US technology, a longtime tool for Russia, becomes a vulnerability

An investigator desoldering a component from a Russian surveillance drone collected by security officials working in Ukraine in May 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - With magnifying glasses, screwdrivers and a delicate touch from a soldering gun, two men from an investigative group that tracks weapons pried open Russian munitions and equipment that had been captured across Ukraine.

Over a week's visit to Ukraine last month, the investigators pulled apart every piece of advanced Russian hardware they could get their hands on, such as small laser range finders and guidance sections of cruise missiles.

The researchers, who were invited by the Ukrainian security service to independently analyse advanced Russian gear, found that almost all of it included parts from companies based in the United States and the European Union: microchips, circuit boards, engines, antenna and other equipment.

"Advanced Russian weapons and communications systems have been built around Western chips," said Damien Spleeters, one of the investigators with Conflict Armament Research, which identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition. He added that Russian companies had enjoyed access to an "unabated supply" of Western technology for decades.

American officials have long been proud of their country's ability to supply technology and munitions to the rest of the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the United States has faced an unfortunate reality: The tools that Russian forces are using to wage war are often powered by US innovation.

Still, while the technology made by American and European companies has been turned against Ukraine, the situation has also given the United States and its allies an important source of leverage against Russia. The United States and dozens of countries have used export bans to cut off shipments of advanced technology, hobbling Russia's ability to produce weapons to replace those that have been destroyed in the war, according to American and European officials.

On Thursday (June 2), the Biden administration announced further sanctions and restrictions on Russia and Belarus, adding 71 organisations to a government list that prevents them from buying advanced technology. The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against a yacht management company that caters to Russian oligarchs.

While some analysts have urged caution about drawing early conclusions, saying the measures will take time to have a full effect, the Biden administration has called them a success.

Since Western allies announced extensive restrictions on exports of semiconductors, computers, lasers, telecommunications equipment and other goods in February, Russia has had difficulty obtaining microchips to replenish its supply of precision-guided munitions, according to one senior US official, who, along with most other officials interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters based on intelligence.

On Tuesday, when asked if a chip shortage was crippling the Russian military, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who oversees export controls, said the answer was "an unqualified yes". "US exports to Russia in the categories where we have export controls, including semiconductors, are down by over 90 per cent since Feb 24," she said. "So that is crippling."

The restrictions halt direct technological exports from the United States and dozens of partner nations to Russia. But they also go beyond traditional wartime sanctions issued by the US government by placing limitations on certain high-tech goods that are manufactured anywhere in the world using US machinery, software or blueprints.

That means countries that are not in the sanctions coalition with the United States and Europe must also follow the rules or potentially face their own sanctions.

Russia has stopped publishing monthly trade data since the invasion, but customs data from its major trading partners shows that shipments of essential parts and components have fallen sharply.

According to data compiled by Matthew C. Klein, an economics researcher who tracks the effect of the export controls, Russian imports of manufactured goods from nine major economies for which data is available were down by 51 per cent in April compared with the average from September to February.

Onboard computer components collected in Ukraine in May 2022 from a Russian cruise missile. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Russia is one of the world's largest arms exporters, especially to India, but its industry relies heavily on imported inputs. In 2018, Russian sources satisfied only about half of the military-related equipment and services the country needed, such as transportation equipment, computers, optical equipment, machinery, fabricated metal and other goods, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development compiled by Klein.

The remainder of equipment and services used by Russia were imported, with about one-third coming from the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and other partner governments that imposed sanctions together on Moscow.

US officials say that in concert with a wide variety of other sanctions that ban or discourage commercial relations, the export controls have been highly effective. They have pointed to Russian tank factories that have furloughed workers and struggled with shortages of parts. The US government has also received reports that the Russian military is scrambling to find parts for satellites, avionics and night vision goggles, officials say.

