23.01.23 Review

The Sanctions Struggle: politicians and experts are focused on the question of how best to enforce restrictions on high-tech imports

Over the past year, Russia has carried out more than 16,000 strikes on Ukraine, 4,500 of which were done using precision-guided missiles. In 2022, in circumvention of all sanctions, it continued to import electronics for the production of precision-guided missiles, drones and other military equipment. Since the summer, there have been numerous investigations carried out by foreign analytical centres that have focused on the type of microchips Moscow has continued to purchase from the West. The Insider recently released a detailed review of these, which concluded that the Kremlin has continued importing the microelectronics it needs, successfully bypassing most restrictions. Although the supply of high-tech components to Russia has been formally prohibited since 2014, the West has not been rigorous when it comes to the actual implementation of its own sanctions. Restrictions introduced in 2022 have been successful only to a certain extent, leading to the question of whether it is actually possible to restrict high-tech imports?

In August 2022, the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) tracked, for the first time, the type of Western electronics used in Russian weapons. Having analysed numerous wreckages of Russian missiles, as well as equipment that had been seized, experts found that they contain Western components, many of which have been under sanctions since 2014. In total, the components contained around 450 microelectronic products, most of which were manufactured by companies from the United States, with some produced in Europe and East Asia. In September 2022, experts from the UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR) released a report confirming RUSI's findings. At the same time, they asserted that the Russian military-industrial complex uses a generic set of microelectronic components for its various weapons systems, relying on a limited set of foreign technologies. CAR experts concluded that the Kremlin believes the West will not be able to completely cut off supply channels. Moreover, authors from the Robert Lansing Institute (RLI) have come to the conclusion that Russia has continued to use Western electronics in the production of high-precision missiles, sophisticated equipment, as well as in the production of other military equipment such as binoculars, rangefinders, thermal imagers and tactical gear.

In December RUSI released its widely-discussed report on the Russian Orlan-10 drone, which argued that the Kremlin has been unsuccessful in replacing imports of critical technology for its military complex during the eight years of ‘Crimean” sanctions. Russia has also been unsuccessful when it comes to developing its own analogues and importing electronic components from ‘friendly’ countries in order to replace Western counterparts. As a result, the country is still heavily reliant on Western electronics for its military-industrial complex. Without these components, Russian weapons would be nothing more than useless piles of scrap metal. Prior to February 24, the state of the elemental composition of Russian military radio-electronic equipment lagged behind world standards across all the main categories. The technological level of domestically-produced electrical products, electronic components and radio parts stood at just 60% of the world standard — arguably  a very good result, considering that the standard of products within other sectors was much lower. Russian semiconductor devices have a technological level of 50% compared to the world standard, microelectronics and microwave electronics — 40%, and optoelectronic products — only 20%.

An investigation conducted by Reuters and RUSI in December exposed a global network of Western electronics suppliers to Russia that have been successfully bypassing sanctions. One method has been to import household appliances containing the necessary components for the military-industrial complex. In Russia, engineers have figured out how to integrate chips from imported dishwashers and refrigerators into the on-board computer systems of high-precision missiles. Microcircuits and microcontrollers for 9M544 high-precision projectiles used by the Tornado-S MLRS are easily available to order on the Chinese online marketplace AliExpress.

It should be noted that remarkably, regular imports remain one of the most important ways to get electronics into the country. In April 2022, Russia stopped publishing its customs statistics in order to make it more difficult for outsiders to assess the effectiveness of Western sanctions on its supply of high-tech goods and electronic components. However, data has revealed that last year there were more than 15 thousand imports of Western electronics to Russia from AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel and Texas Instruments. For many items, the volume of imports was equal to those of 2021, and for some, the number even increased. The only thing that changed was the country of origin: import volumes from the EU and the US declined sharply, while China's share of imports reached 80%. Unexpectedly, there was a rise in the quantity of semiconductors supplied from Turkey and CIS countries. Additionally, before the start of the war, Moscow had stockpiled electronics, allowing it to maintain its production of complex military products. It seems that, after 2014, Russia implemented a considered and planned policy of stocking up on critical components.

There is no doubt that circumventing sanctions is expensive: intermediaries need to be paid, sellers need to be given incentives in order to encourage them to take the risk of falling under secondary sanctions, and so on. Over the past year, Russia has steadily received excess profits from the sale of energy resources, and a significant portion of those funds was spent on waging the war and avoiding sanctions. A decline in export earnings will undoubtedly make these processes more expensive for the government. But without a shadow of a doubt, military needs will remain the government's main priority.

It is very difficult, in today’s globalised world, to cut off a large country from microelectronic products. Iran, which has been under sanctions for many years (including export sanctions) and has far fewer resources than Russia, has also learned how to import Western electronics in circumvention of sanctions. Now, the international community is faced with the question of how to effectively control technological sanctions to make sure they work.