Airwars/FT partnership finds facility at centre of Russo-Iranian UAV partnership recruiting specialist engineers and Farsi speakers
This article was originally published in the Financial Times and written by Airwars’ Nikolaj Houmann Mortensen and Sanjana Varghese, along with multiple reporters from the FT.
Russia’s covert drone partnership with Iran has included close co-operation on a new factory in the Russian province of Tatarstan, where Moscow has converted an agricultural unmanned aerial vehicle maker to supply its war effort in Ukraine.
Albatross, the company operating on a key site for Russo-Iranian collaboration, has produced reconnaissance drones for President Vladimir Putin’s defence ministry, with roughly 50 delivered for combat in eastern Ukraine.
The factory is at the centre of an expanding tech partnership with Tehran, whose expertise Moscow has relied on to establish a domestic drone-building capability to support its invasion and further skirt western sanctions.
Activity at the Russian facility has increased in recent months, with the business park where it is based launching a recruitment drive for UAV engineers and Farsi speakers able to translate “technical documents”, according to adverts and social media posts.
Albatross, a Russian group that previously specialised in farming tech, built its new factory inside the Alabuga special economic zone in Tatarstan — a site the US has claimed is the centre of the Tehran-supported effort to develop Russia’s capacity in making drones.
In a video released last month, Russia’s Ministry of Defence showed soldiers in Ukraine launching reconnaissance drones, which it referred to as “Albatross” drones. In a statement to Russian state media, the company said they had supplied 50 M5 drones. The drones appear identical to ones being built at the Alabuga factory.\
In February, the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think-tank, first reported that Albatross had established itself in Alabuga and they noted job advertisements had been placed in the area for UAV engineers.
From October 2022, the business park sought candidates for roles with titles such as “UAV production director”, “UAV designer” and “UAV chief technologist”.
Airwars, a conflict monitoring group based at Goldsmiths, a college of the University of London, found several ads for UAV-related jobs cited a requirement to understand “reverse-engineering processes”. In addition, they found the business park has also posted advertisements for Farsi interpreters who will be required to travel, perform simultaneous translation and translate technical documents.
In June, the White House issued satellite photographs that identified two buildings in the Alabuga zone area as a key part of Iran’s attempts to help Moscow increase its drone capacity. “We are also concerned that Russia is working with Iran to produce Iranian UAVs from inside Russia,” said John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesperson.
The Financial Times and Airwars have identified Albatross as the drone-builder in one of those buildings. Statements by Albatross on the floor space of their facilities match the official dimensions of one of the buildings. In addition, an address listed on Albatross’s website seems to correspond to the location identified by the US photograph.
The research for this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.