French thermal imagers for Russian paratroopers. Investigation

Pavel Kashchuk is a popular automotive blogger and host of the Ukrainian YouTube channel InfoCar with 700,000 subscribers. With the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he not only shoots a test drive of cars, but also dismantles captured Russian military equipment on camera. After he spotted French thermal sensors in the sights of an abandoned airborne combat vehicle near Kyiv and in an Orlan drone, Kashchuk called for an international investigation into how Western electronic components end up in the hands of the Russian army.

Radio Liberty journalists studied the Russian public procurement website and found that in 2021 such matrices were purchased by a research institute, which is part of the Rostec structure. Matrix suppliers in procurement documents are classified. Soon after the start of the war with Ukraine, the EU imposed new sanctions against Rostec, and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation opened a criminal case on fraud in the purchase of imported electronics by this research institute.
Museum exhibits or “technologies of the future”?

Imported electronics in Russian military equipment manages to coexist with half a century old technologies. Almost 700,000 views were scored by Pavel Kashchuk’s video with the “unpacking” of the Russian intelligence, control and communications complex “Sagittarius”, found by Ukrainian soldiers in the Kyiv region. This complex is included in the set of “Warrior” – the combat equipment of the “soldier of the XXI century.”

It appeared in 2011 and includes “modern means of protection”, a night vision system, and is even capable of “monitoring the psychophysical state” of a soldier. Experimental design work on the creation of a “unparalleled” complex, as Wikipedia says, was carried out by dozens of Russian defense enterprises – such as FSUE Uniitochmash, NPO Special Equipment and Communications, JSC Central Research Institute Cyclone and others.

Some components of the system make Pavel Kashchuk smile – in their appearance they are more associated not with the “soldiers of the future”, but with the angular and bulky products of the Soviet “defense industry” of the 70s and 80s. Some – but not all: for example, German Fischer plugs are used to connect the wires, and the body of the commander’s tablet and its batteries are similar to the products of the German company Leica and a number of other companies.
The tablet of the Sagittarius-M complex (top) and tablets from Leica and Handheld in similar cases
Tablet of the Sagittarius-M complex (top) and tablets from Leica and Handheld in similar cases

Radio Liberty told Leica that they had conducted an investigation and came to the conclusion that the Ratnik tablet was not produced by them. Most likely, they took ordinary OEM parts for it, which, after production (most often in Asia), are sold under different brands.

However, other videos by Kashchuk show that Russian military equipment also uses original foreign-made electronic components, primarily European ones.

“Unpacking” the Russian Orlan-10 drone shot down in Ukraine, Kashchuk discovered that his thermal imaging camera uses a PICO-640-046 matrix from the French concern Lynred. It allows you to recognize living objects at night and even through obstacles, such as through dense foliage.

On February 25, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU tightened export controls on dual-use goods and imposed sanctions targeting “critical sectors of the Russian military-industrial complex” and designed to “restrict Russia’s access to critical advanced technologies.”

Sanctioned goods and technologies include “drones and software for drones” and “semiconductors and advanced electronics.” Similar sanctions were imposed on Russia 8 years ago (the most famous consequence of these sanctions was the cancellation of the contract for the supply of Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia), but they did not apply to previously concluded contracts, and besides, not all electronics fell under export control.

The same matrices manufactured by Lynred from the Orlan-10 drone operate in a temperature range insufficient to be recognized in the EU as military-grade products, says Eric Woods, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in an interview with Radio Liberty. In the United States, the Lynred PICO-640-046 matrix is ​​certified as a military-grade product for two criteria at once, but, according to Woods, this is often just a marketing ploy designed to show the buyer the reliability of the product.

Matrix PICO-640-046, a frame from the video of Pavel Kashchuk with the disassembly of the drone “Orlan-10”

Even if products are not subject to export controls, sanctions generally prevent them from being supplied to companies associated with the Department of Defense. Bypassing this ban is easy enough, says Woods, – just find a Russian “civilian” partner who is not formally associated with the military department.
Secret Suppliers

On the State Procurement website, Radio Liberty found that the PICO-640-046 matrices were purchased in 2021 by the Cyclone Research Institute, which is part of the Rostec Corporation, and which also participated in the creation of Ratnik. Suppliers in the documents are classified and act under code numbers. The amount of the contract for the supply of four matrices amounted to 605 thousand rubles. Interestingly, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on fraud in the purchase of foreign components by Cyclone in 2015 in the amount of more than 600 million rubles. On February 26, EU sanctions were imposed against Rostec. Since 2020, the corporation has been under US sanctions, which force it to obtain a special license to purchase any goods from American manufacturers.

