Russia’s Backdoor for Battlefield Goods From China: Central Asia

Trade routes snaking through former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are among the many paths into Russia for so-called dual-use goods—singled out by the U.S. and its allies because they can be used on the battlefield.
Trade routes snaking through former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are among the many paths into Russia for so-called dual-use goods—singled out by the U.S. and its allies because they can be used on the battlefield.

Summary

Trade routes through the region are increasingly important to Moscow’s efforts to thwart Western sanctions.

SINGAPORE—Two years after the invasion of Ukraine, drones and U.S.-made computer chips are increasingly flowing to Russia from China through Central Asian trade routes, showing the difficulty of strangling supplies to Moscow’s war effort.

Trade routes snaking through former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are among the many paths into Russia for so-called dual-use goods—singled out by the U.S. and its allies because they can be used on the battlefield.

Despite their efforts, Central Asia is a growing pipeline for Russia, made possible by thousands of miles of open borders, opaque trade practices and opportunistic middlemen. The goods often originate in China, where they are manufactured in some cases by major U.S. companies, which say the items are being imported by Russia without their permission.

“The Central Asian trade route is especially important because it feeds a high concentration of Western-produced goods into Russia. It is a key route for microelectronics, car parts, luxury goods—items both used on the battlefield in Ukraine and for personal consumption," said Natalie Simpson, a Russia analyst at C4ADS, a Washington-based nonprofit research firm that specializes in national security.

The U.S. and its allies maintain a list of dual-use goods targeted by sanctions, including computer chips, routers and ball bearings used in tanks. There were 45 items on the list last year, with another five added in February.

Chinese exports of dual-use goods to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have surged since February 2022, when the war began, according to China’s customs data. Exports of the 45 targeted goods rose to $1.3 billion in 2023, up 64% over 2022 levels. Many of these goods were then sent to Russia, according to trade records shared by C4ADS.

The two Central Asian nations aren’t the only source of dual-use goods to Russia. Goods are also flowing through countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. China, the largest source, exported $4.5 billion of such goods directly to Russia last year.

“Chinese companies shipping their own products can take the direct route across the border, but those who are transshipping Western goods often look for an extra degree of obfuscation," said Simpson. “They can find this in Central Asia."

Drones, which aren’t on the list of sanctioned goods, have become an essential tool of war. In the two years before the war, China didn’t report exporting a single drone to Kazakhstan.

But in 2023, Kazakhstan bought $5.9 million worth of unmanned aircraft from China and exported $2.7 million worth of such products to Russia, according to Kazakhstan and Chinese trade data. Kazakhstan isn’t a major producer of drones.

Diverted trade originating from China and traveling through Central Asia has only risen in importance as U.S. and European Union regulators have clamped down on their own chip exports. In 2022, the first year of the war, millions of dollars worth of U.S. and EU chips exports ended up in Russia via Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. But in 2023, U.S. and EU chip exports to those countries fell by 28% to about $22 million.

U.S. and European officials have pressed these nations and China to clamp down on gray-market trade with Russia.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan didn’t reply to requests for comment. China’s Foreign Ministry said that Russia was an important trading partner and that it had nothing to hide. “China always handles export of military items in a prudent and responsible manner, and has followed relevant laws and regulations when it comes to the export controls of dual-use items," it said.

China is already the largest official source of Moscow’s imports, with bilateral trade roughly doubling to $200 billion in 2023 over the past five years, according to Chinese trade data. China sells computer chips, jet-fighter parts and jamming technology to Russian defense companies, The Wall Street Journal has reported. China has said it doesn’t send lethal weapons to parties involved in conflicts, and the U.S. hasn’t accused it of doing so.

Still, shipments of battlefield items, even if nonlethal, threaten to become a sticking point between U.S., Chinese and European leaders. U.S. trade officials have raised concerns with Beijing about Chinese companies violating export controls by transshipping U.S. items to Russia.

Russia managed to import $8.8 billion worth of dual-use goods from around the world in the first 10 months of 2023, just 10% lower than in the pre-sanctions period, according to a January report by the Kyiv School of Economics.

Russia stopped publishing detailed trade data after the invasion and resumed releasing some data a year later. Using commercially available Russian customs records, C4ADS said it was able to track about $64 million of goods exported to Russia from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during the first seven months of 2023, although it cautioned the data set it was working with may not reflect the full extent of the transactions.

Many of the goods that are originating in China are made by U.S. companies, according to a review of customs databases. For example, seven shipments of “computing machine devices" that are considered dual-use goods were made in June 2023 from a Chinese subsidiary of International Business Machines to a trader in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Those shipments, worth $3,700, ended up at OOO BSO, a Russian business on a Treasury Department blacklist.

IBM said it doesn’t do business with those companies and is conducting an internal review. “Any diversion of IBM products to Russia is happening in direct violation of our company’s policies and internal controls," an IBM spokeswoman said.

In another instance around the same time, a shipment of transistors left the Chinese factory of Vishay Intertechnology, an electronics company based in Malvern, Pa. The Vishay components were sold to a Kazakh company, which then resold them to a Russian electronics wholesaler, according to customs data.

A database run by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry shows transistors made by Vishay turning up in Russian reconnaissance drones and satellite communication stations on the battlefront. Vishay didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Kazakh company involved in the transaction, Elem Group, was added to the U.S. Commerce Department’s trade blacklist in December for its potential role in the diversion of export-controlled items. Elem Group exported at least $1.15 million worth of products to Russia between March and August 2023, according to U.S.-based trade-data aggregator ImportGenius.

They included electronic items produced by U.S. companies, including Texas Instruments, based in Dallas, and Analog Devices, based in Wilmington, Mass. China was the largest supplier to Elem Group in the same period, the data shows, providing about 35% of its imports.

Write to Clarence Leong at clarence.leong@wsj.com and Liza Lin at liza.lin@wsj.com

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