U.S. Technology, a Longtime Tool for Russia, Becomes a Vulnerability

Global restrictions on sending advanced technology to Russia are hampering the country’s military capacity, U.S. officials say, though Russia has stockpiled American equipment for year

By Ana Swanson, John Ismay and Edward Wong

June 2, 2022

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WASHINGTON — With magnifying glasses, screwdrivers and a delicate touch from a soldering gun, two men from an investigative group that tracks weapons pried open Russian munitions and equipment that had been captured across Ukraine.

Over a week’s visit to Ukraine last month, the investigators pulled apart every piece of advanced Russian hardware they could get their hands on, such as small laser range finders and guidance sections of cruise missiles. The researchers, who were invited by the Ukrainian security service to independently analyze advanced Russian gear, found that almost all of it included parts from companies based in the United States and the European Union: microchips, circuit boards, engines, antenna and other equipment.

“Advanced Russian weapons and communications systems have been built around Western chips,” said Damien Spleeters, one of the investigators with Conflict Armament Research, which identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition. He added that Russian companies had enjoyed access to an “unabated supply” of Western technology for decades.

U.S. officials have long been proud of their country’s ability to supply technology and munitions to the rest of the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the United States has faced an unfortunate reality: The tools that Russian forces are using to wage war are often powered by American innovation.

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Still, while the technology made by American and European companies has been turned against Ukraine, the situation has also given the United States and its allies an important source of leverage against Russia. The United States and dozens of countries have used export bans to cut off shipments of advanced technology, hobbling Russia’s ability to produce weapons to replace those that have been destroyed in the war, according to American and European officials.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced further sanctions and restrictions on Russia and Belarus, adding 71 organizations to a government list that prevents them from buying advanced technology. The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against a yacht-management company that caters to Russian oligarchs.

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While some analysts have urged caution about drawing early conclusions, saying the measures will take time to have a full effect, the Biden administration has called them a success. Since Western allies announced extensive restrictions on exports of semiconductors, computers, lasers, telecommunications equipment and other goods in February, Russia has had difficulty obtaining microchips to replenish its supply of precision-guided munitions, according to one senior U.S. official, who, along with most other officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters based on intelligence.

On Tuesday, when asked if a chip shortage was crippling the Russian military, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who oversees export controls, said the answer was “an unqualified yes.”

“U.S. exports to Russia in the categories where we have export controls, including semiconductors, are down by over 90 percent since Feb. 24,” she said. “So that is crippling.”

The restrictions halt direct technological exports from the United States and dozens of partner nations to Russia. But they also go beyond traditional wartime sanctions issued by the U.S. government by placing limitations on certain high-tech goods that are manufactured anywhere in the world using American machinery, software or blueprints. That means countries that are not in the sanctions coalition with the United States and Europe must also follow the rules or potentially face their own sanctions.

Russia has stopped publishing monthly trade data since the invasion, but customs data from its major trading partners show that shipments of essential parts and components have fallen sharply. According to data compiled by Matthew C. Klein, an economics researcher who tracks the effect of the export controls, Russian imports of manufactured goods from nine major economies for which data is available were down 51 percent in April compared with the average from September 2021 to February 2022.

The restrictions have rendered the old-school bombing runs on tank factories and shipyards of past wars unnecessary, Mr. Klein wrote. “The democracies can replicate the effect of well-targeted bombing runs with the right set of sanctions precisely because the Russian military depends on imported equipment.”

Russia is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, especially to India, but its industry relies heavily on imported inputs. In 2018, Russian sources satisfied only about half of the military-related equipment and services the country needed, such as transportation equipment, computers, optical equipment, machinery and fabricated metal, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compiled by Mr. Klein.

The remainder of equipment and services used by Russia were imported, with about a third coming from the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and other partner governments that imposed sanctions together on Moscow.

U.S. officials say that in concert with a wide variety of other sanctions that ban or discourage commercial relations, the export controls have been highly effective. They have pointed to Russian tank factories that have furloughed workers and struggled with shortages of parts. The U.S. government has also received reports that the Russian military is scrambling to find parts for satellites, avionics and night vision goggles, officials say.