Western Sanctions Are ‘Beginning to Bite’ Into Russia’s Military

But not quite enough to check Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
This photograph taken on April 2, 2022 shows a destroyed Russian tank in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv, as Ukraine says Russian forces are making a "rapid retreat" from northern areas around Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv.
This photograph taken on April 2, 2022 shows a destroyed Russian tank in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv, as Ukraine says Russian forces are making a "rapid retreat" from northern areas around Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv.
This photograph taken on April 2, 2022 shows a destroyed Russian tank in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv, as Ukraine says Russian forces are making a "rapid retreat" from northern areas around Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. and British officials believe that damaging international sanctions slapped on Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine are hampering its ability to restock high-tech weapons, such as precision-guided munitions, though Russia still has plenty of conventional ammunition stocks at its disposal to continue to wage war.

The impact of Russia’s sanctions-induced high-tech military shortages have been spotted by Western governments, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops into the besieged steel factory in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, while Russian pilots have rained down “dumb bombs” without advanced precision guidance kits into the city. The Russian military burned through much of its stockpile of advanced weapons in the early days of the war; the United States believes Russia may have fired as many as 12 hypersonic missiles into Ukraine. U.S.-led export controls announced in late February sought to starve Russia of computer chips and semiconductors that could be used in advanced military equipment.

“Our sanctions and export controls were designed to deny Russia the critical inputs it needs to continue the war against Ukraine and to degrade its ability to project power in the future,” said Wally Adeyemo, deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. “We have disrupted the Russian military supply chain and overall production, inhibited its defense sector from settling payments, and will continue to target Russia’s ability to restock, resupply, and rebuild.”

U.S. and British officials believe that damaging international sanctions slapped on Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine are hampering its ability to restock high-tech weapons, such as precision-guided munitions, though Russia still has plenty of conventional ammunition stocks at its disposal to continue to wage war.

The impact of Russia’s sanctions-induced high-tech military shortages have been spotted by Western governments, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops into the besieged steel factory in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, while Russian pilots have rained down “dumb bombs” without advanced precision guidance kits into the city. The Russian military burned through much of its stockpile of advanced weapons in the early days of the war; the United States believes Russia may have fired as many as 12 hypersonic missiles into Ukraine. U.S.-led export controls announced in late February sought to starve Russia of computer chips and semiconductors that could be used in advanced military equipment.

“Our sanctions and export controls were designed to deny Russia the critical inputs it needs to continue the war against Ukraine and to degrade its ability to project power in the future,” said Wally Adeyemo, deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. “We have disrupted the Russian military supply chain and overall production, inhibited its defense sector from settling payments, and will continue to target Russia’s ability to restock, resupply, and rebuild.”

Since late February, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. government has designated 147 entities, 35 individuals, and 74 vessels operating in Russia’s defense sector, according to data from the Treasury Department.

Among the top targets of U.S. sanctions is the Tactical Missiles Corporation, known as KTRV when transliterated and abbreviated. KTRV is a Russian state-owned defense conglomerate that produces hypersonic weapons and technology used in radar systems and other multipurpose missiles. The Treasury Department has sanctioned a chief executive of KTRV, Boris Obnosov, as well as 28 subsidiaries of the conglomerate.

Within Russia, there are already signs the sanctions are starting to cut into the country’s ability to restock its high-end systems. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Congress on Wednesday that Ukrainian officials had told her that Russia was being forced to take semiconductors from dishwashers and refrigerators for high-tech weapons. Raimondo said U.S. technology exports to Russia had dropped by almost 70 percent since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow set up an interdepartmental committee to sort out how to source more military equipment domestically and if so-called friendly countries—including China—might be willing to work around sanctions to provide microelectronic processors and ammunition, two of Russia’s biggest military needs.

“We do believe that the sanctions and the export controls, particularly when it comes to components, electronic components, has had an effect on the Russian defense industrial base and their ability to restart [precision-guided munitions],” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters this week. “It’s definitely beginning to bite into his defense industrial capabilities.”

A British Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office spokesperson told Foreign Policy that international sanctions had frozen 60 percent of Russia’s foreign currency reserves, nearly $340 billion. Up to 70,000 computer specialists left Russia in March, and another 100,000 were expected to. “Persistent sanctions will lead to depressed long-term GDP growth as the country is unable to access key Western technology,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. (Russian GDP could fall by up to 15 percent this year.)

