After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West announced tough new sanctions and tech companies said they had halted all exports to Russia. Yet supplies of Western computer parts continued, a joint investigation finds.
As Russian missiles struck Ukraine, Western tech still flowed
With the tip of a hunting knife, a senior Ukrainian security official removed 18 screws and lifted off the lid of a small black metal box. Inside were four sliding panels packed with scores of computer chips.
This was the electronic brain of an unexploded Russian 9M727 cruise missile — one of the devastating weapons Russia has used to strike Ukraine since it invaded the country on Feb. 24. Russian troops have fired more than 3,650 missiles and guided rockets in the first five months of the war, according to Ukrainian authorities, destroying military targets as well as apartment buildings, shopping centers, and killing hundreds of civilians. On July 14, three cruise missiles struck the city of Vinnytsia, killing 27 people, including a four-year-old girl, Ukrainian authorities say. Russia says it only fires at military targets.
The black metal box, as well as other Russian weaponry shown to Reuters, were collected on the battlefield by Ukraine’s military. They contain Russian electronics bearing Cyrillic markings, sometimes handwritten.
But many of 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 last year by Analog Devices Inc. Chips made by Cypress Semiconductor, now owned by Germany’s Infineon AG, were also visible.
“It’s quite simple,” said the senior Ukrainian official, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Without those U.S. chips, Russian missiles and most Russian weapons would not work.”
The Western components in the Russian weapons were examined as part of an investigation by Reuters 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 the Russian weapons have been subject to special export licensing requirements for years, the investigation found that many of the armaments also contain run-of-the-mill computer chips and other components found in consumer products. These are easily obtainable and in many cases aren’t subject to export restrictions.
After the invasion, the United States and other countries banned high-tech exports to Russia to try to cripple its defense industry and tech companies announced that they had halted all exports to Russia. Yet the reporting team found that the flow of Western brand-name computer parts to Russia hasn’t stopped, with thousands of shipments since the invasion of Ukraine. The shippers were mainly unauthorized suppliers, but they also included some manufacturers.
Reuters provided to AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel and Texas Instruments data from Russian customs records on shipments of their products to Russia that arrived after the invasion.
Three of the manufacturers – AMD, Analog Devices and Infineon – said they had launched internal investigations after Reuters provided the customs data showing thousands of recent shipments of their products to Russia by third-party sellers. Infineon and Texas Instruments said products that they had shipped were already in transit at the time of the invasion. Intel said goods it shipped were internal company deliveries before it ceased its Russian operations in early April.
Asked about their chips’ use in Russian weapons systems, the companies said they comply with export controls and trade sanctions. Infineon said it was “deeply concerned should our products be used for purposes for which they were not designed.” Intel said it “does not support or tolerate our products being used to violate human rights.”
Russia’s reliance on Western electronics for its weapon systems has been known for years. Moscow has a long history of acquiring smuggled military-grade parts from the United States, including costly specialized chips for satellites that can withstand radiation in space. On the day of the invasion, the White House announced that the United States and its allies were imposing “Russia-wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics and maritime technologies” that it said would “cut off Russia’s access to cutting edge technology.” Many non-military tech products, however, remain exempt.
Russia characterizes the conflict as a special military operation meant to disarm Ukraine. Moscow has cast the sanctions as a hostile act and has denied targeting civilians.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Commerce, which administers export restrictions, said, “The powerful export controls put in place by the U.S. and 37 allies and partners are severely impacting Russia’s access to items and technologies it needs to sustain its military aggression, including semiconductors. As time goes on and their stockpiles continue to diminish, our controls will bite even harder.”
“We will remain vigilant and engaged with our allies and partners in enforcing our controls,” he said.
The onboard computer system inside the cruise missile’s black metal box shows that Russia doesn’t just rely on state-of-the-art technology for its precision weaponry. For example, stamps on two of the Texas Instruments chips – which process digital signals – showed they were manufactured more than 30 years ago.
“For the most part, it’s the same chips that you find in your car or your microwave,” said a Ukrainian weapons expert with access to recovered Russian military gear.
Gehan Amaratunga, 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 recovered in Ukraine. “They are mostly standard products which are dated and can be found in many industrial electronic systems,” he said. “As such, they are not specialist military specification products.”
Still, he added, “it is the reality that all standard integrated circuits can be used for both civilian and military purposes.”
“Attention! We are working normally. Our warehouses are ready to supply equipment to customers from the Russian Federation despite EU and U.S. sanctions.”
Despite what the West has described as an unprecedented series of strict sanctions against Russia, many commodity electronic components still aren’t subject to export controls. And even if they are, there’s 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 review by Reuters of Russian customs records identified more than 15,000 shipments of Western electronic components that reached Russia after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine through the end of May. The manufacturers included AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon, Intel and Texas Instruments.
