Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

The dangerous loophole in western sanctions on Russia

By Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Michal Wyrebkowski

07 Sep 2023 · 9 min read

informed Summary

  1. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, 1,100 multinational firms have left Russia. Despite this, President Vladimir Putin’s war campaign continues, largely due to his control over 70% of the Russian economy and the use of advanced Russian weaponry and Iranian drones, which rely on U.S. electronic components.

Through a rare, hydra-headed blend of government sanctions and the historic stampede of 1,100 multinational firms out of the country, the economic blockade of Russia has proved highly effective. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war campaign struggles onward, however. This is due, in part, to his ability to cannibalize the 70 percent of the Russian economy that he controls. It is also because the advanced Russian weaponry and Iranian drones he uses are dependent on a stream of U.S. advanced electronic components trickling across the border. The good news is that the U.S. government and U.S. chipmakers can curtail the flow of these gadgets that enable Russia’s instruments of slaughter and destruction.

The Ukrainian steppes have become an arena for a distinctly modern form of warfare, dominated by drones and fortified by Western technology. The reinvigorated Ukrainian military leans heavily on an arsenal that includes Western tanks and drones—which we see in sorties against Russian targets integrating advanced electronics, sensors, and communication systems. Russia finds itself in a tough spot modernizing its military hardware. Striving to achieve technological parity on the battlefield, Russia’s T-90 tanks require substantial amounts of complex electronics, and even then are a far cry from Abrams or Leopard tanks. Russia is also turning to Shahed-136 drones, as unmanned aerial vehicles play an increasingly important role on the battlefield. It is not revelatory to say that all this runs on chips. The tech race reveals a stark divergence, though: Russia’s semiconductor industry is a laggard, choked by Western sanctions and years of disinvestment. Operating at a 65-nanometer chip technology—approximately 15 years behind the curve—the nation struggles to keep pace with the United States and China.

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