The engine came from a German company that supplies model aircraft enthusiasts. Computer chips for navigation and wireless communication were manufactured by American suppliers. The British company has introduced a chip that senses movement. Other parts came from Switzerland and South Korea.
“I was surprised when we looked at it all together to see the diversity of the different countries that produced all these components,” said Damien Splitters, an investigator with the British Conflict Armament Research (CAR) group, who traveled to Ukraine to sort out a few drones. All were loaded with western electronics.
Without these details, said Splitters, who summed up his findings in a report funded by the European Union and Germany, Russia would be “much harder to produce and operate drones, of course.”
In the wake of rising tensions over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials are considering imposing trade sanctions aimed at depriving Russia of foreign-made computer chips and electronics. Splitters’ research shows how much the ban could harm the Russian military – and why it can be difficult to implement.
Russia is known for its scientists and hackers, but produces little of its own electronics and computer equipment, relying mainly on imports. However, blocking the flow of these goods can prove difficult.
Some of the components of the drone that CAR has identified traveled to Russia through obscure intermediaries and small trading companies whose business was difficult to track.
Moreover, the relatively small volumes that the Russian military is likely to need may allow them to secretly purchase components, said Malcolm Penn, executive director of the London-based semiconductor research firm Future Horizons.
“If you only want 500 or 1,000, it’s easy to do, and it’s very hard to stop,” he said. “Throughout the Cold War, when there were theoretically no exports to the Soviet Union, it didn’t stop them from getting things. There are always men with suitcases who go to the Far East, buy things and come back. “
Another big wild card is China, which could thwart any US attempt to stifle Russia’s chips. CAR estimated that the drones it reviewed were built between 2013 and 2016, when Western vendors were more dominant in the chip industry. China has since become a much larger producer of electronic components, and is unlikely to fully comply with any blockade attempts, technology experts said.
Russia relies on Asian and Western countries to supply most of its consumer electronics and computer chips, which are the brains that make electronics work. Imports of these goods to Russia in 2020 exceeded $ 38 billion, according to the United Nations.
According to Penn, who visited some businesses in the early 1990s, there were many small semiconductor plants in the Soviet Union that produced chips, mostly for military use. But the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed Russia into a long period of turmoil that disrupted the development of high-tech industries and production.
“The microelectronics industry was completely destroyed in the 1990s,” said Sam Bendet, a Russian military analyst with the Virginia CNA Research Group. “It was just easier to import these technologies that were widely available in the global market.”
The Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
In Russia, there are some manufacturers that produce chips of old designs, including “Micron”, founded in Soviet times near Moscow. Businesses in the country are also developing chips known as Baikal and Elbrus – the latter used by the military – but many of the designs are sent for manufacturing to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest foundry.
Russian defense contractors in recent years say they have resumed some domestic production of high-tech military equipment, including drones and their components, Bendet said.
United States and the European Union is already restricting their defense electronics exports to Russia and has tightened those rules in recent years. Nevertheless, Russian networks have found ways to circumvent these obstacles. In 2015, several Russian agents were convicted or found guilty of federal charges of using a Texas company they set up to illegally export high-tech chips to Russian military and intelligence agencies.
As part of a broader blockade seen by U.S. officials, the United States may force many countries to cut chip exports to Russia, telling them they are not allowed to use U.S. technology to produce components for Russian buyers. According to analysts, most chip factories around the world, including in China and Taiwan, use American tools or software in the manufacturing process.
The United States could limit the ban on Russia’s military and high-tech sectors or apply it more widely, potentially depriving Russian citizens of some smartphones, tablets and game consoles, The Washington Post reported recently, citing administration officials.
At the invitation of the special services of Ukraine in late 2018, Splitters flew to Kiev from the Central Asian Republic to steam the downed in 2017 drone.
Using a duffel bag stuffed with screwdrivers, hex keys and cameras, Splitters disassembled and photographed the plane, looking for serial numbers and markings that could help determine where the parts came from.
He and his colleagues then contacted component suppliers to try to trace how the parts ended up in the drone.
One motion-sensing chip was manufactured by the British company Silicon Sensing Systems, which manufactures components for drones, car navigation systems and industrial equipment. The company told CAR that it sold the chip in August 2012 to a Russian electronics distributor, shipping it via UPS in a package of 50 components, the CAR report said.
A Russian distributor told Silicon Sensing that the chip is planned to be used in a drone; He later added that he had sold the chip to a Russian company called ANO PO KSI, which he said purchased such items for educational institutions in Russia, the CAR report said.
On its website, ANO PO KSI describes itself as a non-profit organization that manufactures high-tech products, including document scanners and cameras, for the Russian government and business customers. The organization did not respond to a request for comment.
In an email to The Post, Silicon Sensing said it “vigorously” complies with “all export control laws and policies wherever we do business.”
“These components were sold in 2012 to a commercial company that was not on the embargo list at the time. We have stopped doing business with this company and any related organizations, ”added Silicon Sensing.
The drone also contained American-made components designed for navigation and wireless communication. One of the suppliers, Digi International, based in Hopkins, Minion, told CAR that it sold the wireless component to a U.S. distributor in March 2012, but that the distributor was unable to determine the final recipient, according to CAR. report.
Digi International told The Post it is inspecting all sales to make sure it is not supplying banned parties that violate U.S. export control laws.
“We do not know how the goods in question ended up in a Russian drone. We do not justify the use of our modules by foreign entities in military cases, ”the company said in a statement.
Maxim Integrated of San Jose, Calif., Told CAR that it produces a navigation component found in a drone in 2013 and sent it to its distributors in January 2014. He added that the component “is not intended for use in unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Maxim’s parent company, Analog Devices, declined to specify for The Post what the component is used for. In an email, the company said it was “committed to full compliance with U.S. laws, including U.S. export controls, trade sanctions and regulations.”
Other companies in Switzerland and the UK have told CAR that they cannot track the chain of suppliers that handled their components.
The engine of the drone – a single-cylinder unit with electronic ignition – went a particularly mysterious route from a small company near Frankfurt in Germany, which produces parts for aircraft models.
3W-Modellmotoren Weinhold, which did not respond to The Post’s request for comment, told CAR that it sent the engine to the Czech-based World Logistic Group in October 2013.
The Czech company, which ceased operations in 2018, could not be reached for comment. The company was founded in the resort town of Karlovy Vary in 2008 by two Moscow residents, according to Czech business registration documents defined by CAR and reviewed by The Post.
From 2012 to 2014, the director of the company, according to these documents, was the third resident of Moscow. CAR researchers found that this man was also a member of the advisory board at the General Directorate of Public Safety at the Moscow Regional Office.
The directorate was set up to “implement state policy in the field of socio-economic security,” according to the website of the Moscow regional government.
According to the CAR, similar models of drones were found after flights over Syria and Libya, countries where Russian troops or mercenaries also took part in hostilities. Lithuania, a member of NATO, has identified an identical model that crashed on its territory in 2016. It contained foreign-made components and Russian software, according to the security services of the Central Asian republics and Lithuania.
The case shows “what Russia is using [drones] to gather intelligence not only in conflict zones, but also in peacetime in neighboring NATO countries, “- said in a document of the Lithuanian authorities in 2019.
Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.