U.S. and Ukrainian researchers say Western nations are making progress in trying to curb illicit transfers of Western electronic components to a Russian facility suspected of making Iranian-designed attack drones, but that more needs to be done.
The White House released a U.S. intelligence finding June 8 asserting Russia was receiving Iranian materials needed to build an attack drone manufacturing plant in its Alabuga special economic zone.
Russia has said it relies on its own resources in using drones to attack Ukraine; Iran has acknowledged supplying drones to Russia but only before Moscow’s February 2022 Ukraine invasion. Neither Russia’s Washington embassy nor Iran’s U.N. mission in New York responded to questions about the Alabuga plant emailed by VOA Thursday.
The researchers pointed to the U.S. Commerce Department’s December 6 placement of 11 Russian companies on its list of entities requiring a license for items subject to export controls. Commerce officials cited the companies’ association with the suspected Alabuga drone facility. Commerce expanded the items subject to U.S. export controls in February to include semiconductors and other drone components used by Russian and Iranian entities on the Entity List.
David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, one of the researchers interviewed by VOA in recent weeks, said he “commends” Commerce for sanctioning the 11 Russian companies and considers the move a sign of progress.
Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a Ukrainian sanctions researcher serving as an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, also welcomed the U.S. move.
“We are happy that the U.S. government is taking actions aimed at thwarting certain Russian facilities, including Alabuga, and thus making an impact on Russia’s military industry,” Vlasiuk told VOA in a Thursday phone call.
Vlasiuk and Albright said the Biden administration should go further, though.
The administration has not sanctioned JSC Alabuga, the plant’s owner, although several of its apparent subsidiaries were added to the Commerce list December 6.
Albright said the U.S. Treasury and State departments should sanction JSC Alabuga and associated companies to discourage foreign businesses from dealing with them, calling such designations “long overdue.”
Vlasiuk said Ukraine also would like to see the United States sanction JSC Alabuga and other companies that Kyiv has identified as engaged in Russia’s drone industry.
Asked by VOA for the U.S. position on sanctioning JSC Alabuga, Commerce said November 28 it “does not comment on potential deliberations related to Entity List actions.”
The statement added that “continuing to respond to Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine remains a high priority for the department” and listed several U.S. actions taken to crack down on illicit networks for sending chips and other items to Russia.
The State Department referred VOA questions about Alabuga to Commerce, while the Treasury Department did not respond to a November 25 VOA email about Alabuga.
Albright also pointed to the interest of several European governments in using his institute's research on the Alabuga plant to try to disrupt its access to electronic components made by companies headquartered in their territories. His research is based on documents apparently leaked from Alabuga to The Washington Post, which first reported their existence in August.
Albright's institute has reported that the documents appear authentic and describe Alabuga supply-chain procurement, production capabilities, and plans for manufacturing Russian-branded copies of Iran's Shahed 136 attack drone.
While more than half of the electronics on the assembly list for Alabuga’s Shahed 136 drones are made by U.S. companies, according to Albright’s review of the documents, some of the rest come from four Europe-based companies, his institute has said. Those include Switzerland-based TE Connectivity and u-blox, Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors, and STMicroelectronics, which is headquartered in Switzerland and has its corporate legal seat in the Netherlands.
“Switzerland and the Netherlands certainly are interested in the information we have to offer,” Albright said.
Vlasiuk also credited the two European nations for working with Ukraine on the issue.
"We are in constant communication with the Dutch government on sanctions and they have been very helpful and proactive,” Vlasiuk said. “As for the Swiss, it has been a little harder, but we also are in contact and they mostly are adopting the sanctions of the EU, which is good.”
In response to VOA questions about Alabuga and Albright’s research, the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry said it is a “priority” to prevent the circumvention of sanctions designed to make it as difficult as possible for Russia to continue waging war on Ukraine.
“To that end, we undertake many actions with international partners, both visible and invisible. The ministry cannot comment on contacts with individual companies or organizations,” it said.
The Swiss government provided no comment after VOA emailed its Washington embassy last month to request one.
Albright and Vlasiuk said Western electronics makers also must do more to stop their parts from ending up in Alabuga’s drones.
“In the electronics industry, companies send off millions of components to distributors who could care less about the end user,” Albright said. “So electronics manufacturers need to rapidly work with distributors on policies promoting due diligence. Manufacturers need to say we are just not going to make sales of these critical items unless we really know who the end user is.”
Vlasiuk said Ukraine is unhappy with finding Western parts in attack drones launched by Russia and with how the manufacturers explain the phenomenon. “They say, ‘we are not supplying anything officially to Russia,’ Of course they do not. So I think that they could have tightened their compliance and know-your-customer procedures,” Vlasiuk said.
In a Saturday statement sent to VOA, a spokesperson for Swiss company u-blox said the use of its products in embargoed countries’ weapons systems is a “clear breach” of conditions of sale for its customers and distributors. “We investigate any infringement of this policy very thoroughly and will take legal action in case of infringement,” the spokesperson said.
Asked about Alabuga, u-blox said it is in regular contact with government officials and several NGO representatives.
Regarding how u-blox parts were found in drones used by Russia, the spokesperson said there are several likely explanations, including that the components were purchased before sanctions were in place, that they were part of excess inventory sold by customers to brokers in countries not sanctioning Russia and then shipped into Russia, that they were smuggled into Russia, or that they were removed from products such e-scooters, e-bikes, cars and construction machines and put into Russian drones.
Dutch company NXP Semiconductors also sent VOA a statement on Friday, saying it is “committed” to complying with the law and “working diligently to ensure its products are not improperly diverted to embargoed countries including Russia, Iran and Belarus for use in weapons and other systems for which they were not designed or intended.”
“Our team is in ongoing contact with regulators around the world on this issue, working within an industry-wide effort to prevent illegal chip diversion,” the company added, referring to an initiative of the Semiconductor Industry Association, of which it is a member.
STMicroelectronics told VOA in a statement Monday that since February 2022, it has acted to comply with sanctions and export control measures of the European Union, the United States and their partner nations targeting Russia and Belarus.
"These actions include reinforcing the compliance requirements for all our sales channels, including vigilance against sanctions evasion and shipping diversion, implementing additional end user screening measures, deploying automated solutions for customers and product checks, and enhancing our awareness communication to targeted stakeholders,” the statement said.
TE Connectivity did not respond to a VOA request seeking comment.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that STMicroeletronics has its corporate legal seat in the Netherlands, not manufacturing plants as was stated in the previous version of this report.
The article was reprinted from VoA with the author's permission. You can read the original here.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter