Kazakhstan and Belarus assist Russia in its war against Ukraine—investigation

Investigators from Buro Media, Verstka, and OCCRP discovered that Kazakhstan and Belarus have become hubs for Putin’s regime to import sanctioned wires and chips for weapons development. 

OCCRP investigation: European equipment is shipped to Russia via Belarus and Kazakhstan

Using an evasion scheme, a Kazakh company ordered high-tech equipment for the production of semiconductors and other goods.

The OCCRP investigation reveals that the equipment briefly remained in Belarus before being sent to Russia, bypassing Central Asian countries.

Using this loophole, they shipped $5.9 million worth of sanctioned materials to Russia. All orders involved a group of Russian companies with significant military contracts. 

Russia’s Ostec Group imports Western technology and is linked to missile production

Ostec Group is one of the largest among them. The company does not manufacture weapons; rather, it provides equipment for the production of the Tochka-U and Iskander-M ballistic missile systems. Russian troops used them to attack Ukrainian cities. 

The investigators also found that the company Aspan Arba (“Sky Chariot”) imported UAVs and re-exported them to a Russian company, “Nebesnaya Mekhanika,” which sold them to weapons manufacturers. These companies have the same owner.

Kazakhstan’s Nebesnaya Mekhanika shipped drones to Russia

Nebesnaya Mekhanika’s transaction records, obtained by the journalists, testify that the firm also sold drones to several Russian military-oriented organizations that are supporting the war against Ukraine. 

One of these is “People’s Front: Everything for Victory,” an organization that asks for donations to help equip Russian invasion soldiers. The group is running a fundraising drive called “Fly, brothers!” promoted by Vladimir Solovyev, Putin’s regime’s leading TV propagandist. He called on Russians to help purchase UAVs for the Russian military. 

The journalists found non-profit organizations that spent over 15 million rubles ($198,000) on drones from Nebesnaya Mekhanika. The largest purchaser from Nebesnaya Mekhanika in 2022-2023, spending over 485 million rubles ($7.5 million), was the firm “DJI Ars Moscow.” It’s tied to Nebesnaya Mekhanika, since its owner until 2021 was its employee.

Kazakh and Russian firms owned by the same people

Both companies show signs of being run by the same people. Both companies list a man named Ilya Golberg as their owner. The Kazakh company’s director, Mikhail Sapozhnikov, used to co-own Nebesnaya Mekhanika with Golberg. 

According to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Digital Development, Aspan Arba received licenses to import over 18,000 DJI drones for $45 million from DJI Europe B.V., the Dutch subsidiary of the Chinese drone company. And these UAVs end up in Russian hends, linked to Putin’s army.

Stek imported Western microchips from Kazakhstan

According to Russian customs data, the Moscow-based company “Stek” imported microchips, diodes, transistors, and other parts worth $4.2 million from Kazakhstan in 2022–2023. The customs data does not show who produced them, but indicates that they were made in Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore.

The buyers of Stek’s wares include the MEI Special Design Bureau, a developer of radio systems that is a part of Russia’s space agency, and Moskovsky Prozhektornyi Zavod, a power supply manufacturer for Russian strategic missile and air defense complexes.

According to Stek’s transaction records, obtained by the journalists, most of its sales in 2022 were made to the company Set-1. Set-1’s website does not work anymore, but an archived version shows that it “develops and manufactures special technology” for Russian military and law enforcement agencies. OCCRP was able to trace the origin of some of the parts that Stek imported from Kazakhstan.

Kazakh firm Da Group 22’s links to German exporters

This customs data shows that it received a shipment of 2,598 microchips from Kazakh firm Da Group 22. And Da Group 22 had received a shipment of exactly the same size from the German company Elix-St, based in Stuttgart.

German trade data shows that in 2018–2021, before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Elix-St exported nothing to Kazakhstan, but sold $500,000 worth of electronic parts to Russia. It appears that these exports have been kept but rerouted via Kazakhstan.

The exports included goods made by global manufacturers such as Analog Devices, Infineon, Texas Instruments, and STMicroelectronics, which claim they no longer operate in Russia or have stopped their supplies to the aggressor country.

German company owned by a Russian couple exporting to Kazakhstan

Another finding is that a German company owned by a Russian couple transferred microchips to a firm in Kazakhstan, created shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The German-Russian couple’s son owns this firm. This firm re-exported Western microchips to Russia.

The fact that Russia is still looking for ways to evade sanctions indicates that Moscow hasn’t managed to build its own semiconductor and microcircuit production capabilities.

However, the loopholes in Western sanctions enforcement allow Putin’s regime to continue its war against Ukraine and threaten the EU nations.

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