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Dual-Use Goods Are Fueling Russia’s War on Ukraine

Russia’s advanced military systems are dependent on components from the West.

By , a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional.
A destroyed tank near the recently recaptured Ukrainian village of Yampil, eastern Ukraine.
A destroyed tank near the recently recaptured Ukrainian village of Yampil, eastern Ukraine.
A destroyed tank near the recently recaptured Ukrainian village of Yampil, eastern Ukraine, on Nov. 1. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine remain heavily dependent on Western technologies, despite the West’s best efforts to cut off the supply of critical parts. In the face of extensive sanctions, Russia’s war machine has still been able to acquire the inputs necessary for its advanced weaponry. Further military aid does little for Kyiv unless the West finally puts a stranglehold on the Russian military by reexamining its export control standards for dual-use components.

Export controls have been a long-vested element of the United States’ and European Union’s security agendas, with particular focus on them since the early 2000s. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the fear that rogue entities could acquire weapons of mass destruction, also known as WMDs, stoked action by the international community. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 was, in part, adopted not only to formally codify this threat but also to identify the obligations of states to prevent the spread of these weapons.

The resolution called for all states to adopt and enforce domestic controls over WMDs, their means of delivery, and related materials—which in practice meant extensive export controls. As such, Western states have taken great care to improve internal controls over dual-use goods and general exports with military applications. In 2009, the EU codified its efforts by setting up a community regime for the control of exports, transfer, brokering, and transit of dual-use items.

Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine remain heavily dependent on Western technologies, despite the West’s best efforts to cut off the supply of critical parts. In the face of extensive sanctions, Russia’s war machine has still been able to acquire the inputs necessary for its advanced weaponry. Further military aid does little for Kyiv unless the West finally puts a stranglehold on the Russian military by reexamining its export control standards for dual-use components.

Export controls have been a long-vested element of the United States’ and European Union’s security agendas, with particular focus on them since the early 2000s. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the fear that rogue entities could acquire weapons of mass destruction, also known as WMDs, stoked action by the international community. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 was, in part, adopted not only to formally codify this threat but also to identify the obligations of states to prevent the spread of these weapons.

The resolution called for all states to adopt and enforce domestic controls over WMDs, their means of delivery, and related materials—which in practice meant extensive export controls. As such, Western states have taken great care to improve internal controls over dual-use goods and general exports with military applications. In 2009, the EU codified its efforts by setting up a community regime for the control of exports, transfer, brokering, and transit of dual-use items.

The United States has sought to implement these regulations with similar fervor, adopting a whole-government approach to Resolution 1540 and continuously submitting reports to the United Nations. In 2013, the United States reported that measures were in place to fulfill every resolution requirement. This trend continued as the EU recast its export control law in 2021 to address changes in the security environment and the United States identified stifling proliferation as a security imperative in its 2021 interim national security strategic guidance.

Despite this commitment, the Russian invasion has revealed a weakness in existing systems, shifting the lens from nonstate actors to the real-world implications of the threat of state actors.

Recent reports have highlighted that Russia’s latest weaponry is heavily dependent on specialist components manufactured abroad. One transport aircraft alone requires more than 80 components that cannot be reproduced or created in Russia. This trend extends to Russian ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as its drone technologies. If the Western economies are clamping down on Russian trade, how is it that these items made it into Russia’s hands?

The British Defence Ministry announced in early May that it was going to investigate whether British-made components were being deployed in Ukraine via Russian systems. Britain implemented an arms embargo against Russia in 2014 after it annexed Crimea but only banned the direct export of dual-use components to Russia at the beginning of March.

This is not a new problem, though the scale of Russia’s atrocities has brought it sharply into focus. Dual-use components are one of the most complicated items in the strategic trade field. These items have both legitimate civilian and military applications, ranging from ball bearings to dental drills. Nuclear technologies that could be used to sustain a domestic nuclear energy program could be diverted to a clandestine nuclear program, as was the case in South Africa after it joined the U.S.-sponsored Atoms for Peace program.

A more practical example would be dental drills. Every state would love clean and healthy teeth. However, the gyroscopes in these drills can also be used in missiles. These goods, listed as controlled by the Bureau of Industry and Security, are a common example of how states such as North Korea try to avoid sanctions and fill a gap in their weapons programs. Similar stories for civilian goods being used to develop military capabilities include the nuclear weapons program in India, which was listed as a country of concern until 2010, and Iran’s continued search for dual-use goods since the 1990s. With this long history, it is not surprising that dual-use goods have been a prominent focus of Western nations for some time.

Historically, the West has looked at these goods as a precursor to WMD development or deployment—but the invasion shows the security implications that trade has on conventional conflict. Despite the efforts to implement the export control obligations of Resolution 1540, the export control systems of Western states remain bogged down by coordination problems and competing strategic interests. That Russian export ban that the U.K. implemented in 2014? Inquiries led by the House of Commons revealed that more than 200 export licenses continued under then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, including components for military helicopters, surface-launched rockets, and surface-to-surface missiles.

Similarly, there’s been little attention on the Dutch contribution to Russian military activity. Despite a long track record of export control implementation and strong support in defense of Ukraine, the Netherlands’ economy is extensively linked to Russia. In 2021, Dutch companies exported more than 5 billion euros’ worth of goods to Russia. The most important good for two-thirds of the companies involved in this trade is semiconductor components, a class of goods that was directly traced to the Ukrainian battlefield. Germany faces a similar questionable engagement with dual-use goods.

Local media reports from earlier this year stated that Germany exported $134 million worth of military equipment between 2014 and 2020 despite the EU export ban. Further investigation tied German components to Russian drones and revealed the German government’s active approval of dual-use export licenses despite EU restrictions. The U.S. also faces issues with maintaining control of these goods. In 2015, a Texas-based technology company shipped radiation-hardened microelectronics to Russia via Bulgaria. More recently, the Biden administration uncovered a network that provided sensitive military technologies to Russia for use in Ukraine.

Export controls are one of the best tools the world has for stifling proliferation, limiting the destructive capabilities of terrorist organizations, and inhibiting the ability of states to fuel conventional conflict. Effective export controls are complicated, and there are risk trade-offs that must be evaluated when engaging in business abroad. But the invasion has revealed clear gaps—and they need to be filled in.

Austin Wright is a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional, specializing in trans-Atlantic security and export controls.

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