How Russia works around sanctions to procure microchips for missiles

A tragic tragedy occurred in Dnipro due to the first significant missile attack on Ukraine in 2023. A Russian Kh-22 missile struck a tall apartment building, killing 45 people and injuring more than 70. To prevent Russian weapons manufacturers, including high-precision missiles and drones, from accessing their electronics, Europe and the US adopted a comprehensive set of sanctions back in 2014. 

The sanctions were increased to a total embargo once the invasion started in full force in February 2022; Russia continues to manufacture weapons with Western technology and use them in conflict with the Ukrainians. In addition to restarting, the flow of chips has expanded in bulk due to gray trade and re-exports from other nations.

“Western Electronics at the Heart of Russia’s War Machine”

Such was the title of a report released in August 2022 by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI). In the report, the Institute’s experts analyzed the technical design and construction of 27 types of advanced Russian armaments, military and special-purpose equipment used since February 2022 in the war with Ukraine: cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electronic warfare (EW) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) platforms, and tanks.

A Kh-59MK air-to-surface guided missile, a Kh-101 cruise missile, a 9M727 (R-500) cruise missile, a 9M723 tactical missile for the Iskander complex, a 9M549 guided rocket for the Tornado-S rocket launcher, an Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle, a T-72B3M tank, an Azart digital radio station, and a Borisoglebsk-2 electronic warfare system were among the While others were saved as individual units or pieces of disabled enemy vehicles or missiles fired against Ukraine, some of them landed into the hands of the Ukrainian forces unharmed.

Foreign microelectronics in the Russian Orlan-10 drone – The Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies

RUSI experts found 450 different microelectronic goods produced by US, EU, and AE businesses. 317 of them—the vast majority—have American roots. Japan (34 products), Taiwan (30), and Switzerland are the runner-up countries (14). Some of them date back to the late 1980s. In contrast, others were published in 2018 and 2019 after the US and EU imposed restrictions on exporting sensitive technology to Russia for four or five years.

American firms, including Texas Instruments, Analog Devices Inc., Intel, and Atmel Corporation, created most Western electronics discovered within Russian weapons. For instance, the Russian 9M727 and Kh-101 cruise missiles each included thirty foreign chips, some of which were found in crucial system parts, including onboard processors and guidance modules. RUSI researchers detected foreign pressure sensors, navigation modules, microcontrollers, and other components in the Orlan-10, Russia’s most popular mass-produced drone.

In September 2022, experts from the British nonprofit Conflict Armament Research (CAR) released a similar analysis of the electronics in Russian weapons used in combat operations in Ukraine, such as Ka-52 helicopters, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and communications equipment. They could recognize and describe 650 samples of microelectronic goods made by 144 companies outside Russia. Many of the items were made public after 2014 when sanctions against Russia were already in place, and some in 2021.

According to CAR, the Russian defense industry relies on a few foreign technologies, using standard sets of microelectronic components for different weapons systems (control and navigation units, onboard computers, and antennae), and appears to lack any safety net if global supply chains are disrupted. Advanced Russian weaponry and communications systems have been constructed around Western processors, CAR investigator Damien Spleeters told The New York Times, adding that Russian corporations have had access to an “unabated supply” of Western technology for decades.

The American NGO Robert Lansing Institute (RLI) highlights the breadth and diversity of the range of Western hardware components present in the products of Russia’s military industry in its review of military equipment supplies from NATO countries to that nation, which was published in June 2022. This includes not only missiles and aircraft but also individual equipment like binoculars, rangefinders, thermal sights, and the Ratnik “soldier of the future” infantry combat system.

The findings of RUSI, CAR, and RLI regarding the reliance of Russian weaponry and equipment on Western electronics are consistent with the data provided by the Ukrainian military and volunteers, who, from time to time, release information to the media or publish data on captured Russian weaponry and equipment. 

Foreign chips were discovered in a variety of components, including the communication system for the Barnaul-T air defense target reconnaissance system command and control vehicle, the direction finder for the Pantsir air defense system, the automatic aiming system for the Su-24M frontline bomber, the fire control system for the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicle, the Kartograf reconnaissance UAV, and many others.

According to the Ukrainian project Trap Aggressor, researchers have successfully identified 39 types of Russian weapons and military and special-purpose equipment that includes 170 items of foreign microelectronics or preassembled components made by producers from 69 countries.

When electronics kill

In the nine months of the war, Russia struck Ukraine with more than 16,000 missiles and artillery shells. High-precision missiles pose the gravest threat. By the estimates of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Russian troops fired nearly 4,500 missiles from February 23, 2022, to January 3, 2023, including:

· 1,328 anti-aircraft guided missiles for S-300 systems (used against surface targets near the line of contact)

· 744 9M723 tactical missiles

· 638 Kh-29, Kh-31, Kh-35, Kh-58, and Kh-59 aircraft missiles

· 616 Kh-101, Kh-555, Kh-55SM strategic cruise missiles

· 591 sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles

· 208 Kh-22/32 aircraft missiles

· 144 Oniks anti-ship missiles

· 68 9M728/9M729 cruise missiles

· 10 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.

Many of these long-range missiles require foreign microchips to operate in their onboard systems, which are in charge of systematic targeting and in-flight control. Therefore, officials and specialists in Ukraine, the US, and the EU have repeatedly predicted that Russia would run out of high-precision missiles in no time, lacking access to the necessary components for their production since unprecedented restrictions on electronics exports were introduced in the spring of 2022.

