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The Biden administration vowed last month to crack down on companies selling critical technologies to Russia as part of its efforts to de-escalate the country’s war against Ukraine. But the continued flow of Chinese drones into the country explains why it will be difficult.

While drone sales have slowed, US policies implemented after the invasion of Russia have failed to stop exports of UAVs that function as eyes in the sky for frontline fighters. In the year since Russia’s invasion of 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 third-party data provider.

It is difficult to determine if the Chinese drones contain US technologies that would violate US regulations or if they are legal. The shipments, a mix of products from DJI, the world’s best-known drone maker, and a number of smaller companies, often came via small middlemen and exporters.

Complicated sales channels and vague product descriptions within export data also make it difficult to definitively show whether there are US components in Chinese products, which could constitute a violation of US export controls. And official sales are likely just one part of a larger flow of technologies through unofficial channels and other Russian-friendly nations like Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Belarus.

The result is a steady supply of new drones to Russia that find their way to the front lines of its war with Ukraine. On the battlefield, hovering quadcopters typically only last a few flights before taking to the air. Replenishing stocks of even the most basic UAVs has become as critical as other basic needs, such as the acquisition of shells and artillery shells.

From a military, diplomatic and economic point of view, Beijing has become an increasingly important support for Russia in its war effort. China has remained one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, helping to finance the invasion. The two sides also held joint military exercises and jointly attacked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As China’s top leader Xi Jinping meets this week with Russia’s 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…Russian Presidential Press Office, via Associated Press

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

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

The United States has tried to undermine some Chinese companies through export controls in recent years, but the world remains heavily dependent on city-sized assembly plants and clusters of specialized component makers from China. . The country’s outsized role has made it difficult to understand and control foreign products used in basic but critical consumer electronics such as 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 inspect 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 Commerce Department official who oversaw export controls.

“They are not the most sophisticated technology in the world, it is not inevitable that they contain American chips,” he added, noting that if there are no American components in the drones, shipments become a political issue, 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 hovering quadcopter drones that have become emblematic of a new kind of warfare in Ukraine. Sales of its drones to Russia have continued, although it has said it has suspended shipments to both Russia and Ukraine. The company is already subject to US export controls.

The Commerce Department added DJI to a blacklist in 2020 that prevents US companies from selling technology without express permission. The move has done little to affect DJI’s industry dominance, and the company’s products accounted for nearly half of Chinese drone shipments to Russia, according to customs data. A portion of them were sold directly by DJI, through iFlight Technology, a DJI subsidiary.

In all, nearly 70 Chinese exporters have sold 26 different brands of Chinese drones to Russia since the invasion. The second best-selling brand was Autel, a Chinese drone manufacturer with subsidiaries in the United States, Germany and Italy; exporters sold almost $2 million of its drones, with the last batch shipped in February 2023. On its website, the company advertises sales to United States police forces.

Employees assembling Autel Robotics Dragonfish drones at a consumer electronics trade show in Berlin in September.Credit…Adam Berry/fake images

A DJI spokesperson said the company was unable to find any records of direct sales to Russia since April 16, 2022, and would investigate other companies that appeared to be selling to Russia. The company, he said, has halted all shipments and operations in Russia and Ukraine since the start of the war and has “extensive protocols” in place to ensure it does not violate US sanctions.

“Like any consumer electronics company with products sold in many different electronics stores, we cannot influence how all of our products are used once they are out of our control,” the spokesperson added in a mailed statement. electronic.

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.

Although popular for years with photo enthusiasts and tourists, hovering quadcopter drones are now a major asset to Russian and Ukrainian troops on the front lines, who use them for battlefield reconnaissance. They must be resupplied regularly, as both sides are shooting down the drones with increasing efficiency.

Ukraine has relied on drone donations from third-party organizations and individuals, which has meant its troops also use DJI drones on the front lines. Advisers estimate that about half of Ukrainian troop stocks are made up of Ukrainian drones and half are foreign, mostly made by DJI.

DJI reconnaissance drones conducting test flights in the kyiv region in 2022, before being sent to the war front.Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In lieu of donations, Russia has been able to buy a steady, if not massive, supply of drones from China. Direct sales by Chinese exporters, industry experts say, are just one part of a broader effort to procure the drones from nearby markets, where they can be bought off retail store shelves.

Some experts say the flow of Chinese drones should be viewed in the same light as more lethal weapons. Even the meager $12 million in shipments “will move the needle of what’s happening on the front lines,” said Cole Rosentreter, chief executive of Canadian drone maker Pegasus, who has advised Ukrainians on drone use. during the war.

“We have returned to war on an industrial scale; Drones are now treated by both sides as if they were artillery shells, because whoever has the logistical base to produce more than the other has a clear battlefield advantage,” he added.

To that end, even Xi’s tacit support of new drone shipments could be to Russian troops’ long-term advantage. It’s already been difficult to fully control the shipment of high-tech components like the ones that go on drones.

Chinese companies that supply Russia, whether by political calculation or lucrative incentives, sometimes use intermediary company chains that can include more than a dozen companies. In other cases, shipment descriptions may be intentionally vague or underestimate the total volume of goods being shipped.

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

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

Often, he said, the goal of sanctions is not to kill off shipments, but to cut off “90 percent of the blood flow.”

“It is going to be very difficult to completely amputate the flow. But it is worrisome that in some cases it is as if nothing is being blocked,” he said.

john liu contributed to this report.