Technology restrictions have harmed other Russian industries as well, US officials say. Equipment for the oil and gas industry has been degraded; maintenance for tractors and heavy equipment made by Caterpillar and John Deere has halted; and up to 70 per cent of the commercial airplanes operated by Russian airlines, which no longer receive spare parts and maintenance from Airbus and Boeing, are grounded, officials say.

But some experts have sounded notes of caution. Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, voiced scepticism about some claims that the export controls were forcing some tank factories and other defence companies in Russia to shutter.

"There's not been much evidence to substantiate reports of problems in Russia's defence sector," he said. It was still too early in the war to expect meaningful supply-chain problems in Russia's defence industry, he said, and the sourcing for those early claims was unclear.

Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied sanctions on Russia, said that the lack of critical technologies and maintenance was likely to start being felt widely across Russian industry in the fall, as companies run out of parts and supplies or need upkeep on equipment. She and other analysts said that even the production of daily goods such as printer paper would be affected; Russian companies had bought the dye to turn the paper white from Western companies.

"We expect random disruptions in Russia's production chains to manifest themselves more frequently," Snegovaya said. "The question is: Are Russian companies able to find substitutes?"

US officials say the Russian government and companies there have been looking for ways to get around the controls but have so far been largely unsuccessful. The Biden administration has threatened to penalise any company that helps Russia evade sanctions by cutting it off from access to US technology.

In an interview last month, Raimondo said the United States was not seeing any systematic circumvention of the export controls by any country, including China, which aligned itself with Russia before and during the invasion of Ukraine. Companies were making independent decisions not to engage with Russia, despite the country "trying very hard to get around" the global coalition of allies that had imposed export controls, Raimondo said.

"The world knows just how very serious we are, and our allies are, about prosecuting any violation," she said. "There will be real consequences for any companies or countries that do try to get around the export controls."

Chinese trade data also suggests that most companies are following the restrictions. Although China has continued to buy Russian energy, Chinese exports to the country have fallen sharply since the invasion.

But Spleeters said Russia's military had used creative methods to get around past restrictions on technology imports - such as buying foreign products by way of front companies, third countries or civil distributors - and could turn to the same methods to circumvent sanctions.

Spleeters' research has revealed efforts by some actors to disguise the presence of Western technology in Russian equipment. During his trip to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, Spleeters and his colleague unscrewed three casings holding advanced Azart encrypted radios, which provide secure communication channels for Russian forces.

They found that the first two contained microchips with parts of their manufacturing marks carefully obliterated, seemingly an effort to disguise their origin. But inside the third radio was an identical chip that had slipped by its Russian censors, showing it had been made by a company based in the United States.

Spleeters said it was not clear who had altered the markings or when the chips were delivered to Russia, although he said the attempt to mask their origin was intentional. In 2014, after the Russian invasion of Crimea, the United States imposed restrictions that were largely unilateral on shipping Russian high-technology items that could help its military abilities.

"It was neatly erased, maybe with a tool to take out just one line of markings," Spleeters said. "Someone knew exactly what they were doing."

Ukrainian explosives experts carrying fragments of a Russian missile in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Whether the recently imposed sanctions would result in a fundamental reduction of these kinds of supplies to Moscow was unclear, he said, given that Russia has such a large stockpile of Western technology.

His team also dissected the remnants of three Russian surveillance drones, called Orlan, Tachyon and one previously unknown model that Ukrainian officials called Kartograf. Inside the Orlan, they found six separate parts from companies with headquarters in the United States, and one each from companies based in Switzerland and Japan. In the other two drones, they pulled parts from corporations in the United States as well as in China, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan.

As Spleeters and his colleague worked, he asked a member of the Ukrainian security service about their findings of Western parts powering Russian weapons.

"It's just business," the officer replied.

"It's a big business, and people were just selling chips and not caring or not able to know what they'd be used for eventually," Spleeters said of the Western electronics companies. "I don't think they'd be able to know who'd use them and for what purpose."

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