Live Updates: As Xi and Putin Resume Talks, Japan’s Leader Visits Ukraine

The Biden administration last month announced it would crack down on companies that sell key technology to Russia as part of an effort to stem the country’s war against Ukraine. But the continued influx of Chinese drones into the country explains why that will be difficult.

While drone sales have slowed, U.S. policies introduced after the Russian invasion have failed to prevent the export of drones that act as drones. eyes in the sky for frontline fighters. In the year since Russia invaded Ukraine, China has sold more than $12 million worth of drones and drone parts to the country, according to official Russian customs data from a supplier. third-party data providers.

It is difficult to determine whether Chinese drones containing American technology violate American rules or whether they are legal. Shipments, a mix of products from DJI, the world’s most famous drone maker and a host of smaller companies, are often routed through small exporters and intermediaries.

Complicated sales channels and vague product descriptions in export data also make it difficult to indicate with certainty whether there are American ingredients in Chinese products, which could constitute violations of US export controls. And official sales could be just part of a larger stream of tech through informal channels and other Russia-friendly countries, like Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Belarus.

The result is a steady supply of new drones for Russia that will reach the front lines in the war with Ukraine. On the battlefield, hovering quadcopters usually only last a few flights before they are blown out of the sky. Refilling the stockpile of even the most basic drones has become just as important as other basic necessities, such as shopping for ammunition and ammo.

Militarily, diplomatically and economically, Beijing has increasingly become an important prop for Russia in the war effort. China remains one of Russia’s biggest oil buyers, helping to finance the invasion. The two sides have also held joint military exercises and jointly attacked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, see you this week With Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, US officials have warned that China is still considering selling lethal weapons for use in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Monday.Credit…Press Office of the President of Russia, via Associated Press

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday said the visit was “diplomatic cover for Russia to continue committing” war crimes.

American efforts to isolate Russia from much-needed technology and cash have been complicated by China’s dominance of the global electronics supply chain.

The United States has sought to cut some Chinese companies through export controls in recent years, but the world remains heavily reliant on China’s city-scale assembly plants and manufacturing clusters. manufacture specialized components. The country’s outsized role has made it difficult to understand and control what foreign products go into basic but important consumer electronics such as drones, which can be made from Available components are widely available in retail stores.

“It poses an export control challenge: The same model can be used by business people,” said William A. Reinsch, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. real estate business to survey properties and could be used in Ukraine for intelligence purposes.” and a former official at the Commerce Department who oversaw export controls.

“They are not the most sophisticated technology in the world – it is inevitable that they will contain American chips,” he added, pointing out that if there are no US parts in the drones , then shipments would become a political question, not a legal one.

A DJI store in Beijing.Credit…Jade Gao/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Particularly problematic for the US government is DJI, the maker of quadcopter drones that has become a symbol of a new kind of war in Ukraine. Its drone sales to Russia continued, although it said it had suspended shipments to both Russia and Ukraine. The company has been the target of US export controls.

The Commerce Department added DJI to a blacklist in 2020 to prevent US companies from selling technology without explicit permission. According to customs data, the measure has had little effect on DJI’s industry dominance, and the company’s products account for nearly half of China’s drone shipments to Russia. Some of them are sold directly by DJI through iFlight Technology, a subsidiary of DJI.

In total, nearly 70 Chinese exporters have sold 26 different brands of Chinese drones to Russia since the invasion. The second largest brand sold was Autel, a Chinese drone manufacturer with subsidiaries in the United States, Germany and Italy; exporters have sold nearly $2 million of their drones, with the latest shipment shipping in February 2023. On its website, the company advertises sales to the police force. close to the United States.

Employees assemble the Autel Robotics Dragonfish drone at the Berlin consumer e-commerce fair in September.Credit…Adam Berry / Getty Images

A DJI spokesperson said the company has found no records of any direct sales to Russia as of April 16, 2022, and that it will investigate other companies that appear to be selling. for Russia. The company has stopped all shipments to and from Russia and Ukraine since the start of the war, he said, and has “thorough protocols” to ensure it doesn’t violate US sanctions.

“Like any consumer electronics company whose products are sold in a variety of electronics stores, we cannot influence how all of our products are used once they are out of stock. our control,” the spokesperson added in an emailed statement.

Autel said in an emailed statement that it was not aware of any sales to Russia and was conducting an internal investigation into the matter.

While popular for many years with photography enthusiasts and tourists alike, hovering quadcopter drones now constitute a huge advantage for the Russian and Ukrainian militaries on the front lines who use them. to scout the battlefield. They need to be refueled regularly, as both sides are shooting down unmanned vehicles with increasing efficiency.

Ukraine has relied on drone donations from third-party organizations and individuals, which means its military also uses DJI drones on the front lines. Advisors estimate that about half of Ukraine’s military drones are made up of Ukrainian drones and half are foreign, mostly made by DJI.

The DJI spy drone undergoes test flights in the Kyiv region in 2022, before being sent to the front lines of the war.Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Instead of donations, Russia was able to purchase a consistent, if not massive, supply of drones from China. The direct sales by Chinese exporters, say industry experts, are just one part of a larger effort to buy drones from nearby markets where they can be purchased externally. retail store shelves.

Some experts note that China’s drone line should be viewed more like lethal weapons. Cole Rosentreter, chief executive officer of Canadian drone maker Pegasus, who has advised Ukrainians on the use of drones in war, says even the meager shipping costs worth The $12 million price tag also “will change the direction of what is happening on the front lines.”

“We went back to war on an industrial scale; Right now both sides are treating drones like artillery shells, because the one with the logistics base to outperform the other will have a clear advantage on the battlefield,” he added.

Ultimately, even Xi’s tacit support for new drone shipments could confer a more lasting advantage for the Russian military. Currently, it is difficult to fully control the transportation of high-tech parts such as those that go into drones.

Chinese companies supply Russia, whether for political reasons or for profit motives, sometimes using a chain of intermediaries that can include more than a dozen companies. In other cases, shipment descriptions may be intentionally vague or reduce the total volume of goods shipped.

A Ukrainian soldier controls a drone on the front lines of the war, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine in March.Credit…Tyler Hicks/New York Times

“What we see from the Chinese side are high-level statements about wanting to end the war, but behind the scenes they have taken advantage of the opportunity to take over the trade channels that used to go through Europe and the United States. Ky,” James said. Hodson, a member of the Yermak-McFaul International Expert Group on Russian Sanctions and executive director of the AI ​​for Good Foundation.

Normally, he said, the goal of sanctions is not to wipe out shipments, but to cut off “90% of the bloodline.”

“It will be very difficult to completely cut off the flow. But the worrying thing is that in some cases, nothing seems to be blocked,” he said.

John Liu contributed to this report.


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