cooperation and information sharing between these groups can be seen in all domains. While the Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC, provides the brigades with critical intelligence, the Aerospace Forces of the IRGC equip the militias with air combat and missile capabilities and medium-range ballistic missiles (Tolo News, February 10, 2021). This can fill the gap for Russia’s shortage of skilled military personnel, and can open up a conduit for potential transfers of Iranian ballistic missiles, given the brigades’ familiarity with operating Iranian missile systems.
Lebanese Hezbollah also trained the Fatemiyoun fighters to operate drones, including the Ababil-3 drone (with an eight hour flight duration and 100 kilometer flight time) and another undisclosed, small unmanned aircraft in a site in Palmyra, Syria (Afghanistan.asia-news, September 5, 2022). In 2019, Iran allegedly provided the members of the Fatemiyoun brigade with naval warfare training in Latakia (Twitter, May 20, 2019). Due to the cooperation between these actors, the brigades can complement and strengthen one another’s efforts in Ukraine, when deemed necessary by Tehran. This multidimensionality can support Russia’s hand and tip the balance of power in the Kremlin’s favor, especially when launching new offensives in contested regions.
These brigades have already been supported by Russia for years. In the past, they worked closely with Russia to support Moscow’s endeavors in Syria. Some militiamen even stated that they received their training in Russia before being deployed to Syria (Twitter/ @AhmadShuja, December 1, 2017). In return for their loyalty to Russia and fearless combat, the militias received extensive logistical and technological support from Moscow (Tolo News, February 10, 2021).
In Ukraine, these brigades would likely join the Wagner Group’s forces, which have an effective, albeit notorious, combat performance in some of the country’s harshest fronts, such as Bakhmut. After losing a significant number of forces in Bakhmut, Wagner could definitely benefit from these additional militiamen to re-build the organization’s strength. Footage from the battlefield shows that these brigades can operate systems such as T-90 main battle tanks (Twitter/@Charles_Lister, April 20, 2020). They can, therefore, effectively support Russia’s ongoing operations in Ukraine without major adjustments.
Besides boosting Russia’s manpower in Ukraine, the presence of these brigades on the Ukrainian battlefield could become a threat for NATO. The first imminent danger is the capture of equipment. Exposed to Western technologies first hand, these fighters can then steal and transfer sophisticated military assets to provide Tehran with critical military-strategic information. Second, these groups’ target sets include Western military bases and ammunition depots, just as Iran-backed militias previously attacked various U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq (Iranwire, July 12, 2021). Their deployment to Ukraine will increase the risk to life of NATO military personnel on the ground.
More broadly, the potential involvement of the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun brigades will be a force multiplier for Wagner and the Russian forces in Ukraine. When Tehran uses these proxy groups to project power and meddle in international conflicts, their very existence is destabilizing. Besides this, their potential deployment will carry Iranian influence to the borders of the NATO alliance. But, most immediately, as winter approaches, the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun brigades may provide a lifeline for Russia’s deteriorating forces and offer them the opportunity to recover their strength.