Russia Blindsides China; Establishes Alternative Supply Route To Acquire Its Military Drones – US Report

As Chinese restrictions on the export of drones and their components caused supply chain disruptions and shortages in Russia, the Kremlin is establishing an alternative supply route to procure military drones to circumvent the ban.

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An analysis by an American think tank concluded that the Kremlin is discrediting China by continuing “to import components, military equipment, and dual-purpose goods” under international sanctions. It is most likely that Moscow uses military intelligence channels to ensure the purchase of scarce goods and components.

The war between Ukraine and Russia has truly emerged as a war of drones. This meant a growing reliance of both warring parties on China to get their uncrewed platforms. While Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used by Russia and Ukraine, the cheap consumer drones that have become ubiquitous on the front line largely come from China.

Chinese companies such as DJI, EHang, and Autel have churned out drones at an ever-increasing scale, dominating the global market. DJI, China’s biggest drone maker, has a more than 90 percent share of the global consumer drone market, according to DroneAnalyst, a research group.

On September 1, Beijing put significant curbs on the export of UAVs, complicating the supply chain to Russia and creating a shortage of some components and UAVs weighing over 4 kg.

China’s ban on the export of drones that can be used for military purposes also led to the suspension of supplies of products that are not even directly subject to restrictions, for example, 30-40 kg drones used in agriculture that are not produced in Russia in large quantities.

The investigation by Robert Lansing Institute for Global Threat and Democracies Studies says Russia has roped in a Hong Kong-based trading company, SGGI Limited (3/F, Workington Tower, 78 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, HK), which is most likely in touch with Russian intelligence. The company will handle the order for the manufacture of drones and logistical issues regarding their delivery from China to Russia.

According to their data, the China-based company Shandong Buyun Aviation Technology Co., Ltd plans to deliver 1,000 drones to Russia. These drones will be following a convoluted route to evade global sanctions.

The disassembled drones will be delivered first to Kazakhstan (via Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous District, PRC), each in a separate case, and then shipped to Russia.

“The delivery scheme indicates that the government of Kazakhstan does not prevent and likely supports Moscow in creating schemes to tackle sanctions preventing arms supplies to Russia. Accordingly, Astana deliberately violates the sanctions regime and export control rules, likely due to the Russians having infiltrated the decision-making system at the highest level,” the report concluded.

Shandong Buyun Aviation Technology Co., Ltd was founded in 2015 and specializes in manufacturing drones with various modifications and training drone operators. The company has its projects and patented products. It cooperates with the Nanjing University of Astronautics and Aeronautics.

A July 2023 US intelligence report said Beijing likely supplied Moscow with dual-use civilian-military equipment employed in Ukraine but noted that it is “difficult to ascertain the extent to which (China) has helped Russia evade and circumvent sanctions and export controls.”

Customs records cited by media outlets showed Russian companies ordering $100 million or more of Chinese drones so far in 2023.

Speaking at a hearing of the lower house of the Russian parliament on October 16, Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov told members of the State Duma that “almost all” of Russia’s UAVs are being sourced from China. “Today, drones are almost all from the People’s Republic of China,” Siluanov says.

According to Siluanov, the Kremlin plans to increase the country’s civilian drone production to at least 41 percent by 2025. For this plan, Russia’s budget provides for more than 60 billion roubles (US $617 million).

Is Russia Backstabbing Iran As Well?

Traditionally, Russia has tried to evade restrictions through third countries, as well as by exploiting the existing gaps in the imposed bans. The Russian intelligence officials had established contact with the manufacturers in February 2023, when it was reported that an agreement had been reached to supply 100 drones set to be delivered in April through an indirect supply route organized by Russia’s defense intelligence.

Most likely, the agreements relate to the ZT-180 drone model, which is capable of carrying a 35-50 kg payload. The drone seems to be “a close clone” of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 widely used by Russia in Ukraine.

Russia would likely use the ZT-180 much in the same way as it has deployed the Iranian Shahed-131 and -136 “suicide” drones in Ukraine.

Russia has used drones developed by Xian Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology in military exercises and termed their technical strength “first class.” Chinese-made drones would keep getting tested on the Battlefield in Ukraine to see whether or not they can compete with the Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 on military and civilian targets in Ukraine.

A similar range for the ZT-180 would mean the Chinese-made drones could quite comfortably hit key targets within Ukraine, including Kyiv.

File Image: Putin

“The similarity of the parameters of Iranian and Chinese drones may indicate that Moscow provides Iranian technology to China to develop similar drones at a favorable price since Beijing, unlike Tehran, does not have issues with tech components. Thus, the renewal of negotiations with China may indicate Moscow’s frustration over Iran’s production capacity,” read the report.

However, the think tank said that it was not certain if the Chinese authorities were privy to the delivery of drones to Russia. “Most likely, the Russians went directly to the manufacturer and offered a deal through a Hong Kong intermediary firm in the interests of Kazakhstan. Even early this year, there were indicators that Bingo could have plans to help establish a production site for drones in Russia, where up to 100 units could be manufactured per month,” said the analysis.

In November 2018, Bingo said it had signed a strategic cooperation agreement with an online platform established by Poly Technology Defense Investment, a unit of state-owned China Poly Group that aims to support military trade and research into military equipment.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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