Cyclone is one of the largest Russian manufacturers of thermal imaging and other optical equipment for military needs. Like other defense enterprises, until 2014, it widely used imported components in its products. He did not abandon this practice even after the imposition of sanctions.

A year before buying from the “secret” supplier of the PICO-640 matrices used in Orlans, Cyclone purchased one French SCORPIO-MW-K508 matrix from the same Lynred company. Data about the supplier and at that time were classified.

In 2018, the institute purchased 60 matrices UL 031901 from the French company ULIS. It follows from the procurement documents that they were intended for Sych-3 portable thermal imaging devices, which are positioned on the Arms Expo website as “the only uncooled portable thermal imaging camera completely Russian-made and developed.” The supplier was the Moscow company Task-T, which mentions the RF Ministry of Defense among its “key clients”. Such sights are used, in particular, by the border service of the FSB and the National Guard Troops – the latter are actively involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In 2015, Cyclone purchased imported matrices UL 03262 and UL 031901 from ULIS through the Russian company IEOS, on whose website there is no mention of cooperation with the Russian military.

Once during these years, Cyclone also acquired Chinese thermal imaging modules – this happened in 2020. A secret company supplied the institute with six MINI MW IDDCA 640 x 512 mid-frequency modules manufactured by the North China Research Institute of Electro-optics.

Another interesting purchase was made in 2019. The Institute received a wide range of “components for unmanned aerial vehicles” – from propellers to laser rangefinders. The procurement documents indicate that absolutely all of them are Russian-made, but in fact this is not the case. For example, the Lidar light V.3.0HP laser altimeter specified in the terms of reference is manufactured by the American company Garmin. The supplier was the Russian company YuVS Avia, which is proud of its cooperation with various departments of the RF Ministry of Defense.
French thermal imagers for Russian paratroopers

Despite ongoing purchases, the 2014 sanctions still hit the Russian military industry. So, in 2020, the French companies Thales Group and ULIS (the latter is now part of the Lynred mentioned above) refused to supply thermal imagers for the sights of armored vehicles and Su-25 attack aircraft to Russia. Sights with thermal imagers manufactured by Thales were first repaired, and why they began to produce under license in Vologda back in 2008.

As follows from the video of Pavel Kashchuk, these thermal imaging sights are also installed on Russian armored vehicles, which are used in the war with Ukraine. In one of the videos, he shows a civilian vehicle in which civilians in the Kyiv region who tried to leave the combat zone were shot at by a 30-millimeter cannon of an airborne combat vehicle (BMD).

Kashchuk personally examined one of these BMDs abandoned by the Russian military and found in its thermal imaging sight the same Thales electronics, licensed in Russia two years after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbass. From the publication of 2021 on the website of the Russian edition of National Defense, it follows that the license agreement between Thales and the Vologda enterprise JSC VOMZ for the assembly of thermal imaging cameras was valid until 2017.

Thales thermal imaging sight made under license in Russia in 2016

Attack aircraft Su-25

The Ukrainian edition of Defense Express in a 2018 article cited other examples of how European companies circumvent the sanctions imposed against Russia. Italy, despite the ban on the supply of weapons and military equipment to Russia, continued to send to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation vehicle sets of new Iveco LMV armored vehicles, which received the name “Lynx” in Russia. As the Ukrainian website wrote in 2016, despite sanctions with Russia at that time, many French companies producing dual-use equipment continued to cooperate, for example, the Safran conglomerate mentioned above. As loopholes, the article mentions cooperation with Roskosmos. Russia also created joint Russian-Indian and Russian-Algerian enterprises that directly purchased components for Su-30 fighters and T-90S tanks from the French (on the State Procurement website, Radio Liberty discovered the purchase of electronics by the Central Research Institute “Cyclone”, among which were Japanese capacitors with the indication country of origin “Angola”).

“In 99% of the Russian devices that I dismantled, imported elements are responsible for the main functions, which I could not replace with imports. Many of them were produced quite recently. The entire component base is imported, even suitable resistors and transistors, apparently, are not produced in Russia. At first, I thought that the situation with the use of such components by Russia should be resolved by some kind of legal proceedings, sanctions, and so on. But when we started counting how much European manufacturers of such equipment earn on trade with Russia, the amount turned out to be insignificant. Some small chips for the same drones cost a maximum of $100. The issue that should start worrying European manufacturers is the image, which is much more expensive than what they get from the Russians. Unless, of course, we were talking about some accompanying preferences for these companies in exchange for Russia’s access to such technologies,” says Pavel Kashchuk in an interview with Radio Liberty.
“Russia is decades behind”

According to Eric Woods, in the case of Thales matrices in Russian armored vehicles, we can talk about old stocks of components that were produced before 2017. He confirms that there are several ways to circumvent sanctions, and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies has repeatedly recorded them.