A “graveyard” of Russian missiles and shells fired at Kharkiv – Konstantin and Vlada Liberov

Strict controls were put in place over electronics exports to Russia back in 2014 by the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), the government body in charge of approving the sale and re-export of high-tech military and dual-use goods. Soon after the Americans did so, the EU imposed comparable limitations.

The list of businesses and organizations sanctioned has been growing as the BIS and its European equivalents have tightened the existing limitations and processes. The restrictions regime has resembled a partial embargo since February 2022. RUSI estimates, however, that 81 of the 450 microelectronic components detected in Russian munitions fall under the US classification of dual-use commodities and would consequently need a separate license.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Ukrainian official succinctly expressing the problem’s essence: “Without those US chips, Russian missiles and most Russian weapons would not work.”

Microprocessors, microcontrollers, Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLDs), and Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) enable the customization of integrated microcircuits for specific tasks. They are the most sought-after items in the Russian military sector.

The employment of electronic components in sensors, navigational systems, and optical and cryptographic apparatus is widespread. Even weaponry that appears to be low-tech, such as armored battle vehicles, mainly relies on Western technology. Russian BMD-4Ms fired at civilians fleeing from Bucha during the tragic events in Kyiv with great precision thanks to sighting devices made by the French company Thales, including a thermal imager and range finder.

How the Kremlin circumvents Western sanctions

According to the RUSI research we previously reported, the Kremlin has been trying unsuccessfully since 2014 to replace the defense sector with the import of vital technologies. Russia has yet to be able to produce equivalents for Western technology domestically or acquire them from neutral or friendly nations. This is the case at first.

According to Reuters, only 242 of the 921 foreign components required to begin production for a prospective helicopter-mounted electronic warfare system have domestic equivalents, citing confidential records from a Russian research institute. Even the Sarmat strategic intercontinental ballistic missile, which Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin propaganda are using to frighten the West, might contain some foreign technological components.

A list of international microelectronics requirements, broken down into three levels of importance, was compiled in the Russian bureaucratic beast’s belly and published by Politico in September 2022. 25 American, Japanese, and German chips are included under the “urgent need” category; some have vanished from the market due to the global shortage of semiconductors, not because of sanctions.

Whatever the case, the missile assaults on Ukrainian soil have continued. The most recent waves of significant attacks used cruise missiles that were only recently produced. This could provide additional support for the claims that Russia has used up all of its missile arsenals. It might also demonstrate the military industry in Russia’s success, which has continued to create technologically advanced goods despite all the sanctions and export control policies.

Russian importers successfully get around all limitations by employing a variety of strategies and workarounds, including using intermediaries, incorporating consumer electronics into military products, swapping out foreign microchips for hopelessly out-of-date but functional Soviet components, purposefully choosing less-advanced foreign models over more-advanced ones, engaging in industrial espionage, and re-exporting through third parties.

According to Ukrainian specialists, Russian producers have discovered a way to include home appliance chips even into so-called “complex systems” like the onboard computers of high-precision missiles. For instance, the Chinese online store AliExpress has the microcircuits and microcontrollers that scientists discovered in the guidance unit of a 9M544 missile for the Tornado-S MLRS.

Electronic components used in several types of Russian missiles and guided projectiles – Conflict Armament Research

The presence of electronics produced before the war is another factor that explains why advanced military products are still being made despite the sanctions. The New York Times commissioned an analysis from Janes, a prominent defense intelligence company, on the potential that Russia has been storing vital parts on purpose since 2014. Supplies may also be obtained lawfully or through third countries since some of them fall under the category of civilian products. Additionally, some of the electronic components were acquired by Russian defense companies through the SVR and GRU agents network.

Last but not least, routine imports are the main supply of electronics for Russia’s military industry. Since April 2022, the Russian Federal Customs Service (FCS) has withheld comprehensive import and export information, in part to make it more difficult to gauge the effects of Western sanctions on high-tech products and electronic components. However, Reuters found almost 15,000 transactions involving Russia’s imports of Western electronics from AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel, Texas Instruments, and other firms in Russian customs files covering the period from February 24 to late May.

The situation with Russian weapons is not the only indication that the Western sanctions regime fails to meet its purpose. CAR analyzed the Iranian Geran-1 and Geran-2 kamikaze drones captured by the Ukrainians. Not only did the experts confirm that these drones (originally named Shahed 131 and Shahed 136) had been developed in Iran, not in Russia, but they also revealed a massive amount of Western electronics. 

Essentially, all their central units and systems are based on foreign components, mostly of American origin. The Ukrainian project Schemes (Skhemy) examined another Iranian UAV used by the Russian forces in Ukraine, the Mohajer-6 surveillance and attack drone, and also found microchips by US manufacturers.

If Iran, which has spent decades under sanctions of varying severity, maintains a regular supply of Western electronics for arms production, Russia, which is still much more present in the global market, has no financial problems so far, and can influence foreign politicians and companies through informal networks, is even less likely to struggle in this regard. 

Attempts to cut off a large country from microelectronic products in the modern world face significant difficulties. As long as the war in Ukraine continues and there is no solution to halt these supplies, American and European chips will continue to help kill Ukrainians. A solution would mean an efficient ban on all tricks for sanctions circumvention and severe penalties for those who assist the Russian regime in getting electronics used in weapons. 

Read all articles by Insight News Media on Google News, subscribe and follow.
Scroll to Top