FBI and Commerce agents investigate US electronics in Russian military equipment

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Federal agents have begun questioning US tech companies about how their computer chips ended up in Russian military hardware recovered from Ukraine.

Commerce Department officials who enforce export controls are leading the investigations with the FBI, making joint visits to businesses to inquire about Western chips and components found in Russian radar systems, drones, tanks, ground control equipment and coastal vessels, people say close to the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive investigations.

“Our goal is actually to try to trace that, back to the American supplier” to determine “how it ended up in that weapons system,” a Commerce Department official said of the probes.

“Just because a chip, a company’s chip, is in a weapon system doesn’t mean we’ve opened an investigation into that company,” the official added. “What we have done, however, is we have opened an investigation into how this company’s chip got into this system.”

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It is unclear which specific components are being probed. But investigators from various countries have identified Western electronic components in Russian weapons found in Ukraine. Many of these components appear to have been made years ago, before the United States tightened export restrictions after Russia seized Crimea in 2014. But others were made as recently as 2020, according to Conflict Weapons Research (CAR), a research group in London that examined some of the coins.

For years, it was legal for companies to sell commodity computer chips to Russian military entities without first receiving permission from the US government. Therefore, to identify illegal sales, one must determine the type of chip and the date of sale. Tracing transactions can also be cumbersome because electronic components often pass through a chain of distributors before reaching the end user.

A lawyer representing one of the tech companies contacted said investigators for now are casting a “wide net”, examining a variety of different chips and electronic components to trace the paths they took to the military. Russian.

Among the questions federal agents are asking: whether the tech companies sold their products to a specific list of companies, including middlemen, who may have been involved in the supply chain, the lawyer said.

Russia manufactures few computer chips or electronic devices itself, forcing it to rely on imports.

For decades, the United States has tightly controlled sales to Russia of the highest-tech chips and those designed for military use, requiring exporters to obtain a government license. But sales of electronics below that threshold — including those commonly found in commercial products — weren’t largely restricted until 2014, when the United States began requiring exporters to they obtain licenses before selling a wider range of chips to the Russian military.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the United States and many allies have banned all chip sales to Russian military buyers and imposed restrictions on chip sales to other Russian buyers in the purpose of preventing the country’s armed forces from gaining access to Western high technology.

The federal investigations come as searchers and security services from Ukraine, Britain and elsewhere report finding a host of Western electronics in damaged or abandoned Russian military gear in Ukraine.

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Last month, the CAR sent investigators to Ukraine to examine Russian weaponry and communications equipment, and components found reported of 70 companies based in the United States and Europe.

They found parts in military radios, airborne defense systems and in remnants of cruise missiles that the Ukrainians recovered from various towns and villages, Damien Spleeters, one of the CAR investigators, said in a statement. interview.

The CAR is currently declining to name the Western companies involved, as it continues to contact them for more information, Spleeters said.

Marks on two foreign-made chips that Spleeters examined showed they were made in 2019, he said.

“It’s important to me because it shows that even after Russia took Crimea and the first round of sanctions was taken against them, they still managed to acquire critical technology, critical components for parts equipment that they are now using against Ukraine,” Spleeters said. said.

These chips, found inside two Russian military radios recovered from Ukraine’s Luhansk region, had some of their identification marks scratched out, suggesting that Russia “wanted to make it harder to find out who was involved in the chain of supply,” Spleeters said.

Another set of chips made by Western companies between 2017 and 2020 were part of missile fragments that struck the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv on March 29, Spleeters said. At the time, Russian forces were trying to seize a large swath of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

CAR also examined Western-made chips made between 2013 and 2018 that were part of a missile that landed in central Ukraine on Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion, Spleeters said.

CAR’s latest findings follow a report by the group late last year that detailed Western electronics found in several Russian military drones.

A team from a separate UK group – the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a defence-focused think tank – also visited Ukraine recently to inspect Russian equipment and examine military-led takedowns Ukrainian.

A single radio jamming device revealed computer chips from a dozen US companies, including Intel, Analog Devices, Texas Instruments and Onsemi, according to a report RUSI published in April. The equipment also contained components from half a dozen chipmakers in Europe, Japan and Taiwan.

The report published component part numbers, which the Washington Post used to identify the chip companies.

The radio interference equipment, codenamed Borisoglebsk-2, was designed to disrupt enemy communications and was likely manufactured around 2015 or later, Nick Reynolds, one of the report’s authors, said in a statement. interview.

None of the Western chips were specifically designed for use in military equipment, according to two electrical engineers who reviewed the component list. The parts were developed for general commercial use, and many were relatively outdated, made between 2000 and 2010, the engineers said.

“Many of these components are very general purpose and could be used in a wide range of devices,” said Peter Bermel, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “Most of the items they list are available from any commercial computer parts supplier or digital parts supplier.”

“A sizeable fraction of these parts are now considered obsolete by manufacturers,” Bermel added.

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Reynolds, a land warfare research analyst at RUSI, said Russia’s technical demise in recent decades, partly caused by a massive post-Soviet brain drain, has forced it to use Western chips. “Its defense industry struggled to attract and retain talented young engineers, who often opted to go overseas,” Reynolds said by email.

Intel spokesman William Moss said that for more than a decade, all of the company’s “sales in Russia have been through distributors responsible for compliance with applicable laws, including U.S. export controls”.

“Intel suspended all shipments to customers in Russia and Belarus, and Intel will continue to comply with all applicable export regulations and sanctions,” he added.

Onsemi, a Phoenix-based chip company, said it stopped producing one of the chips found in Russian equipment in 2008. The chip was “designed for a variety of uses in commercial products” , spokeswoman Stefanie Cuene said, adding that the company is in compliance. US export controls and does not currently sell any products to Russia or Belarus.

Texas Instruments “complies with applicable laws and regulations” and “does not sell any products in Russia or Belarus,” spokeswoman Ellen Fishpaw said.

Analog Devices, the company behind more than a dozen components found in the Russian gear, did not respond to requests for comment.

RUSI researchers also reported inspecting a US-made component that the Ukrainian military found inside a Russian 9M949 guided rocket. The rocket uses the component – a type of electronic device called a fiber optic gyroscope – for navigation, RUSI said.

The British researchers declined to name the American company that made this component, saying RUSI was continuing to research this and other components.

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