“If you’re selling something that could be subject to export controls, you’ll typically write an agreement that clearly states the end user of the product and may specifically state that military use is excluded. But your partner, who will sign this agreement, may simply lie – because he knows that you will not be able to check it. Many Russian military-industrial complex enterprises produce both military and civilian equipment. It’s no big deal for them to say, “We promise these chips will only be used for peaceful purposes,” and then hand them over to the military. Many Western companies continue to do business with Russian partners who are contractors of the Ministry of Defense. It is difficult to say whether they are doing this on purpose or simply do not know about the cooperation of their customers with the military. It happens like this, and like that.”

On the matrix from the Orlan-10 drone, under the thermal paste, the serial number is clearly visible, which could help answer the question of how exactly it got to Russia. The company Lynred did not answer the corresponding question of Radio Liberty. According to Eric Woods, Western firms are extremely reluctant to check the proper execution of the end use agreement – such investigations are time-consuming and expensive, besides, they threaten reputational losses for the seller himself. “Sometimes the FBI or the CIA do these investigations, but they don’t share that information with the manufacturing companies because they want to keep track of these shipments,” says Woods.

Pavel Kashchuk’s experience in “unpacking” Russian trophies shows that French and German electronics are most often found in Russian military equipment:

“If the production date is before 2014, then you can even find American components, such as FLIR thermal imaging matrices. Anything later is basically France, Russia’s main friend; a lot of Germany, Israel, and then in descending order. Yes, in Russia some electronic components were produced under license. But what is a “licensed build”? I know this very well from the automotive industry. In order to optimize taxation, a practically finished car is imported into the country, before crossing the border, the wheels are, relatively speaking, unscrewed from it, after which they are screwed on at a factory in Russia or Ukraine, and all this is called “domestic production”.

Eric Woods notes that microelectronics and semiconductors are the most difficult for the Russian defense industry to notice. “Russia has brilliant scientists, but at one time the Soviet authorities did nothing to reduce the technological gap with the West. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia also did not invest in this area. Current Russian technologies lag behind the world’s by decades.”

On May 11, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said at a Senate hearing that technology exports to Russia had fallen by 70% since early February, and the Ukrainian military was finding microchips from washing machines and other household appliances in abandoned and captured Russian equipment. “This is nonsense,” says Eric Woods. – On the other hand, this whole war is nonsense, and we have already seen how the Russians use ordinary plastic bottles instead of a fuel tank in Orlans. Maybe they really tried to somehow attach chips from household appliances, but they were unlikely to succeed.
A plastic bottle instead of a fuel tank in the Russian Orlan-10 drone, a frame from Pavel Kashchuk’s video
A plastic bottle instead of a fuel tank in the Russian Orlan-10 drone, a frame from Pavel Kashchuk’s video

Pavel Kashchuk says: “Many Russians write to me: what, the situation in Ukraine is better, you yourself, I suppose, don’t produce anything either? The answer here is pretty simple. Firstly, we, unlike Russia, do not declare that we do everything ourselves, we do not change cases on imported devices, sticking our names on them. Secondly, if we are talking about the same thermal imaging optics, for example, we have a wonderful manufacturer, Archer. You take in hands – a thing. Build quality, reliability, thoughtfulness. Although the thermal imaging matrices themselves are also imported,” says Kashchuk.
“War has changed the rules of the game”

Will the war in Ukraine be able to radically change the attitude of Western high-tech companies towards trade with Russia and take control of electronics exports seriously? Eric Woods says with cautious optimism that his interactions with industry representatives indicate that this process has already begun.

“The rules of the game have definitely changed. In the first weeks of the war, we talked a lot with people who are responsible in their companies for tracking the end users of products, for investigating ways to circumvent sanctions restrictions. All of them really wanted to somehow help Ukraine. For many years, export controls have been mostly paperwork. People did not take this very seriously – “we cannot find out in any way whether this or that component will be used for the production of weapons, and if it is, we most likely will not bear any responsibility for this.” Now they are gradually beginning to realize that even not the most complex chips are used not only in missiles, but also in drones, that they kill people in the same way, and that it is necessary to seriously control not only firearms or missiles, but also thermal imaging cameras. It remains to be seen how long their enthusiasm lasts.”

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