How Western Technology Is Keeping Russia Stocked With Drones
In spite of commonly-held beliefs that the Russian military is fighting with outdated weaponry and uncoordinated assaults, the truth is that complex weaponry is still making its war onto the Russian side on the front, even in spite of technology sanctions from the West.
KYIV — How many times have we heard about how Russia is forced to fight with Soviet weapons and capture cities exclusively with barbaric, uncoordinated assaults?
This is only partly true.
Russia has numerous weapons that create serious problems for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One prime example is the Lancet kamikaze drone. It sneaks beneath radars, its electric motor does not make loud noises, and the mass of the warhead is often sufficient enough to damage heavy machinery.
Since the war began, the Russians have used some 850 Lancets. Not all of them hit their targets, but the Ukrainian military considers these drones one of the biggest causes for concern on the front line.
Back in July, Kyiv's military commanders stated that Russia had only 50 Lancets left, but the truth is that these drones are by no means running out. Dozens of kamikaze UAVs are still flying, because the Russians are still managing to produce them. And they are not doing it alone.
"Lancets" are packed with complex electronics, which are not produced in the Russian Federation. There are components that are produced in the West, which still get to Russian military factories without any problems. The flows are so large-scale that Russia can not only maintain the old rates of production of these drones, but also increase them.
While it may seem that technological sanctions are having an impact, there are still many obvious gaps in them.
South Korean robots
The world began discussing the Lancet drones a month ago, after a video detailing the production of the drones appeared on Russian state TV. In it, the audience was shown the site of a former shopping center, which was left abandoned by the exodus of Western brands, and which had been converted into a drone factory.
How are these drones still being produced in such large quantities?
The clip indicated that Russia had increased production of the Lancet UAV 50 fold since 2022. Even if Kremlin propagandists have a tendency to overestimate production figures, the video, which shows a room with dozens of "Lancet" cases, raises a logical question about technology sanctions against Moscow: How are these drones still being produced in such large quantities?
These drones are produced by the Russian company Zala Aero. Neither the manufacturers of Lancet nor its owner Oleksandr Zakharov, whose family owns a luxury apartment in London, have yet come under Western sanctions.
In theory, Western sanctions prohibit Russian companies from importing components for the production of drones. But this ban does not work, with plenty of Western parts still found in "Lancets." ZALA factories also contain a great deal of equipment coming from Asian countries that are outwardly friendly to Ukraine.
In the Russian TV report, several machines from Japan and South Korea appeared in frame. Among them is a robotic machine from Fanuc, a milling and drilling machine from the Korean conglomerate Doosan and a machine for vertical processing from Hyundai Wia.
A report from the Ukrainian President's Office on the Russian production of Lancets, which was jointly compiled by Ukrainian special services and research institutes, also lists equipment from the Swiss company Essemtec, Japan's JSW and China's Jiangsu Yawei Machine. Most of this equipment arrived in Russia after February 24, 2022.
Many components in the "Lancet" drones are produced in EU countries. The engine installed in the drone is produced by the Czech company Model Motors. The company told Ukrainska Pravda reporters that they have not been producing these engines for at least a year, and that they "must have gotten to the Russians only through third-party countries."
However, Roman Steblivskyi, an analyst of the Trap Aggressor project, discovered that the Russian company "Entep" announced the purchase of these engines in December 2022. This means that they were purchased almost a year after the start of the war in Ukraine, and not taken from old stocks.
American microprocessors provide image processing. Navigation is based on the Russian GLONASS system, but microchips from the Swiss company U-blox are needed to establish communication with satellites.
A ZALA Lancet attack drone developed by Kalashnikov Concern on display at the Army 2019 International Military Technical Forum at Patriot Park in Moscow, Russia. June 25, 2019:
When it comes to civilian goods, exporting to Russia is easy: they are simply not controlled. But how do dual purpose goods and sanctioned components get to Russia?
