“Our goal is to trace that all the way back to the US supplier” to determine “how it made its way into that weapons system,” a Commerce Department official said of the probes.
“The fact that a chip, a company’s chip, is found in a weapons system does not mean that we have opened an investigation into that company,” the official added. “However, what we’ve done is we opened an investigation into how that company’s chip got into that system.”
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It is not clear which specific components are being investigated. But researchers from several countries have identified Western electronics in Russian weapons found in Ukraine. Many of those components appear to have been manufactured years ago, before the United States tightened export restrictions after Russia took Crimea in 2014. But others weren’t manufactured until 2020, according to Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a research group in London that has examined a number of components.
For years, it was legal for companies to sell basic computer chips to Russian military entities without first obtaining permission from the US government, so detecting illegal sales requires determining the chip type and date of sale. Tracing transactions can also be cumbersome as electronic components often pass through a chain of distributors before reaching the end user.
A lawyer representing one of the tech companies contacted said investigators are currently casting a “broad net”, looking at a variety of different chips and electronic components to trace the paths they took to the Russian military.
One of the questions federal agents ask: Whether tech companies have sold their products to a specific list of companies, including intermediaries, who may have been involved in the supply chain, the lawyer said.
Russia itself produces few computer chips or electronics, making it dependent on imports.
For decades, the United States has had tightly controlled sales to Russia of the most advanced chips and chips designed for military use, requiring exporters to obtain a government license. But sales of electronics below that threshold — including the kind commonly found in commercial products — were not generally restricted until 2014, when the United States required exporters to obtain licenses before they could sell a wider variety of chips to the Russian military. .
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the US and many allies have banned all chip sales to Russian military buyers, and restricted the sale of chips to other Russian buyers to prevent the country’s armed forces from accessing Western high-tech.
The federal probes come as investigators and security forces from Ukraine, Britain and elsewhere report that a large number of Western electronics in Russian military equipment have been damaged or left behind in Ukraine.
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CAR last month sent investigators to Ukraine to investigate Russian weapons and communications equipment, and reported finding components from 70 companies in the United States and Europe.
They found the parts in military radios, air defense systems and in the remains of cruise missiles that the Ukrainians found in several cities and towns, Damien Slaaters, one of the CAR researchers, said in an interview.
CAR is refusing to name the western companies involved for the time being, as it is still contacting them to request more information, S Spliters said.
Markings on two foreign-made chips that Splinters examined showed they were manufactured in 2019, he said.
“It’s important to me because it shows that even after Russia took Crimea and put the first package of sanctions against them, they still managed to acquire critical technology, essential components for key equipment that they now have against Ukraine.” use,” said Splinters. said.
Those chips, found in two Russian military radios recovered in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, had scratched off some of their identification markings, suggesting Russia “wanted to make it more difficult to figure out who was involved in the supply chain,” Splinters said.
Another set of chips manufactured by Western companies between 2017 and 2020 were part of missile fragments that hit the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv on March 29, Sbraakers said. At the time, Russian troops were trying to capture a wide swath of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
CAR also examined western-made chips produced between 2013 and 2018 that were part of a missile that landed in central Ukraine on Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion, S Spliters said.
The CAR’s latest findings follow a report from the group late last year that found detailed Western electronics in several Russian military drones.
A team from a separate British group — the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a defense-focused think tank — also recently traveled to Ukraine to inspect Russian equipment and assess the dismantling operations carried out by the Ukrainian military.
A single piece of radio jamming equipment revealed computer chips from a dozen US companies, including Intel, Analog Devices, Texas Instruments and Onsemi, according to a report published by RUSI in April. The kit also included components from half a dozen chipmakers in Europe, Japan and Taiwan.
The report published the part numbers of the components, which The Washington Post used to identify the chip companies.
The radio interference equipment, called Borisoglebsk-2, was designed to interrupt enemy communications and was likely manufactured around 2015 or later, Nick Reynolds, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview.
None of the Western chips are specifically designed for use in military equipment, according to two electrical engineers who went through the component list. The parts were developed for general commercial use, and many were relatively obsolete, being manufactured between 2000 and 2010, the engineers said.
“Many of these components are very general purpose and can be used in a wide variety of devices,” said Peter Bermel, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “Most of the items they offer are available through any commercial computer parts supplier or digital part suppliers.”
“A nontrivial fraction of these parts are now considered obsolete by manufacturers,” Bermel added.
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Reynolds, a land warfare research analyst at RUSI, said Russia’s technical downfall in recent decades, caused in part by a major post-Soviet brain drain, has forced the country to adopt Western chips. “The defense industry struggles to attract and retain talented young engineers, who have often chosen to move abroad,” Reynolds said by email.
Intel spokesman William Moss said that for more than a decade, all of the company’s “sales in Russia have been made through distributors responsible for complying with applicable laws, including U.S. export controls.”
“Intel has suspended all shipments to customers in both Russia and Belarus, and Intel will continue to comply with all applicable export regulations and sanctions,” he added.
Onsemi, a chip company based in Phoenix, said it stopped producing one of the chips found in Russian equipment in 2008. with US export controls and does not currently sell products to Russia or Belarus.
Texas Instruments “complies with applicable laws and regulations” and “does not sell products in Russia or Belarus,” spokeswoman Ellen Fishpaw said.
Analog Devices, the company behind more than a dozen of the components found in the Russian equipment, did not respond to requests for comment.
The RUSI investigators also reported that they inspected a US-made part that the Ukrainian military found in a Russian 9M949 guided missile. The rocket uses the component — a type of electronic device called a fiber optic gyroscope — for navigation, RUSI said.
The British investigators declined to name the American company that made that part, because RUSI continued to investigate that and other parts.