Sanctions have restricted Russian purchases of foreign military technologies. However, Moscow can still rely on its two Central Asian neighbors for gunpowder components, as exports of its primary ingredient, cotton pulp, have surged since the invasion of Ukraine.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have formally declared their neutrality in the Ukraine war, but they have doubled their supplies of cotton pulp, a major component of gunpowder, to Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, thus, fuelling Moscow’s war.
Russian importers purchase cotton pulp from Central Asia and supply it to military firms that manufacture gunpowder and other combinations. This is according to documents obtained by the OCCRP journalists. Some Uzbek companies directly supply raw materials to Russian industries, the OCCRP investigation shows.
Russia’s Kazan gunpowder factory
For more than two centuries, the Kazan gunpowder factory has been producing ammunition for the Russian army. The plant has been functioning in a boosted mode since 2022, supplying Putin’s military machine, which is primarily reliant on artillery fire.
Western sanctions have made it more difficult for Russia to purchase foreign military equipment. However, Moscow can still rely on the two Central Asian countries to supply cotton pulp, a major component of gunpowder, to Kazan and other state-owned plants.
Documents obtained by journalists from OCCRP, Vlast, and iStories demonstrate that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan produce more than 98 percent of the cotton pulp imported into Russia and that imports have surged since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Uzbek cotton pulp imports into Russia
According to the obtained export-import data, Uzbek enterprises exported almost $8.7 million worth of cotton pulp to Russia from January to September 2023, representing a nearly 70% increase over the previous year.
The UN Comtrade database shows that Kazakhstan, which only exports cotton pulp to Russia, increased its shipments in 2022, delivering about 60% more raw material than the previous year. Exports declined substantially in the first 10 months of 2023, according to government statistics, although journalists were unable to independently validate these figures.
The majority of private exporting companies did not respond to inquiries for comment. According to two companies, Russian companies utilize their goods to produce varnishes and paints rather than gunpowder.
However, state procurement contracts demonstrate that cotton pulp from both countries was purchased for military use by Russian military factories.
Cotton pulp is used for gunpowder production in Russia
Cotton pulp can be used for a variety of products, but it is subject to export limits in the EU as of June 2023 since it can also be used for military purposes.
State-owned firms in Russia that manufacture gunpowder, ammunition, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems do not publish official output data. The United States, Switzerland, and Ukraine have imposed sanctions on four businesses.
However, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have agreed to assist the US and EU in combating sanctions evasion, since Western goods are increasingly being routed through third countries before being re-exported to Russia.
Private importing companies imported much of the cotton pulp from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into Russia and then sold the raw material to sanctioned state-owned powder factories. However, transaction records suggest that at least two Uzbek exporters did business directly with Russian military factories.
Uzbekistan is world’s fourth-largest exporter of cotton pulp
According to the UN Comtrade database, Uzbekistan was the world’s fourth-largest exporter of cotton pulp in 2022.
According to data collected by journalists, at least seven Uzbek enterprises sold 4.8 million kg of cotton pulp to Russian importing companies in the first nine months of 2023.
Documents obtained by reporters from Russia’s Federal Tax Service reveal that at least three Russian companies—Bina Group, KhimTrade, and Lenakhim—sold imported cotton pulp to Russian military plants in 2023, in the second year of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine.
The Fergana Chemical Plant, one of the country’s largest producers of cotton pulp, was the principal supplier in Uzbekistan. The ultimate owners of the corporation, according to corporate filings, are two Russian citizens.
According to the ImportGenius database, the Fergana Chemical Plant not only sold raw materials to Russian importing firms in 2022 and early 2023 but also made direct shipments to two Russian gunpowder facilities—in Kazan and Perm—for more than $2.2 million.
Uzbek exporters of cotton pulp
Raw Materials Cellulose, another big Uzbek exporter, is little known. It collaborates with Russian and other foreign makers of “sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, nitrocellulose, and gunpowder,” according to a description on its website. Nitrocellulose is a flammable byproduct of cotton fiber production that is used to produce military charges.
Russian buyers purchased the majority of the company’s exports. However, transaction records show that Raw Materials Cellulose also made 14 direct shipments to the Russian Tambov gunpowder plant for approximately $500,000 in 2022.
According to documents, the company’s shipments to Russia amounted to at least $2.6 million in 2023, a considerable rise from the previous year.
When the Putin regime launched an all-out war against Ukraine, Russian powder factories stopped publishing data on cotton pulp purchases, making tracking shipments difficult. Disclosure obligations do not apply to information that may be considered a state secret under Russian law.
However, certain long-term contracts made before or shortly after the start of the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine indicate that military purposes explicitly imported cotton pulp from Uzbekistan.
Russia imported half of its cotton pulp from Kazakhstan
In 2022, Russia imported approximately half of its cotton pulp from Kazakhstan.
The firm Khlopkoprom-Cellulose manufactures the majority of it in the country. Russia has previously utilized cotton pulp from Kazakhstan to make gunpowder.
Reporters obtained a number of agreements that revealed the continued supply of Kazakh cotton pulp to Russian gunpowder companies after the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
The Kazan Powder Plant will receive cotton pulp from Kazakhstan until January 2026, according to a long-term contract signed in March 2020. A contract inked in December 2022 guaranteed the supply for the Aleksinsky Chemical Plant, which also manufactures gunpowder, until January 2024.
The deal with the Aleksinsk Chemical Plant, signed just three days before Russia invaded Ukraine, states that the state defense order includes the supply of 213.9 tons of Kazakh cotton pulp until the end of 2023.
A separate deal stipulates that the mill will receive 300 tons of Kazakh cotton pulp until May 2023, which it can also utilize for state defense.
Khlopkoprom-Cellulose spokesman Nurbekov told reporters that the company cut production in the summer of 2023 after the partners of the importing company with which they were working were sanctioned.
According to the Kazakh government’s data, another shipment of 19 tons of cotton pulp will be shipped to Russia in October 2023. The exporter was not identified.
Cotton pulp exports fuel Russia’s war in Ukraine
It is evident that cotton from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is fueling the Putin regime’s war against Ukraine. Companies from these Central Asian countries should be scrutinized by the EU and the US and punished with secondary sanctions if their cooperation with the military factories in Russia is confirmed.
After all, supporting Putin’s war machine undermines Western efforts to support Ukraine in repelling the Russian invasion and brings the war closer to the EU’s borders.