Model Motors in the Czech Republic notes that their engines are not included in the list of dual-purpose goods, and as a result their export is not regulated in the same way as arms components. The company's engines have thus only been subject to mild EU sanctions since December 2022.
According to the report of the Ukrainian special services, the Russian company "Legion Komplekt" imported engines for the "Lancets" after the introduction of restrictions. The supplier was allegedly the German company Hydro-Funk.
Russia and its partners often have to violate export controls to obtain avionics and complex microcircuits. But if the component is widespread in the world, then it is bought through intermediaries in a semi-legal way.
Steblivskyi explained to Pravda how this works: "A number of related private suppliers revolve around Russian defense and military enterprises. No one knows their names, so they are outside sanctions. The heads of these supplier companies can create firms in neighboring countries, for example in Kazakhstan, and then order these legal entities from Chinese distributors.
"Chinese, in turn, can buy from Turkish; and Turks from companies from the European Union. There can be dozens of intermediate links in this chain. In the end, the product ends up in Russia, and the manufacturers do not understand how it got there."
This is how Ukrainian special services explained finding microcircuits in Russian hands that were originally from U.S.-based Texas Instruments and Taiwanese Xilinx.
Asian and European machines also enter Russia through intermediaries, so as not to give a reason to accuse the manufacturer of cooperation with the aggressor.
Companies from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are actively involved in the import of machine tools. Previously, these three countries publicly promised to comply with sanctions and to not help the Russian Federation circumvent them. But in reality the situation is quite the opposite.
According to a special services report, in December 2022, Kazakh KBD Technologies supplied Swiss equipment from Essemtec to one of the Russian defense intermediaries. Consumables for this equipment were supplied by Kyrgyz Weitmann Handeln Allianz in June 2023 . And Uzbek MVizion imported equipment and microcircuits for one of the contractors of the Lancet manufacturer.
How to stop it
The problem is that Russian and foreign intermediary companies are rarely sanctioned. According to the Ukrainian report, out of 11 Russian companies engaged in the production and import of equipment and components for "Lancets", sanctions were only imposed against one.
Ten intermediary companies that imported GLONASS-enabled chips, as well as 12 importers of machine tools, were left off the sanctions list.
"In order for sanctions to be more effective,” says Vladyslav Vlasyuk, adviser to the Ukrainian President's Office, “they should be introduced by all partner countries.”
“It is quite easy to remove restrictions against intermediary firms from third countries, but not in the European Union. There they are reluctant to respond to such requests," says Vlasyuk. "The reason is that some EU member states fear that such а decision will push these countries into Putin's arms. But this is a sign of weakness."
Yaroslav Sydorovych, co-founder of the Network for the Protection of National Interests "ANTS," says only eight Russian companies from the military-industrial complex are on the sanctions lists of all partner countries. "The creation of a single international sanctions register would help to eliminate these gaps," he said. "There is a lack of synchronization of sanctions."
Sometimes it's difficult to prove that the product was really manufactured by a Western company
Vlasyuk notes that the problem of circumventing sanctions has long gone beyond the scope of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Now we are talking about the fact that all dangerous states and terrorist organizations can receive Western electronics. Therefore, more radical changes are needed in the trade of these components, up to a complete ban on the export of technological goods to countries that distribute them irresponsibly.
"It is possible to influence manufacturers and distributors in Western countries and force them to receive information about the end user from their customers,” Steblivskyi emphasized. “If the components still end up in Russia, take measures against these companies. However, sometimes it is difficult to prove that the product was really manufactured by a Western company , because there are fakes on the market."
In today's world, you can buy anything, the only question is price. And the fact that the Russian Federation continues to produce missiles and drones despite sanctions is a direct consequence of continued trade with Russia, including the purchase of gas, diamonds, metals and a number of other goods produced within Russia.
In order to give Ukraine the best hope of resisting, the confiscation of Russian assets in the West should be a top priority. That hasn't yet happened — even with all the big promises of sanctions.
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