It’s difficult to track the exact extent that sanctions are hitting Russia’s ability to rearm; Western officials speak about the matter in broad terms but have not publicly offered specific numbers due the sensitivity of the information.

“We cannot publicly comment on the specific impact that these measures are having on the production of particular weapons systems or munitions Russia is using to prosecute its war against Ukraine,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The bite of Western sanctions seems to have forced Moscow to begin dusting off Soviet-era defense stocks and use munitions that are less accurate—and thus potentially deadlier to Ukrainian civilians caught in the crossfire of Russia’s clumsy military offensives. On Monday, the British defense ministry’s intelligence arm assessed that the depletion of Russia’s precision-guided stockpiles has “forced the use of readily available but aging munitions that are less reliable, less accurate, and more easily intercepted.”

The 77-day invasion has “revealed shortcomings” in Russia’s ability to conduct precision strikes, including subjecting Ukraine’s towns and villages to intense shelling, a trend that seems to be on the rise in the offensive in the Donbas region.

Even if such ammunition is inferior to precision-guided munitions, Russia has plenty of it to continue its military offensives. “They will face problems on the security of supply on their precision-guided missiles, some other high-tech elements, and weaponry,” said one senior Eastern European defense official. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t discount their ability to wage war with simpler stuff. They have enough [ammunition] for years and years for fighting on that level theyre doing,” the official added.

Much of Russia’s defense industrial base has been under harsh U.S. sanctions since 2014, during Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea. In late March, the Biden administration also slapped sanctions on dozens of Russian defense companies beyond KTRV, including High Precision Systems, which produces surface-to-air missiles such as the Iskander and anti-tank missile systems, and Tekhmash, the producer of many of the Russian military’s ammunition, multiple rocket systems, and unguided bombs.

The Treasury Department has also targeted neighboring Belarus’s defense sector with its own sanctions packages. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, which has aligned his authoritarian government with Moscow, supported the invasion and allowed Russian troops to use his country to launch offensives and airstrikes across the border into northern Ukraine in the early weeks of the war, before Russia’s effort to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, failed.

The U.S. Commerce Department rolled out new export control restrictions aimed at stopping Russia from getting U.S.-made technology that could be used in military hardware, even if that technology is supplied by third countries. This includes microelectronics, telecommunications, information security equipment, sensors, navigation equipment, avionics, and parts for civilian aircraft.

But much of the U.S. effort to stop Russia’s military supply lines from humming relies on extensive export controls that lean on the newly made Foreign Direct Product Rule to block almost any products made with U.S. software or technology. The problem with depending on that rule, former officials told Foreign Policy, is that it leans heavily on foreign countries to make enforcement calls. And the United States has limited—if any—visibility on products that are actually reaching Russia.

“My huge, huge concern is that we do not have end use checks in Russia,” said Nazak Nikakhtar, a former assistant secretary of commerce during the Trump administration and now a partner at Wiley Rein, a law firm. “We do not have U.S. officials that can go to the Russian entities to figure out even if theres an export license that has been granted. We have nobody to go in there and do an audit to see that thats happened.”

There’s another potential end-around, Nikakhtar said: China. The U.S. rival could help supply critical minerals needed to make steel and aluminum for military equipment as well as microchips needed to help guide precision missiles to their targets.

But even if Russia is able to find other suppliers for military components, as some expect, it is likely to face an increasingly steep economic cliff as the invasion of Ukraine continues. Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Western sanctions would pose a “real challenge” to Russia’s ability to refurbish his “worn out” armed forces. And even though the Kremlin has managed to stabilize the ruble with energy exports, it is not likely to be able to stave off the financial pain for long.

“Russia is probably spending almost everything its earning on its energy exports to prop up the ruble and, you know, do all sorts of other B.S. to make it seem like the economy is okay when its not,” said Brian O’Toole, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank and a former Treasury Department official.

“They’re making hard choices now,” he added. “It’s frustrating for folks not to see all of the results, but this is unsustainable for the Russians. At some point, they’re just going to fall off a cliff.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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