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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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New U.S. sanctions target workarounds that let Russia get Western tech for war

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The United States said Thursday that it was sanctioning more than 150 businesses and people from Russia to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Georgia to try to crack down on evasion and deny the Kremlin access to technology, money and financial channels that fuel President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The sanctions package is one of the biggest by the State and Treasury departments and is the latest to target people and companies in countries, notably in NATO member Turkey, that sell Western technology to Russia that could be used to bolster its war effort.

The package also aims to hobble the development of Russia’s energy sector and future sources of cash, including Arctic natural gas projects, as well as mining and factories producing and repairing Russian weapons.

“The purpose of the action is to restrict Russia’s defense production capacity and to reduce the liquidity it has to pay for its war,” James O’Brien, head of the State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination, told The Associated Press.

The U.S. is sanctioning a newly established UAE company, which provides engineering and technology to Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas project, as well as multiple Russian companies involved in its development.

Putin wants the Arctic LNG 2 project to produce more liquefied natural gas and make Russia a bigger player in the energy market. In July, Putin visited the LNG site in Russia’s far north and said it would have a positive impact on “the entire economy.”

The U.S. package includes sanctions on several Turkish, Finnish and Russian companies that the State Department and Treasury say help Moscow source U.S. and European electronic components — such as computer chips and processors — which the U.S. says ended up in weapons used by Russia.

Treasury sanctioned what it called “a Finland-based network” that sent a wide range of electronics into Russia, including cameras for drones and lithium batteries. Finland is a European Union member that supports sanctions on Russia and the most recent to join NATO.

The State Department also is targeting Turkish companies that have provided ship repair services to a company affiliated with Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

Before the war, O’Brien said, Russia imported up to 90 percent of its electronics from countries that are part of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies, but sanctions have dropped that figure closer to 30 percent.

Sanctions, he said, “are effective” and “put a ceiling on Russia’s wartime production capacity.”

“Russia is trying to run a full production wartime economy, and it is extremely difficult to do that with secretive episodic purchases of small batches of equipment from different places around the world,” O’Brien said.

However, analysts say Russia still has significant financial reserves available and it’s possible for Russia to import the technology it seeks in tiny batches to maintain defense production.

“Russia could probably fill a large suitcase with enough electronic components to last for cruise missile production for a year,” said Richard Connolly, a specialist on Russia’s defense sector and economy at the risk analysis firm Oxford Analytica.

Russia also gets a lot of electronic components from Belarus, “so even if we whack all the moles, Belarus will still provide the equipment for as long as (President Alexander) Lukashenko is in power,” Connolly said.

Both Turkey and the UAE have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but have not joined Western sanctions and sought to maintain ties with Russia.

Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov said this year that trade between Russia and the UAE grew by 68 percent to $9 billion in 2022, according to Russian state news agency Tass.

Still, the State Department believes sanctions are working, O’Brien said, noting that “the way to measure success is on the battlefield.”

“Ukraine can shoot down most of what the Russians are firing, and that tells us that there’s a gap,” he said. “The battlefield debris shows us Russia is using less capable electronics or sometimes no electronics at all.”

Nonetheless, Russia has been pummeling Ukraine with frequent missile attacks, including two over the past week that killed at least 23 people.

This is partly because Russia is “still getting hold of these electronic components and they are largely functioning as they did before,” said Connolly, the Russia analyst.

The latest sanctions package targets Russian companies that repair, develop and manufacture weapons, including the Kalibr cruise missile. But to really turn the screws, analysts say Western companies need to think twice before selling crucial technology to countries known to have a healthy resale market with Russia.

“We need to work much harder with companies in our own countries to ensure that they are not feeding the re-export market,” said Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Many of them may be celebrating a rise in sales to the UAE or Turkey and not realizing, or not choosing to realize, that the rise is being driven by re-export business as opposed to genuine business happening in the UAE and Turkey,” he said.

The UAE monitors the export of products that have both civilian and military uses and strictly abides by U.N. sanctions, a government statement said.

The UAE “has clear and robust processes in place to deal with sanctioned entities, which we have exercised against a number of companies since the beginning of the conflict,” the statement said.

However, a global body that fights money laundering has placed the UAE on its “gray list” over concerns that the global trade hub isn’t doing enough to stop criminals and militants from hiding wealth there.

Turkey, meanwhile, has tried to balance its close ties with both Russia and Ukraine, positioning itself as a mediator.

Turkey depends heavily on Russian energy and tourism. Last year, however, Turkey’s state banks suspended transactions through Russia’s payment system, Mir, over U.S. sanctions threats.

The U.S. sanctioned Russian oligarch Andrei Bokarev, who reportedly has personal ties to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and his business partner, Iskander Makhmudov. Treasury also sanctioned Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko and people associated with the Wagner mercenary group, including for facilitating weapons shipments from North Korea to Russia.

Otar Partskhaladze, a Georgian-Russian businessman and former prosecutor general of Georgia, also was targeted. Russia’s Federal Security Service worked with Partskhaladze to influence Georgian society and politics for Russia’s benefit, the State Department said.

Including the latest sanctions, the U.S. has targeted almost 3,000 businesses and people since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, according to State.

“We will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

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