Once the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, it took US President Joe Biden just minutes to announce sanctions against Russia, a round of trade restrictions targeting "semiconductors, telecommunications, encryption security, lasers and sensors", among other materials, aimed at preventing Moscow's access to cutting-edge technology that could be used in its encirclement of Kiev. The EU did not need much more time; it had prepared - and approved by the EU-27 - the first round of sanctions on Russia days before the fateful 24 February. Six months on, however, the Kremlin's economic isolation does not appear to be fully effective.
Russia's economic indicators do not reflect the real impact of the countless rounds of sanctions pushed from Washington and Brussels in the wake of the invasion, experts say. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates a 6% drop in its economy, contained compared to earlier projections, which predicted a much bleaker outlook for Putin. The Russian president has even had time to mock the trade restrictions to which he is being subjected by the West, although some analysts interpret this as a collapse in Russian industry, caused by restrictions on imports of electronic components. But these materials continue to arrive.
According to a Reuters investigation in collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence think tank based in London, and iStories, a media outlet specialising in Russia, Western-made electronic components have continued to cross the border into Moscow. This is reflected in Russian weapons collected on the battlefield by Ukrainian troops, which the news agency has shown to contain microcontrollers, programmable chips and signal processors of US origin. These parts are indispensable to their operation.
The revelation has caused the companies involved to react. Companies such as Texas Instruments Inc, Altera, owned by Intel Corp, Xilinx, owned by Advanced Micro Devices Inc (AMD), Maxim Integrated Products Inc, acquired last year by Analog Devices Inc, and Cypress Semiconductor, owned by Germany's Infineon AG, have seen their products integrated into weapons used by the Russian military. Commonly used chips have also been found inside the weaponry that make up standard products, also manufactured by Western companies and sometimes not subject to the sanctions.
The trade in computer equipment between the West and Moscow has not stopped, according to the Reuters investigation. From 24 February, the day of the invasion, until the end of May, there have been at least 15,000 shipments of electronic components to Russia from European and US factories. These shipments included microprocessors, programmable chips, storage devices and other items, according to data collected from Russian customs records. The sanctions remain a dead letter, in part because they do not cover all components and, above all, because there are suppliers who continue to trade despite the restrictions.
Some materials have been circulating in Russia since before the invasion, allege companies such as Texas Instrument and Infineon, which were singled out by the investigation. Customs records consulted by Reuters show that some of these parts were shipped before the invasion by third-party suppliers to numerous Russian military companies or other companies with links to the defence industry, such as AO VOMZ, AO NPK Uralvagonzavod and AO Radiopriborsnab, as well as Rostec, the state arms giant. Russia relies on Western technology for its arms industry; indeed, the country has a long history of procuring contraband parts from the US.
Rostec, whose CEO, oligarch Sergey Chemezov, worked with Putin in the KGB, is considered the 'cornerstone' of Russia's industrial, technological and defence sectors, and has been included in the US- and EU-driven sanctions. The company does not produce many electronic components, which is why it relies on foreign imports, but it does carefully control the products it buys, which it tests and certifies for safety.