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Kyiv’s frustration boils as flow of Western chips for Russian missiles continues uninterrupted

by Francis Farrell June 21, 2023 9:36 PM 11 min read
A Ukrainian soldier stands near the wreckage of a S300 missile on March 06, 2023, in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine. (Photo by Diego Fedele/Getty Images)
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Destroyed apartments, burnt-out cars, lives upturned or extinguished altogether: Russia’s June 13 missile attack on the city of Kryvyi Rih was, in many ways, nothing out of the ordinary for wartime Ukraine.

The evening after the attack, which killed 13 civilians, President Volodymyr Zelensky came out in his daily address with a message of frustration: One of the missiles used in the attack had “around 50 components,” primarily microelectronics, produced outside of Russia.

On the same evening, President’s Office Head Andrii Yermak provided more details on Twitter: The missile used in the attack was a Kh-101 cruise missile, not from old stocks, but manufactured only two months earlier.

A view of damage after missile hits residential building in Kryvyi Rhi, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on June 13, 2023. (Arsen Dzodzaiev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For many, Russia’s ability to continue to produce new high-tech missiles over a year into the full-scale war has defied expectations.

For months over autumn and winter, as civilian energy infrastructure was being pounded in regular mass attacks all over Ukraine, Russia was said to be running out of missiles.

Figures published by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in January 2023 claimed that Russia was down to only 19% of its pre-invasion stocks of long-range strategic missiles, having fired 2,237 since Feb. 24, 2022, but only produced 516 in the same time period.

Meanwhile, sanctions introduced by the European Union and the United States at the onset of the full-scale invasion aimed to starve Russia of the components needed to manufacture new missiles, with U.S. President Joe Biden saying on Feb. 24, 2022, that Washington’s sanctions would cut off “more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports.”

In that context, Russia’s almost daily missile and drone barrage against Ukraine over May and early June, most of which was targeted at Kyiv, seemed like an unsustainable policy for Moscow.

Now, according to a Ukrainian internal document shared with the ambassadors of G7 member states and viewed by the Kyiv Independent, Ukrainian estimates have shifted, foreseeing a steady increase in Russian long-range missile production over the rest of 2023.

The primary reason this is possible is the uninterrupted supply of microchips and other high-tech components manufactured by semiconductor giants in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

The document lists a slew of Western-built chips in each of the main high-precision cruise and ballistic missiles regularly used against Ukraine. Many of the manufacturers listed are known to have had their components used in these weapons as early as last summer.

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Brains of missile terror

The internal document viewed by the Kyiv Independent showed components from American, European, and Japanese semiconductor giants in all of the main cruise and ballistic missiles regularly used against Ukraine.

The list of companies includes U.S.- based Texas Instruments, XILINX (subsidiary of AMD), AMD itself, Integrated Device Technology, Altera (subsidiary of Intel), and Cypress Technologies (subsidiary of Infineon), as well as Nexperia and Numonyx, from the Netherlands and Switzerland respectively.

The air-launched Kinzhal ballistic missile, which entered service only in 2017 after Russia’s war against Ukraine already began, was found to contain chips from XILINX, Altera, as well as a gate array from now-defunct Silicon Valley company Actel.

These are the first details known about the components used in the Kinzhal, which could not be shot down by Ukrainian air defense until the recent introduction of the advanced U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

The plethora of Western silicon making up the brains of some other Russian missiles was already documented extensively by a joint investigation by Reuters and the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published in August 2022.

The Reuters/RUSI investigation was given access to downed Kh-101, Iskander 9M727, and Kalibr cruise missiles, finding dozens of components made by the same U.S. and European tech giants.

Mykola Danyliuk, officer of the Center for Research of Trophy weapons, speaks to press during an exhibition of radio details of a new series of X-101 cruise missiles that Russia uses to fire at Ukrainian cities in the ongoing war at military media center in Kyiv on February 16, 2023. (Oleksii Chumachenko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Responding to the findings of the RUSI/Reuters piece, Infineon and AMD both said they would conduct internal investigations into the matter.

