US sanctions are hindering the supply of high-tech equipment to China, Beijing is very concerned about its own microchip production and is making every effort to upgrade its own fleet of photolithography machines. As a result, machines of previous generations may appear on the secondary market.

At the same time, Russia is also extremely interested in producing its own microchips, which are needed to create its own missiles, UAVs, and drones. No, Russia is not pursuing the goal of becoming a high-tech authority in the chip market; it is interested in the possibility of mass production at the 65-nanometer scale. Currently, it has only a 90-nanometer (nm) process available to it. By comparison, the US is preparing to transition to 2 nm, and China is trying its best to lower the bar below 10 nm.

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However, even 90 and 65 nm are of great interest to Russia, which produces tens of thousands of FPV drones for its army monthly, as well as missiles, drones, and other devices that require modern microprocessors. Russia cannot manufacture its own photolithography machines for production of chips, nor can it buy them directly from manufacturers because of sanctions – it only has access to the secondary market (say, China). But it will most likely buy supplies for these machines from Western companies and Japan. And apparently does so, given the scale of production of the strike drones flying to Ukrainian positions every day.

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Olga Shapoval, executive director of the Kharkiv IT Cluster, told Kyiv Post how tech companies in Kharkiv have learned to leverage their proximity to the front to their advantage.

Due to the sanctions, Russian missile and strike drone manufacturers cannot freely purchase high-quality microprocessors directly from manufacturers.

To understand the nuances of the situation, it is worth taking a brief excursion into the world of chip manufacturing. A chip, or microprocessor, is a very delicate product that only a very small number of manufacturers in the world can produce. Taiwanese TSMC, along with Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung are considered the world’s main chipmakers. Thus, due to the sanctions imposed on Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian missile and strike drone manufacturers cannot freely purchase high-quality microprocessors directly from manufacturers. There have been known cases where Russians have bought batches of chips abroad, supposedly for repairing laptops, washing machines, and various household appliances, erased the manufacturer’s name with acetone, and inserted them into kamikaze drones, reconnaissance drones, and missiles of their own production. At least, these are the chips that the Ukrainian military has repeatedly found when examining the “innards” of the Russian weapons they have shot down. After all, any microprocessor is a dual-use product, and it makes no difference whether it is in a washing machine or a missile flying at an apartment building in Kharkiv.

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Nevertheless, it is expensive, impractical to buy household appliances in bulk and transplant their chips into drones. It is not surprising that there is a huge demand Russia to produce its own microchips.

The purchase of production capacities and supplies, equipment maintenance, work organization, logistics, and other nuances of microchip production require significant investments. That is why only a small number of companies are engaged in competitive microprocessor production in the world – most countries find it more profitable to buy ready-made chips from other countries than to organize their own expensive production.

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In Russia, there are three factories that have the capacity to produce significant volumes of microprocessors. These are the Mikron and Angstrem-T plants in Zelenograd (Moscow region), as well as Milandr.

Mikron has been producing its own chips for several years, for example, for Russian public transport passes. However, this is not the level of technology required to equip its own drones and missiles. To manufacture such a specific microchip, a high-precision lithographic machine is required, which layer by layer creates the microprocessor using a laser and photosensitive polymer emulsion called photoresist.

There are few companies in the world that make photolithography machines of the required quality. They are located in the Netherlands (ASML Holding NV) and in Japan (Nikon Group, Canon Inc., Screen Holdings). As mentioned above, the Chinese, are actively trying to produce something like their more developed competitors, and the United States is equally actively trying to prevent this. For example, in 2023 they influenced the restriction of sales of Dutch machines and 23 types of Japanese semiconductor production equipment to China.

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However, an important element for chip production is not only the machine itself, but also its launch and maintenance. This can be done by hired specialists of the highest level, who are literally “purchased” by the factory “as a set” with the machines. Such a specialist is a person who permanently lives next to the machine, constantly monitors its operation, adjusts processes, replaces parts, and replenishes expendable materials.

Also, a photolithography machine requires large quantities of high-quality photoresists, which are produced by only a few companies in the world, and their names are well-known. Manufacturers of auxiliary equipment are also known; for example, spin-coating systems for uniform application of these photoresists to the substrate of future microchips.

In short, the market for semiconductor manufacturing and related industries is a place where all the major players are known and most supply chains can be traced, if one has such a goal. If all sanction measures were in full effect, Russia would have little chance of acquiring thousands of microprocessors every day to make killer products. But where does it get them from?

