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Joint investigation by IStories, OCCRP, and Der Spiegel reveals Kazakhstan supplies Russia with microchips and drones, bypassing sanctions

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Kazakhstan is helping Russia avoid international sanctions by acting as an intermediary for the supply of microchips and drones, according to a joint investigation by Important Stories (IStories), OCCRP and Der Spiegel.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, imports of microelectronics to Kazakhstan have more than doubled. The total value of integrated circuits supplied to Russia amounted to $35 million in 2021, and more than doubled in 2022, exceeding $75 million, according to Kazakhstan’s Office for National Statistics. Prior to 2021, the import volume was also approximately two times smaller. Exports of microchips from Kazakhstan showed even more noticeable growth: $245,000 in 2021 compared to $18 million in 2022. While microchips are at least mentioned in the import and export reports for 2021, drones appeared in the records only in 2022. According to the figures, last year, Kazakhstan imported drones with a total value of $5 million, and exported $1.23 million of them to Russia.

IStories learned that in 2022, over 500 drones were sent to Russia by Kazakhstan-based company Aspan Arba, registered two months after the start of the full-scale war. Industry website Metalmininginfo reported that Aspan Arba would be the official drone dealer for the Chinese company DJI in Kazakhstan, and claimed that DJI would supply drones for the agricultural, construction, power generation, search and rescue and mining industries. In total, Aspan Arba was licensed to purchase 18,000 drones for a total of $45 million.

On the Russian side, drones are purchased from Aspan Arba by a company called Nebesnaya Mekhanika, owned by one Ilya Golberg. Coincidentally, Ilya Golberg is also the name of the founder of Aspan Arba. Mikhail Sapozhnikov, the director of the Kazakhstani company, was also previously co-owner of Nebesnaya Mekhanika – along with Golberg. The phone numbers listed on the Aspan Arba website match the ones listed for Nebesnaya Mekhanika employees in leaked customer number databases from logistics company CDEK.

Nebesnaya Mekhanika is the largest supplier of drones to the Russian military-industrial complex. In 2022 and early 2023, its largest customer was DJI Ars Moscow, a firm that received goods for almost 500 million roubles ($6.2 million). The company sells drones on e-commerce website Ozon, where the Russian military regularly buys them. DJI Ars’ other customers include the Kamchatka Regional Council of Veterans of War and Labor, the “Rys” (“Lynx”) Moscow Regional Federation of Veterans of Armed Conflicts, the “Future of Kamchatka” fund that buys drones for the Kamchatka marines and the “Popular Front. All for Victory,” which openly helps the Russian military in Ukraine.

The largest Russian buyer of microcircuits from Kazakhstan is the company “Stack,” registered in a Moscow apartment. In 2022 and 2023, it imported components from Kazakhstan totaling $4.2 million. The customs data shows the countries of their origin: Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore. Stack is a supplier of the «Moscow Searchlight Plant» (“Moskovsky Prozhektorny Zavod”) and the design bureau of the Moscow Power Engineering Insittute (MPEI). The latter develops radio engineering systems as part of Russian state corporation Roscosmos. In 2022, Stack mainly sent components to one company – Set-1. As stated on its website, it is engaged in “the development and production of special equipment for law enforcement agencies.” The Russian Defense Ministry is among Set-1's customers. The company supplies it with Sfera and Skarabei robotic demining and reconnaissance complexes, which were used by Russian troops in Syria, and are now used in Ukraine. Last year, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and the so-called “DPR” (“Donetsk People’s Republc”) were also among Set-1’s buyers.

Prime-Ek is another Russian company that buys microelectronics through Kazakhstan. Between 2022 and 2023, it imported $3.1 million worth of components to Russia. It is part of Concern Avtomatika, a holding company owned by the Rostec state corporation, which manufactures communications equipment for Russia’s Ministry of Defense. One of Prime-Ek’s products is the P-240I “Pereselenets” (“Settler”) digital system, which is used by the Russian military in Ukraine for communications in the field.

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