The parts included microprocessors, programmable chips, storage devices and other items, according to the Russian customs data.
Russia itself has made no secret of its desire to continue the flow of imported Western tech products. In June, President Vladimir Putin signed a law to permit Russian companies to import electrical goods and their components without the patent owners’ permission.
One Moscow-based computer retailer, Kvantech, now proclaims at the top of its website in Russian: “Attention! We are working normally. Our warehouses are ready to supply equipment to customers from the Russian Federation despite EU and U.S. sanctions.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce declined to comment. The EU didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Russian website features the logos of more than a half-dozen top U.S. technology companies. Asked how Kvantech manages to continue procuring Western computer equipment, a company official who gave his name only as Viktor said it was “a commercial secret.”
Reuters obtained the Russian customs records from three commercial providers, including one that had 2022 data. To verify the most recent data, the news agency cross-checked a sample of that provider’s earlier records – including the date, buyer, seller, international product code and other information – with the two other sources and found that they matched.
Andre Tauber, a spokesman for Infineon, said the German company had launched an internal investigation based on Reuters findings, which identified more than 450 shipments to Russia between Feb. 25 and May 30 of products made by Infineon-owned Cypress Semiconductor. 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 actions as needed,” Tauber said. “Infineon takes this matter very seriously.”
He added that “Infineon instructed all distribution partners globally to prevent deliveries of Infineon products or services contrary to the sanctions and their spirit.” He said, “Compliance with applicable laws is of utmost importance for Infineon, and we have established robust policies and processes to comply with these laws. It proves difficult to control ongoing sales throughout the entire supply chain.”
A spokesperson for AMD said the firm is investigating Russian customs data shared by Reuters showing that between March 2 and May 31, there were about 200 shipments of AMD components and nearly 700 shipments of Xilinx components to Russia.
“The information shared is concerning,” a spokesperson said. While the company has “not seen any diversion of AMD products into Russia … AMD takes these matters very seriously and we have commenced a thorough review of the data to identify potential issues.”
Reuters shared with Analog Devices Russian customs data showing that since the invasion, there have been more than 7,700 shipments to Russia of its components through the end of May. There have also been nearly 900 shipments of parts made by Maxim Integrated, which Analog Devices owns, the data showed.
A spokesman for Analog Devices said, “Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in compliance with U.S. and EU sanctions, Analog Devices ceased business activities in Russia and promptly instructed all of its distributors to halt shipments of our products into Russia.”
The spokesman added, “We take this seriously and are investigating the veracity of the” Russian customs data “and whether any of our distributors violated our express instructions. Any post-sanctions shipment to Russia would be in direct violation of ADI’s express instructions.”
A spokeswoman for Texas Instruments said it had conducted “an in-depth review” and found that 36 shipments by the company and six by one of its authorized distributors that arrived in Russia in late February and early March “were in transit before the invasion began.” Reuters found nearly 1,300 additional shipments of Texas Instruments parts to Russia by third-party sellers.
“We stand behind our earlier statement that we are not selling into Russia … and comply with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate,” the spokeswoman said.
Asked about more than 80 shipments of Intel products that arrived in Russia in March, a spokesman for Intel said, “In certain cases, these are internal Intel shipments to our offices in Russia, which supported software development work until our cessation of operations on April 5th.”
In addition, more than 1,300 shipments of Intel components and 800 shipments of Altera parts from other companies “in most cases … appear to be shipments from third-party suppliers who may have obtained their inventory from various sources,” he said.
“Intel has a clear policy that our distributors and customers must comply with all export requirements and local and international laws,” the spokesman said.
Russia relies on Western technology for some of its weapons systems because it doesn’t produce many of the required electronics parts itself. But Russian defense companies don’t just use any available components. Even the most ordinary chips must pass through a strict bureaucratic procurement process designed to test and certify them and make sure they don’t contain “back doors” that could enable Western spying or sabotage.
The use of foreign-made chips in U.S. military equipment is a top concern in Washington as well, “because there can be vulnerabilities that are manufactured into them,” said Ian Williams, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The Russians are very aware of this, too.”
In a measure of how seriously Russian authorities view infiltration risks, a Ukrainian expert with access to Russian weapons showed Reuters photographs of three small holographic stickers bearing the sword-and-shield logo of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, its main intelligence agency.
The stickers appeared on electronic components recovered from Russian missiles, combat helicopters and fighter aircraft, the expert said. The FSB didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
To prevent compromised components from making their way into Russian weapons, the Kremlin relies on a scientific institute located near Moscow. Recently renamed the All-Russian Research Institute of Radio Electronics, the body acts as a central certifier of all electronic parts used by the defense industry, including manufacturing, as well as repairs, upgrades and even experiments, said two people familiar with the process.