The Kyiv Independent reached out to both companies asking for an update on the results of their respective investigations and whether further action had been taken to rein in sanctions circumvention.

"AMD has a robust export compliance program in which we conduct due diligence on all our potential customers and distributors and require our authorized distributors to comply with all U.S. and global export regulations to ensure that there is no sale or diversion of new AMD and Xilinx products into Russia or restricted regions," replied AMD to the query. Infineon did not respond as of the time of publication.

While Kyiv has confirmed the continued production of Russian missiles after the onset of sanctions, the production date of the chips themselves is harder to establish — especially when the missile has successfully detonated — and not specified in the report.

According to an anonymous official in the Ukrainian president’s office familiar with the matter, Kyiv is certain that the missiles include many components shipped to Russia in early 2023, long after the relevant sanctions were put in place by Western countries.

“The study of missiles, or rather their remains, has its own peculiarities,” said Vladyslav Vlasiuk, presidential advisor and coordinator of the Yermak-McFaul group, in a comment to the Kyiv Independent, “but we are sure that the missiles produced in 2023 have almost all the same components.”

An April 2023 investigation by U.K.-based organization Conflict Armament Research found components from Western semiconductor companies produced in August 2022 inside the remains of Lancet kamikaze drones.

The instance is “the first discovery of post-invasion (referring to date of manufacture) components in Russian weapon systems in Ukraine,” the report said, without naming the companies involved to ensure the sensitivity of an ongoing investigation.

The investigation did mention however, that most of the components found by the team were manufactured between 2014-2021, indicating that Russia had likely been able to stock up on most of its chip requirements for a system like the Lancet before launching the full-scale invasion.

According to the source in the presidential office, Kyiv is skeptical whether the Western companies named have made much of a concerted effort to stop their newly manufactured products from making their way into Russia.

According to the official, Ukraine is using diplomatic channels to address the issue, petitioning for the Western government to halt such transactions.

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Silicon highway

Since the first U.S. and EU sanctions were placed against technology that could be used by Russia for military purposes back in 2014, Moscow’s access to Western chips has been easily facilitated by third countries.

“A legal entity from a country that has not imposed sanctions against the Russian Federation simply purchases a microchip, processor, heat-resistant glue or cable in unlimited quantities in the USA, Germany or Taiwan, and then resells the goods to a Russian missile manufacturer,” said Vlasiuk.

“A classic intermediary scheme, where morality is completely absent. Nothing personal. Just business.”

Another investigation published in December last year by Reuters and RUSI, though not focusing on defense industry clients in Russia, used Russian customs records to highlight how new companies had been set up in Turkey and Hong Kong among other countries specifically to facilitate the easy shipment of millions of dollars worth of silicon to Russia.

In one instance, a new Turkish company recorded as having shipped $20 million worth of chips to Russia had been set up by a businessman who already managed a wholesale IT products company in Germany.

“The absolute majority of high-tech components enter Russia through China,” said Vlasiuk.

According to the document, China accounted for 80% of the flow of electronics components to Russia, with over $211 million worth of products shipped over January and February of 2023 alone.

Some of the countries named, particularly China, have been subject of providing covert military support to Russia for months, though Washington continues to assert that they have not seen any evidence of state involvement.

Vlasiuk stopped short of accusing foreign governments in these third countries of deliberately helping Russia circumvent sanctions.

“I think the governments of these countries should make more effort (to stop the flow of components to Russia),” he said.

The internal document obtained by the Kyiv Independent provides a five-point roadmap for taking action on the problem.

Kyiv’s plan proposes placing sanctions on all Russian businesses that facilitate missile production “without exception,” requiring end recipient certificates for the sale of such products abroad, legal liability “for all manufacturing and delivery companies,” political pressure on countries who continue to facilitate the flow of electronic components to Russia, and “constant monitoring” of companies’ compliance with sanctions regime.

The document doesn’t provide specifics on how such mechanisms should be implemented.

