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Western Involvement in Russian Missiles Is Getting Harder to Ignore

Aug 18, 2023Aug 18, 2023

Russia will continue to benefit from Western technology embedded in its weapons striking Ukraine, experts told Newsweek, as efforts to trip up Moscow's war machine fail to stop weapons production.

Ukraine has repeatedly called for a clampdown on controlling where key pieces of technology coming out of countries such as the U.S. are going, and experts agree that Russia's defense industry relies on Western products to make many of its most advanced weapons operational.

With the war in its 17th month, Ukraine has pointed to Kalibr cruise missiles, which were used to target the western city of Lviv on Thursday, as one of the weapons reliant on Western components. Yet stemming the tide of components to Russia has no quick fix, experts told Newsweek.

Moscow has continued to get parts for weapons through intermediaries, front companies and long supply chains that are difficult to police, analysts said. Russia imported $20.3 billion in components associated with military equipment between March and December of last year, according to an analysis by the KSE Institute—a think tank at the Kyiv School of Economics—obtained by Newsweek. The figure represents just a 15 percent drop from the year before Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Overall, Russia bought technology manufactured by 155 companies headquartered in the U.S. or Europe, as well as in Asia and the Middle East.

Russia's military is "clearly quite dependent on Western products for their missiles" and other weapons systems used against Ukraine, according to Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 have gone some of the way to try to hamper Moscow's military-industrial complex, they have failed to halt weapons production.

Moscow is still "highly reliant on Western electronics" to meet even their "most basic" weapons needs, Gary Somerville, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Newsweek.

One report released by RUSI in August 2022, of which Somerville is a co-author, found that there were at least 450 types of foreign-made components in 27 Russian weapons systems. The majority of the parts were "manufactured by US companies with a longstanding reputation for designing and building sophisticated microelectronics for the US military," the report said. Others were produced by companies in countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

"Russia's weapons systems and military platforms contain a range of predominantly Western-sourced components and electronics that are critical to their function," the report said.

But many of the components have been under U.S. export controls, showing that Russia has been able to "evade" restrictions, according to the report.

Sweeping sanctions have been put in place hoping to curb Russia's access to Western components, including by the U.S. In May 2023, the State Department said it was leveling new sanctions aimed at "those who aid the Kremlin in Ukraine by circumventing our sanctions and export control measures."

But there are several ways in which Russia's military-industrial complex can still acquire Western- or Asian-designed components, experts said.

"You can cut off the direct sale to Russia, but then the problem is intermediaries," Williams said. "Evading sanctions has become kind of an art form for some countries."

Somerville added: "The methods that they're using are not novel at all."

Russia is increasingly using newly established front companies domestically and internationally in large trading hubs, he said.

But once the components leave the factories, it is difficult to track where they end up. The components vary widely, and may refer to microelectronics, sensors or motors, among many others.

And as there are few indicators that Russia is significantly investing in domestic production that could rival imported technology, Moscow is left with little choice but to continue along the same road, experts said.

"It is highly unlikely that Russia would rely on components which have to be be smuggled past the sanctions system if they had a locally made alternative," military expert David Hambling said.

"It is much easier [and cheaper] for contractors to buy technology off the shelf from the U.S. than develop their own version."

Ukraine has zeroed in on Russia's Kalibr cruise missiles several times when calling for crackdowns on Western components finding their way into Moscow's weapons.

Last month, Andriy Yermak, head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's office, said that each Russian Kalibr cruise missile "has at least 40 foreign components," adding: "Without microelectronics, Russia will not be able to produce them."

"It is necessary to completely stop the transfer of technological components for the production of weapons from democratic countries to Russia immediately," Yermak said on July 4, just before Russia launched its Kalibr attack on Lviv.

Zelensky spoke out after a Kalibr missile barrage on the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa in June.

"Dozens of components of these Kalibr missiles were supplied to Russia from other countries," Zelensky said in one of his nightly addresses in mid-June. Ukraine's general staff frequently reports that Russia has launched overnight strikes using Kalibr missiles.

The Kalibr is one of Russia's newest submarine-launched cruise missiles, and it uses chips made by a U.S. semiconductor manufacturer in its radio altimeter, "which allows it to skim along the ground at low level," Hambling said.

But experts said many of the Russian missiles are made with similar components, meaning parts that may be used in a Kalibr could also be fitted into air-launched missiles such as the Kh-101 and Kh-55. Russia often uses them to hit Ukrainian targets, according to Kyiv.

"These look very similar to the Kalibr on the inside" and also use Western components, Williams said.

So once Russia gets its hands on missile components, its military has a lot of flexibility on where they'll be used, he added.

Although some Russian missiles have used "legacy" components apparently manufactured in the late 20th century, some Kalibrs have components made as recently as 2018 or 2019 by U.S. companies, Somerville said.

But at the same time, there has been some movement toward Beijing, experts and Ukrainian sources said. In April, Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a senior adviser in Zelensky's office, said Ukraine's military had been uncovering an increasing number of Chinese components in Russian weapons.

"The trend is now that there is less Western-made components but more—not hard [to] guess which country—made components. Of course, China," Vlasiuk told Reuters.

But "although some components can be sourced from China, many critical components for Russian weapons cannot," RUSI said in August 2022.

And Russia appears to be more self-sufficient in some areas such as turning to Iran for its supply of Shahed-131 and -136 drones that would likely contain fewer Western components, Williams said.

"It is a very difficult problem to solve," Williams said. Export controls "have never been able to fully stop a determined country from doing what it wants to do."

There is no "silver bullet," and sanctions certainly aren't it, Somerville said. But that is not to say they have had no impact.

"It's very likely that it made it harder for the Russians to get these components—they have go through secondary sources where the supply may be more limited," Williams said. "Just because we're still seeing Western components in newly manufactured Russian missiles doesn't mean the sanctions are completely ineffective."

They may have prevented Russia from ramping up the production of missiles, he said.

"A crackdown would certainly have an effect, especially as Russia's missile stockpiles are running down and they are operating 'hand-to-mouth' with weapons seemingly being fired soon after they leave the factory," Hambling said.

Precisely because of Russia's dependence, there is some room for Ukraine's international backers to interfere with Russian missile production, Williams said. But there are also measures to be taken after production, such as making sure the targets of the Russian weapons are hardened, and investing in air defense systems.

Russia will continue to depend on Western technology, Williams predicted, because its defense industry is not in a position to invest in domestic alternatives.

If industry giants and governments put enough effort into controlling the export of the components, it would make it even more difficult for Russia to access the parts, Somerville said, adding that it would likely cost Moscow much more money to keep up the supply. But it would take a multinational effort, not just on a governmental level but from private companies, to squeeze Russia's supply chains tighter, he said.

Newsweek has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry via email for comment.