The institute’s central role was bolstered last year when Putin issued a decree elevating it to the rank of strategic enterprise. The institute cooperates with a large network of labs and certification centers to fulfill its task of cataloging, testing and validating tens of thousands of components.
The master list of authorized domestic and imported electronic components curated by the institute can be accessed online by accredited Russian companies. In addition, research and production companies from Russia’s defense industry can submit lists of electronic parts they wish to use for a new project, and the institute tries to make sure they don’t include any unauthorized components.
One of the institute’s mandates is to encourage Russian manufacturers to use domestically produced electronics, if possible.
But an institute document seen by Reuters suggests that many Western components have no Russian equivalents. In 2017, the institute reviewed a proposed helicopter-mounted radio-jamming station – designed to disrupt enemy communications – and determined that of the 921 foreign components the design called for, only 242 could be procured from Russian manufacturers at the time, the document showed. The Kremlin and the institute didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Reuters was unable to trace how specific Western chips found inside Russian weapons in Ukraine got there.
However, a review of the Russian customs records shows that some of the same parts were shipped before the invasion by third-party suppliers to several Russian military companies or to other firms with links to the defense industry.
Among the importers named on the customs records as having received some of the same types of Western chips found in Russian weapons are AO VOMZ, AO NPK Uralvagonzavod and AO Radiopriborsnab. According to Russian corporate records, Rostec – a state-owned defense giant – has an indirect ownership stake in all three companies.
In June, the U.S. Department of the Treasury called Rostec “the cornerstone of Russia’s defense, industrial, technology, and manufacturing sectors.” It is headed by Sergey Chemezov, a former intelligence officer who once worked with Putin in the KGB.
Rostec and Chemezov have been targeted with sanctions by Washington, the European Union and other countries. Rostec and Chemezov did not respond to a request for comment.
Radiopriborsnab describes itself on its website as a supplier of electronic components. According to Russian customs records, it has imported Altera and Xilinx chips, the same kind found in Russian radio and electronic-warfare equipment recovered in Ukraine.
Another five Russian importers have participated in tenders to supply Russian weapons manufacturers, according to data from Goszakupki, Russia’s official public procurement platform.
Two of those five importers – OOO Trade-Component and AO GK Radiant – were sanctioned last year by the U.S. government, which accused them of trying to procure American components “likely” for use in Russian military programs.
The Russian importers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Russia has become adept at converting consumer-grade chips for military use. For example, Western weapons manufacturers often rely on special military-grade versions of chips to ensure they can withstand very high temperatures. Since such chips are subject to export controls and harder to procure, Russian weapons companies have found alternatives, according to one of three Ukrainian weapons experts interviewed by Reuters.
Holding the rugged black metal box containing a missile’s on-board computer, the expert pointed to a heat sink designed to cool the electronic components inside, as well as a thick insulation seal.
“In Russia, they take the consumer version and put some protection around it,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Russian weaponry is outdated, another Ukrainian expert said, noting that the designs of many Russian weapons feature pioneering concepts. Examining the innards of a Russian cruise missile, he found what he said was true technological prowess: a satellite-navigation antenna engraved on a piece of ceramic the size of a postage stamp.
“This is quite something,” the expert said. “A lot of people would be interested in seeing this, even the Americans.”
Among the Western electronics found in Russian weapons, one particular type of integrated circuit stands out, according to Western microelectronics experts: programmable chips, known as Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or FPGAs.
One FPGA – a shiny black Altera Cyclone II chip – was mounted between the gyroscopes of a navigation system recovered in Ukraine from a Russian precision-artillery rocket known as a 9M544.
The programmable chips, which have been available for decades, give electronic-equipment manufacturers enormous flexibility because they quickly can be reprogrammed to perform whatever new task is necessary, said Daniel Nenni, a veteran semiconductor professional and co-author of a book on FPGAs.
This is particularly useful for weapons manufacturers whose products require upgrades and modifications through their typically long life cycles, Nenni said.
At a time when many industries are starved for chips because of global supply-chain shortages, another advantage of FPGAs is that they can be recycled.
“The key about the FPGAs is that you can reuse them,” Nenni said. “You can buy a washing machine, take an FPGA out and put it in a missile. It’s that simple because you can reprogram it to do whatever you want.”
Additional reporting by Sonya Savina and Masha Zholobova of iStories.
By David Gauthier-Villars from Kyiv; Steve Stecklow, Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill from London; and Maurice Tamman from New York
Graphics: Michael Ovaska and Samuel Granados
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Video: Lucy Ha and Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey
Art direction: John Emerson
Edited by Janet McBride