As Russian missiles struck Ukraine, Western tech still flowed

Kyiv, Ukraine

With the tip of a hunting knife, a senior Ukrainian security official removed 18 screws and removed the lid of a small black metal box. Inside were four sliding panels filled with scores of computer chips.

It was the electronic brain of an unexploded Russian 9M727 cruise missile — one of the most devastating weapons Russia has used to attack Ukraine since its February 24 invasion. The Russian military has fired more than 3,650 missiles and guided rockets in the first five months. According to Ukrainian officials, the war destroyed military targets as well as apartment buildings, shopping centers and killed hundreds of civilians. On July 14, three cruise missiles struck the city of Vinnytsia, killing 27 people, including a four-year-old girl, Ukrainian officials said. Russia says it only fires at military targets.

The black metal box, as well as other Russian weapons shown to Reuters, were collected from the battlefield by Ukrainian forces. They contain Russian electronics with Cyrillic markings, sometimes handwritten.

But the most important electronic components inside are microcontrollers, programmable chips and signal processors stamped with the names of American chip-makers, including Texas Instruments Inc; Altera, owned by Intel Corp; Xilinx, owned by Advanced Micro Devices Inc (AMD); and Maxim Integrated Products Inc., acquired by Analog Devices Inc. last year. Chips made by Cypress Semiconductor, now owned by Germany’s Infineon AG, were also visible.

“It’s very simple,” said a senior Ukrainian official, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Without those US chips, Russian missiles and most Russian weapons won’t work.”

Western components in Russian weapons were investigated in collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based defense think tank, and iStories, a Russia-focused investigative news site.

While some of the more sophisticated Western chips in Russian weapons have been subject to special export licensing requirements for years, the investigation found that many of the weapons also contained run-of-the-mill computer chips and other components found in consumer products. These are easily obtainable and in most cases not subject to export restrictions.

After the invasion, the United States and other countries banned high-technology exports to Russia in an attempt to cripple its defense industry, and technology companies announced that they had stopped all exports to Russia. Yet the reporting team found that the flow of Western brand-name computer parts to Russia has not stopped since the invasion of Ukraine, including thousands of shipments. Shippers were primarily unofficial suppliers, but included some manufacturers.

Reuters provided AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel and Texas Instruments with data from Russian customs records on shipments of their products to Russia that arrived after the attack.

Three manufacturers – AMD, Analog Devices and Infineon – said they had launched an internal investigation after Reuters provided customs data showing thousands of recent shipments of their products to Russia through third-party vendors. Infineon and Texas Instruments said the products they shipped were already in transit at the time of the attack. Intel said the shipment was an internal company distribution before it shut down its Russian operations in early April.

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When asked about the use of their chips in Russian weapons systems, the companies said they comply with export controls and trade restrictions. Infineon said it is “very concerned if our products are used for purposes for which they were not designed.” Intel said it “does not support or tolerate the use of our products to violate human rights.”

Russia’s reliance on Western electronics for its weapons systems has been known for years. Moscow has a long history of getting military-grade parts smuggled from the United States, including expensive specialized chips for satellites that can withstand space radiation. On the day of the attack, the White House announced that the United States and its allies were imposing Russia-wide sanctions on “semiconductor, telecommunications, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics, and maritime technology” that it said would “reduce Russia’s access to sophisticated technology.” is closed.” Many non-military technology products, however, remain exempt.

Russia characterizes the conflict as a special military operation to disarm Ukraine. Moscow has cast the sanctions as countermeasures and denied targeting civilians.

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Commerce, which administers export sanctions, said, “Strong export controls imposed by the US and 37 allies and partners are seriously affecting access to goods and technology needed to sustain a Russian military offensive. As time goes on, our control will become more difficult.

“We will remain vigilant and engage with our allies and partners to enforce our controls,” he said.

Microwave-oven chips

The onboard computer system in the cruise missile’s black metal box shows that Russia is not just relying on sophisticated technology for its precision weapons. For example, the stamps on two Texas Instruments chips—which process digital signals—were created more than 30 years ago.

“For the most part, these are the same chips you find in your car or in your microwave,” said a Ukrainian weapons expert who has access to Russian military gear.

Gehan Amartunga, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Cambridge, reviewed a list of more than 600 Western components compiled by RUSI and Reuters that were found in Russian weapons and military systems seized in Ukraine. “They are mostly standard products that are dated and can be found in many industrial electronic systems,” he said. “As such, they are not specialist military detail products.”

Still, he added, “the reality is that all standard integrated circuits can be used for both civilian and military purposes.”

“Attention! We are operating normally. Our warehouses are ready to supply equipment to customers in the Russian Federation despite EU and US sanctions.

Despite what the West has described as an unprecedented series of tough sanctions against Russia, many commodity electronic components are still not subject to export controls. And even if they are, there is a global galaxy of suppliers and traders in East Asia and other countries that are willing to ship them and are often beyond the control of Western manufacturers.

A Reuters review of Russian customs records identified shipments of more than 15,000 Western electronic components that reached Russia after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine by the end of May. Manufacturers included AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel and Texas Instruments.

The parts included microprocessors, programmable chips, storage devices and other items, according to Russian customs data.

Russia itself has made no secret of its desire to continue the flow of imported Western technology products. In June, President Vladimir Putin signed a law to allow Russian companies to import electrical goods and their components without permission from patent owners.

A Moscow-based computer retailer, Kvantech, now announces in Russian at the top of its website: “Caution! We are working normally. Our warehouses are ready to supply equipment to customers in the Russian Federation despite EU and US restrictions.

The US Commerce Department declined to comment. The EU did not respond to a request for comment.

Russian websites feature the logos of more than half a dozen top US technology companies. Asked how Kvantech manages to continue buying Western computer equipment, a company official who gave his name only as Victor said it was a “trade secret”.

Reuters obtained Russian customs records from three commercial providers, including 2022 data. To verify the most recent data, the news agency cross-checked a sample of that provider’s previous records — including date, buyer, seller, international product code and other information — with two other sources and found a match.

Infineon spokesman Andre Tauber said the German company had launched an internal investigation based on Reuters findings, which identified more than 450 shipments to Russia of products made by Infineon-owned Cypress Semiconductor between February 25 and May 30. Reuters also found nearly 2,500 shipments of Infineon products that arrived in Russia after the invasion.

“We are in the process of reviewing and verifying the information you provided and will take appropriate action as necessary,” Tauber said. “Infineon takes this matter very seriously.”

He added that “Infineon instructed all distribution partners globally to prevent the restriction and distribution of Infineon products or services against their will.” He said, “Compliance with applicable laws is extremely important to Infineon and we have established robust policies and procedures to comply with these laws. It is difficult to control the sales going on throughout the supply chain.”

An AMD spokesman said the firm was examining Russian customs data shared by Reuters showing that between March 2 and May 31, there were about 200 shipments of AMD components and about 700 shipments of Xilinx components to Russia.

“The information shared is relevant,” a spokesperson said. The company “has not observed any diversion of AMD products to Russia … AMD takes these matters very seriously and we have begun a thorough review of the data to identify potential issues.”

Reuters shared Russian customs data with analog devices that show more than 7,700 shipments of its components to Russia since the attack, through the end of May. There have also been nearly 900 shipments of parts made by Maxim Integrated, which owns Analog Devices, the data shows.

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