As Russia rains missiles on Ukrainian cities, the Kremlin remains hungry for Western electronics. Russian armaments deployed in Ukraine – including Iranian drones – are packed with dual-use components, including microchips from major US and European manufacturers such as Texas Instruments and Analog Devices.
An important node in this network is Central Asia. Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, European Union exports to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan of dual-use technology found in Russian armaments have skyrocketed, an investigation by our RFE/RL team has found.
During the same period, Kyrgyz and Kazakh exports of these same categories of electronics to Russia rose sharply. Russian customers include electronics suppliers with links to the Kremlin’s war machine. One buyer openly boasts about its ability to import Western electronics, RFE/RL reporters found.
US, EU, and UK officials have used diplomatic levers to curb the trade. They have lobbied governments to prevent the flow of sanctioned dual-use Western electronics through their territory to Russia. Rather than targeting governments and companies in the region with secondary sanctions, the West has focused on high-level discussions and tightening export restrictions.
“The goal here is, at this point, not to punish Kyrgyzstan but really to give them the information that they need so that they do not become a place of sanctions avoidance,” Lesslie Viguerie, the US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, told The Diplomat this month. “It’s something that I often bring up: that this is important, that the United States is watching.”
Kyrgyz and Kazakh players in the reexport market for sanctioned Western electronics insist that they are not doing anything illegal. Their governments, after all, are not party to Western sanctions against Russia, and both countries are members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Central Asian officials say they want to work with the United States and the EU on preventing the transfer of dual-use technology to Russia.
“We are going to abide by the sanctions. Even though we are part of the Economic Union with Russia, Belarus, and other countries, we are also part of the international community,” says Timur Suleimenov, first deputy chief of staff to Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. “The last thing we want is secondary sanctions of the US and the EU to be applied to Kazakhstan.”
The EU has moved to tighten loopholes allowing dual-use technology to flow to Russia via third countries. A ban on the transit of dual-use goods and “advanced technology products” through Russian territory is designed to ensure that such goods do not “fall off a truck” in Russia en route to a third country. Multiple sources in the Central Asian re-export business told RFE/RL reporters that dual-use goods ordered by Kazakh and Kyrgyz buyers from Western suppliers are, in fact, dropped off in transit to Russian clients.
In its 11th package of Russia-related sanctions enacted last month, the EU has also reserved the right, as a “measure of last resort,” to ban the export of sensitive technology to “countries which are used to circumvent our sanctions.” One businessman who ships Western dual-use technology to Russia told our reporter that he would prevail in this game of whack-a-mole. “No matter what obstacles they throw our way, we’ll still get around them,” he said.
Washington and Brussels enjoy greater leverage over the companies in the procurement chains that fall within their own jurisdictions. In May, the US imposed sanctions on the Estonia-based firm Elmec Trade OU over its shipments of US-manufactured electronics to Russia, though the EU has yet to target the firm with sanctions. Washington also sanctioned Elmec’s Russian trading partners, the electronics importers Kvazar and Spetsvoltazh.
Our RFE/RL investigation uncovered another Baltic supplier of dual-use technology to these two Russian firms – OTK Group SIA – that is closely associated with the same Russian company that brags about its ability to import Western electronics after Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The listed founders and directors of the Latvian firm are Russian citizens who have served in various roles in the Russian supplier ITC Electronics.
Both the EU and the US have sanctioned two of ITC’s main clients for producing navigation systems and other technology for Russian warships. Customs records analyzed by our reporters show that the Latvian firm shipped the sanctioned dual-use technology on behalf of a Kazakh company linked to ITC, which has been sanctioned by Ukraine but not by Washington or Brussels.
This was just one arrangement for delivering sanctioned electronics to Russia via Central Asia that our reporters found. Others include:
- A Kyrgyz firm incorporated shortly after Russia’s February 2022 invasion shipped sanctioned Western electronics to a Russian firm – also set up shortly after the invasion – whose director is an employee of a Russian communications equipment factory that Washington says “develops items and technologies for Russia’s military.”
- An official Kazakh partner of a Russian electronics supplier with commercial ties to the Russian Defense Ministry shipped the same kind of Analog Devices transceiver that Ukraine recovered from a Russian T-72B3M tank deployed by the Kremlin in its invasion.
- Another Kazakh firm was incorporated less than three weeks after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by a Russian electronics supplier whose previous clients are linked to the Russian defense sector. Since January of this year, the Kazakh firm has sent to Russia at least 270 shipments of dual-use goods deemed by Washington as “high-priority” due to their use by Russia’s military.
It will be impossible for Washington and Brussels to completely shut down deliveries of dual-use Western electronics to Russia, particularly given procurement networks that run through China and India, which also are not a party to sanctions targeting Moscow.
But the West can still hurt Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine by reinforcing export controls. “What we are going to do is make it much more difficult, make the supply chains longer, make them riskier, make them less certain,” says James Byrne, director of open-source intelligence and analysis at the London-based security and defense think tank RUSI.
Europe, in particular, can improve enforcement efforts, experts say. This “will be a year of sanctions enforcement,” says Maria Shagina, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin. “National governments’ capacities vary across member states. Leveling the playing field, establishing better cross-border coordination, and harmonizing the legislation is key.”
Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL’s enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.