Russia is suspected of buying back military supplies previously shipped to Myanmar and India, according to a Nikkei analysis of customs clearance data.
The survey found records of Russian repurchases of parts for tanks and missiles that had been exported to Myanmar and India. Russia may be reimporting the components to improve older weapons destined for use in Ukraine, relying on help from countries with which it has long-standing military ties.
The U.S., European nations, and Japan have banned exports of goods with potential military use to Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
Nikkei analyzed customs clearance data on shipments to Russia made available by ImportGenius, an American research specialist, Exim Trade Data of India, and other sources, examining records on Russia’s imports of parts for weapons such as tanks and missiles.
UralVagonZavod, which manufactures tanks for the Russian military, for example, imported military products from the Myanmar army for $24 million on Dec. 9, 2022. The components were registered as having been made by UralVagonZavod.
The harmonized system (HS) codes for the reimported goods suggest the company repurchased 6,775 sighting telescopes and 200 cameras for installation in tanks. They are “probably optical devices to measure the distance to targets and zero in on them,” said Nobuyuki Akatani, a retired senior officer from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force who was involved in developing tanks.
Russia has an inventory of around 5,000 tanks, according to the 2023 edition of “The Military Balance,” an annual report published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.
“Russia has a lot of old T-72s [tanks] in storage that are in need of modernization and could be sent to the front line afterward,” said Oleg Ignatov, a Russia analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “I can add that optics is a big problem for the Russian military-industrial complex. It’s plausible that they are trying to get optics this way.”
Russia, which previously relied on Western technology to produce optical equipment, according to past trade data, appears to be struggling to procure the necessary components as a result of the trade sanctions.
Nikkei asked UralVagonZavod, the Russian government, and the Defence Ministry of Myanmar’s military regime to provide details on the Russian company’s repurchase of military products, but received no replies as of publication.
Reference to “imported under reclamation act” was found in the customs clearance data. UralVagonZavod exported military products to the Myanmar army in 2019; the reference suggests the returned items were defective. But according to Kinichi Nishimura, a military analyst who previously served at Japan’s Ministry of Defence, “Any defective products should have been replaced when discovered in a full inspection conducted at the time of import.”
Other analysts agree: “For a warranty return, this would, as far as I know, be an unusual quantity,” said Jakub Janovsky of Oryx, a Dutch defense intelligence analysis website.
The Russian NPK KBM, the Russian initials for the Machine-Building Design Bureau, which is tasked with missile production, purchased a total of six components for night-vision sight for ground-to-air missiles for $150,000 from the Indian Ministry of Defense in August and November 2022. All of the parts, which are needed to ensure the missiles can perform at night and in low light, were manufactured by the KBM, which exported the same type of parts to India in February 2013.
Russia may have reimported the parts for repairs, but there were no records of the items being sent back to India as of the end of March this year. Neither the KBM nor the Indian ministry responded to Nikkei’s request for comment.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia is the world’s third-largest exporter of weapons, with India its biggest customer, alone accounting for 35% of Russia’s overseas arms shipments over the past decade.
SIPRI bases its findings on its proprietary trend indicator value (TIV), which takes into account such factors as the volume of trade, manufacturing costs, and capabilities of weapons. India is followed as a purchaser of Russian arms by China, at 15% of total exports, and Algeria at 10%. Buybacks of exported equipment make it possible to upgrade older weapons in Russia’s arsenal and send them into battle.
The Group of Seven leaders, at their summit in Hiroshima, Japan, last month asked other countries to end military support for Russia. But “it is difficult to gain cooperation from countries that rely on Russian-made weapons,” said Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor who studies arms control at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
Efforts to stanch the flow of military equipment to Russia, and from there to the front lines in Ukraine, require tough measures such as setting up means of disclosing deals with Russia.