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How Russia is using US tech to build cruise missiles to devastate Ukraine, despite sanctions meant to stop it

Tom Porter   

How Russia is using US tech to build cruise missiles to devastate Ukraine, despite sanctions meant to stop it
  • Russia has found new ways of obtaining US tech for its cruise missiles.
  • It's using online retailers, and transporting components from neighboring countries.

In the early weeks of the Ukraine war, the US imposed devastating sanctions aimed at crippling the Kremlin's war efforts and cutting off access to the technology it needed to make sophisticated weapons.

But 17 months later, Russia is exploiting loopholes in the West's sanctions regime to import US technology through neighboring states, online retailers, and a network of fake companies.

Officials, experts, and media reports have laid out the routes Russia is using to import the banned or restricted technology.

It has allowed the Kremlin to maintain a steady supply of missiles to devastate Ukraine's cities and infrastructure.

Ukrainian officials last Tuesday said that Russian K-100 cruise missiles used in recent attacks were built in 2023, using more than 30 foreign components, meaning that Western sanctions weren't working.

"Restrictions have already been imposed, but sanctions need to be strengthened so that Russia cannot obtain critical components and manufacture missiles," said Head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak on Telegram.

The Kazakhstan back door for tech supplies

The US sanctions include a ban on the sale of technology that could be used by Russia to build weapons.

Russia's armaments industry has long depended on US microchip technology for weapons components such as the navigation systems for long-range missiles, as well as drones and planes.

Gary Sommerville, an open-source intelligence investigator with the UK's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), authored a recent report that found 450 foreign-made components were being used in Russia's most sophisticated weapons.

He said Russia had adapted to the sanctions and built a successful covert procurement system centered in its neighbors and other nearby states, including Kazakhstan.

"Despite the initial sanctions and export control measures that were put in place just after the invasion of Ukraine, they have adapted and they're relying on these on these third countries," he told Insider.

"It's a problem we've never faced before, at least not on this scale," he said.

Kazakhstan's Minister of National Economy Alibek Kuantyrov in a statement to Insider said that though the country has not joined in Western sanctions against Russia, it was committed to slowing the flow of sanctioned goods. "The Kazakh government has consistently affirmed its commitment to ensuring that the territory of Kazakhstan is not used to circumvent sanctions," he said.

"The government has put in place stringent rules, including strict monitoring of sanctioned goods. The authorities apply necessary control measures to prevent secondary sanctions risks. Kazakhstan is open and transparent in these matters."

US chips for Russian missiles bought in bulk online

The Silverado Policy Accelerator, a US think tank, told The New York Times that Russia's chip imports declined sharply after the outbreak of the war, but climbed again as it diversified its supplies.

According to figures from the opposition group the Free Russia Foundation, semiconductor imports to Russia increased from $1.8 billion in 2021 to $2.5 billion in 2022.

To obtain the parts, the Russian defense ministry set up a network of fake companies often registered in countries such as Kazakhstan and Armenia, said Sommerville, the RUSI expert.

The companies then obtain US tech in bulk through third-party retailers, and transport it back to Russia.

Colonel Mykola Danilyuk, a Ukrainian officer, told The Economist in July that Russia was using online stores to import US chip systems used to control missiles. Many of the parts are classified as "dual use" — where an item has civilian as well as military applications — and so aren't covered by the sanctions.

"You can simply order them on Aliexpress and export them in a couple of suitcases from Kazakhstan," Danilyuk told the publication. A spokesman for Aliexpress declined to comment on the record.

A search by Insider found the technology available on other online sale platforms such as Amazon and eBay.

An eBay spokesman told Insider that the company abides by the laws of the countries it operates in, and observes relevant international sanctions.

"All transactions involving Russian addresses have been suspended since March of 2022. We continuously monitor new transaction trends and update our controls as appropriate," said the spokesman.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the Economist report, logic boards from California-made Altera Flex have been used in building the KH-100 cruise missiles Russia has used in attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.

The report didn't suggest Altera Flex was breaking any rules. The company didn't reply to a request for comment.

Sommerville said that complex global trade systems meant it is difficult for compliance officers at corporations to know where a product may end up.

He said it was unlikely more sanctions alone would cut off Russia's supply of American technology. Instead, he suggested increased coordination between governments and private companies to raise awareness of Russian supply routes.

"Anything that can be done to even slow down Russia's ability to rebuild stockpiles would have a net benefit for the Ukrainian forces on the ground," he said.

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