The Biden administration vowed last month to crack down on companies that sell critical technologies to Russia as part of its efforts to curtail the country’s war against Ukraine. But the continued flow of Chinese drones to the country explains why that will be hard.
While drone sales have slowed, American policies put in place after Russia’s invasion have failed to stanch exports of the unmanned aerial vehicles that work as eyes in the sky for frontline fighters. In the year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has sold more than $12 million in drones and drone parts to the country, according to official Russian customs data from a third-party data provider.
It is hard to determine whether the Chinese drones contain American technologies that would violate the U.S. rules or whether they are legal. The shipments, a mix of products from DJI, the world’s best-known drone maker, and an array of smaller companies, often came through small-time middlemen and exporters.
Complicated sales channels and vague product descriptions within export data also make it hard to definitively show whether there are U.S. components in the Chinese products, which could constitute a violation of the American export controls. And the official sales are likely only one part of a larger flow of technologies through unofficial channels and other nations friendly to Russia, like Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Belarus.
The result is a steady supply of new drones to Russia that make their way to the front lines of its war with Ukraine. On the battlefield, the hovering quadcopters often last only a few flights before they are blown out of the skies. Refilling stockpiles of even the most basic unmanned aerial vehicles has become as critical as other basic necessities, such as procuring artillery shells and bullets.
Militarily, diplomatically and economically, Beijing has become an increasingly important buttress for Russia in its war effort. China has remained one of the largest buyers of Russian oil, helping finance the invasion. The two sides have also held joint military exercises and jointly assailed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
As China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, meets this week with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, U.S. officials have warned that China is still considering selling lethal weapons for use in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday said the visit amounts to “diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit” 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 undercut some Chinese companies through export controls in recent years, but the world remains heavily reliant on China’s city-sized assembly plants and clusters of specialized component makers. The country’s outsize role has made it difficult to understand and control what foreign products go into basic, but critical, consumer electronics like drones, which can be made from widely available components sold in retail stores.
“It poses an export control challenge: The same model can be used by real estate people to survey property and can be used in Ukraine for intelligence purposes,” said William A. Reinsch, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former official at the Commerce Department who oversaw export controls.
“They’re not the most sophisticated technology in the world — it’s not inevitable that they’re going to contain American chips,” he added, pointing out that if there are no American components in the drones, shipments become a political question, not a legal one.
Particularly problematic for the United States government is DJI, the maker of hovering quadcopter drones that have become emblematic of a new type of warfare in Ukraine. Sales of its drones to Russia have continued, even though it has said it suspended shipments to both Russia and Ukraine. The company is already the target of United States export controls.
The Commerce Department added DJI to a blacklist in 2020 that prevents American firms from selling technology without express permission. The measure has done little to affect DJI’s industry dominance, and the company’s products made up nearly half of the Chinese drone shipments to Russia, according to the customs data. A portion of them were sold directly by DJI, via iFlight Technology, a subsidiary of DJI.
In total, nearly 70 Chinese exporters sold 26 distinct brands of Chinese drones to Russia since the invasion. The second-largest brand sold was Autel, a Chinese drone maker with subsidiaries in the United States, Germany and Italy; exporters sold nearly $2 million of its drones, with the latest batch shipping in February 2023. On its website, the company advertises sales to United States police forces.
A DJI spokesman said the company could find no record of any direct sales to Russia since April 16, 2022, and that it would investigate other firms that appeared to be selling to Russia. The company, he said, has stopped all shipments to and operations in Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of the war and has “thorough protocols” to ensure it does not violate United States sanctions.
“Like any consumer electronics company with products sold at many different electronics stores, we cannot influence how all our products are being used once they leave our control,” the spokesman 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 about the issue.
Although popular for years with photography enthusiasts and tourists, hovering quadcopter drones now constitute a major advantage for Russian and Ukrainian troops on the front line, who use them for battlefield reconnaissance. They need to be regularly resupplied, since both sides are shooting down the unmanned vehicles with increasing efficiency.
Ukraine has relied on donations of drones from third-party organizations and individuals, which has meant their troops use DJI drones on the front lines, too. Advisers estimate that about half of Ukrainian troops’ stocks are made up of Ukrainian drones and half are foreign ones, mostly those made by DJI.
In place of donations, Russia has been able to purchase a consistent, if not massive, supply of drones from China. The direct sales by Chinese exporters, industry experts say, are only one part of a wider effort to procure the drones from nearby markets, where they can be bought off the shelves of retail stores.
Some experts note that the flow of Chinese drones should be considered in the same way as more deadly weapons. Even the meager $12 million in shipments “will move the needle for what is happening on the front line,” said Cole Rosentreter, chief executive of Canadian drone maker Pegasus, who has advised Ukrainians on the use of drones during the war.
“We’ve returned to warfare at industrial scale; both sides are treating drones the same as artillery shells now, because whoever has the logistical base to outproduce the other has a clear advantage on the battlefield,” he added.
To that end, even tacit support of fresh drone shipments by Mr. Xi could constitute a longer-term advantage for Russian troops. Already, it has been difficult to fully control the shipment of high-tech components like those going into drones.
Chinese companies supplying Russia, whether out of political calculus or profit incentive, sometimes use chains of intermediary companies that can include more than a dozen firms. In other cases, descriptions of shipments can be intentionally vague or underplay the total volume of goods being sent.
“What we’ve seen from the Chinese is high-level statements about wanting an end to the war, but behind the scenes they’ve used the opportunity to take over trade channels that once went through Europe and the United States,” said James Hodson, a member of the Yermak-McFaul International Expert Group on Russian Sanctions and chief executive of the A.I. for Good Foundation.
Often, he said, the goal of sanctions is not to wipe out shipments, but to cut off “90 percent of the blood flow.”
“It’s going to be very difficult to completely amputate the flow. But it is worrying that in some instances, it’s like nothing is being blocked,” he said.
John Liu contributed to this report.