Perhaps the Russians have their own machines? There were indeed rumors of their attempts to do so. There is information about Micron’s attempt to create a Russian photolithograph, and the National Center for Physics and Mathematics in the closed Russian city of Sarov (the place where the Soviet atomic bomb was developed), the Institute of Microstructure Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Federal Research Center of the Institute of Applied Physics, and the Kurchatov Institute National Research Center have all been involved in developing their own photolithographic machines. An important nuance is that such a machine requires special optics, which are produced by one and only one company in the world, the German Zeiss Group. Considering how the United States pressured the Dutch not to sell machines for China, it can be assumed that the Germans of Zeiss are unlikely to sell their optics to the Russians (at least not openly).

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As such, the version that the Zelenograd factories are stamping chips on secretly created Russian photolithographs is not completely ridiculous, but very, very unlikely.

So, what do they use to make their chips? You don’t need to be an intelligence officer to find out – just look at the quite open materials, for example, from excursions to the Mikron plant. Open sources show that the Mikron plant uses at least a Japanese photolithograph from Screen Holdings (model SOKUDO) and a Dutch ASML of an unspecified model.

What does this mean? It means that there must be specialists somewhere who service these machines and constantly monitor their operation. Only large manufacturers such as TSMC or Samsung can afford to “grow” their own engineers who set up and maintain lithographs. Therefore, with a high degree of probability, Micron also has a foreign specialist hired to service the photolithograph.

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Open sources also provide information about the production of microchips at the Angstrem-T plant. A 2018 report from the plant’s “clean rooms” (special dust-free rooms for chip production, the area of which, according to the article, is 7,500 square meters) already mentions American sanctions (imposed after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula). But it also mentions that: “The equipment used to be maintained by representatives of the manufacturing companies, but after the US anti-Russian sanctions, maintenance had to be provided in other ways. There is an Asian market, they explained to journalists.”  

Here is what other journalists from Zelenograd said about Angstrem-T in 2018: “330 units of equipment have already been installed in the clean rooms, 150 of them are already in operation, and 180 more are needed to increase production capacity. All the equipment is imported: American and Japanese brands, there are several European and Korean brands. There is no domestic equipment of this level of technology… We already have the necessary equipment, a modern ASML scanner (a scanner is a type of photolithograph), which is required to implement 90 nm technology under an agreement with IBM [the agreement was signed in 2012].”

As we can see, the main capacities for Micron and Angstrem-T are foreign lithographs. Lithographs that work on foreign photopolymers, foreign technical gases, masks and silicon wafers from well-known companies. These machines are serviced by foreign specialists. And yes, they produce microchips for Russian weapons of mass destruction of Ukrainians.

It’s time to recognize that Russia’s military-industrial complex is impossible without the help of Western countries.

In the fall of 2022, the United States imposed sanctions on PKK Milandr and three related entities from Armenia, Switzerland, and Taiwan for the production of microelectronics and integrated circuits for the military. However, the company continues to operate today, and the scope of its activities is increasing. It is unlikely that this is due solely to smuggling from Asian countries. It is hardly impossible to trace the chains of huge batches of certified photoresists and parts that end up in Russia.

Thus, Ukraine is now in a strange situation. The United States expresses concern and condemns Ukrainian strikes on Russian refineries, but it constantly slows down arms supplies and is apparently not concerned enough about preventing the development of the Russian “bomb industry.” Some steps have been taken by our Western partners to limit (mainly Chinese) chip production. However, the brisk production of microprocessors by factories near Moscow suggests that these steps are not enough.

Is it ethical to restrain Ukraine in its desperate attempts to defend itself by destroying Russian military capabilities while turning a blind eye to the obvious presence of Western machines, specialists, and consumables in almost every Russian-made attack drone and missile? It’s time to recognize that Russia’s military-industrial complex is impossible without the help of Western countries. The irresponsible attitude of some Western companies to the end recipient of their products leads to the fact that the Russian army continues to build up its power and rearm, focusing on newer and newer forms of destruction of Ukrainians.

Today, in a situation of uncertain sanctions policy, constant slowdown in military aid, and at the same time insufficient obstruction of Russia’s access to consumables and technologies for the military-industrial complex, Ukraine simply does not understand the West’s position.

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