The sovereign choice of third countries like China and Turkey not to sanction Russia, combined with the reality of the globalized economy and the huge size of the semiconductor industry pose serious challenges.

Remains of a Russian Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile at an exhibition showing remains of missiles and drones that Russia used to attack Kyiv on May 12, 2023. Fragments of various types of weapons are currently being studied at the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise. (Oleksii Samsonov /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

The European Union is trying to make some progress with its 11th round of sanctions against Russia, agreed on June 21, specifically targeting the circumvention of restrictions, even by actors outside the EU’s jurisdiction.

Though the bloc is not as influential in global electronics and financial markets as the U.S., some of the tools at its disposal include the placing of companies in third countries on a blacklist with travel bans and asset freezes, restricting their access to the EU market, and opening criminal proceedings against individuals accused of avoiding sanctions.

However, five Chinese firms set to be added to EU sanctions lists were removed after talks between EU officials and Chinese diplomats in Brussels, the South China Morning Post reported on June 15.

In countries with less political leverage than China that still play an important role in the silicon highway to Russia, there is hope that the 11th round of sanctions will have an impact when finally passed.

According to Politico, ministers in Armenia and Kazakhstan, both members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union for whom the EU is an important market, said they would comply with Brussels’ sanctions policy and crack down on circumvention.

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Implications

Whatever the details of the sanctions evasion scheme, and whether or not the manufacturers are doing enough to try and stop their products’ flow to Russia, it is becoming increasingly clear that the attempt to limit Russia’s access to such technology through sanctions has failed so far.

The internal document estimates that Russia will double its production of long-range high-precision missiles over 2023 with a projected total of 1,061 missiles, or enough to fire almost 90 per month at Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Russia’s missile campaign against Ukrainian cities has changed its goals several times.

In the first weeks, Russian missiles attempted to knock out Ukrainian air force and air power assets, as described by Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat in a June interview to Ukrainska Pravda.

Then, starting from October, Russia launched regular mass missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure in a failed bid to knock out the country’s electricity grid over winter.

Passers-by look at the site of a downed Russian missile's fragment falling near the Kyiv Zoo on May 16, 2023 in Kyiv. (Andriy Zhyhaylo/Obozrevatel/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Now, although the targets chosen for missile strikes are not usually disclosed if known, and Ukrainian officials have mentioned that Russia has shifted to more military targets over spring, the essence of the new missile strategy is clearer: a battle of endurance against Ukrainian air defense.

As stocks of interceptor missiles for its Soviet-era air defense systems continue to dry up with very limited scope for replacement, Ukraine is relying more and more on Western-backed systems to defend both Ukrainian cities and troops on the front line.

The victory of the U.S.-built Patriot system against a targeted attack by Russian Kinzhal missiles in May was a sign that with enough help, Kyiv can continue to deny Russia air superiority over Ukraine.

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But keeping up this resistance is expensive, with each Patriot interceptor missile costing around $4 million, money that, in the case of the main provider Washington, must come from existing state financial commitments to military aid for Ukraine.

More can be done to constrict Russia’s access to the chips, Kyiv argues, with the alternative being a pricey and protracted struggle in the air with Western technology fighting on both sides.

In the words of Zelensky’s address, “it is definitely cheaper to cut terrorists off the supply of components for terror once and for all than to constantly spend more and more money on new air defense missiles.”

Editor’s Note:  This op-ed has been amended to add the comments received from AMD's media relations department shortly after publication.

Stanislav Storozhenko contributed reporting for this story.


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Francis Farrell, cheers for reading this article. I grew up on the other side of the world, but in Ukraine I have found a home unlike any other. Just like with so many of our readers, I understand that you don't have to be from near here to realize how important Ukraine's struggle is for freedom and human rights all over the world. The Kyiv Independent's mission is to lead the way in continuing to bring the best homegrown, English-language coverage of this war, even if the rest of the world's attention starts to fade. Please consider supporting our reporting.

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