Despite efforts from the U.S. Government to limit critical technology sales to Russia, Chinese drone exports remain difficult to stop.
In the past year, China has sold drones and drone components to Russia, with official Russian customs data from a third-party revealing that these shipments include Autel and DJI drones and products from several smaller firms.
It is difficult to determine whether or not these Chinese drones infringe on US restrictions by including any US technology.
Shipments frequently go through a network of small-scale middlemen and exporters. Moreover, convoluted sales channels and vague product descriptions in export data make it difficult to verify whether or not Chinese products contain components sourced from the United States.
Official sales only show fraction of drones going to Russia
Official drone sales represent only a fraction of the technology flowing to Russia, which also likely passes through informal channels and other Countries friendly to Russia, such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Belarus.
Due to these sales, Russia is receiving an ongoing supply of new Autel and DJI drones to use in the war with Ukraine.
These drones are increasingly critical for reconnaissance and are just as important as other essential supplies like ammunition and artillery rounds.
China has emerged as a critical support for Russia's war effort, both militarily and economically. The country remains one of the largest buyers of Russian oil, thus financing Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Several Chinese corporations have been singled out by US export regulations, notably DJI, which was included to a blacklist in 2020. This blacklist prevents American companies from exporting technology to foreign buyers without first receiving approval.
Despite this, DJI's industry dominance remains unaffected. DJI drones made up nearly half of the Chinese drone deliveries to Russia, some sold directly by its subsidiary, iFlight Technology. Since the invasion, around 70 Chinese exporters have sold 26 different drone brands to Russia, the NY Times reports.
While the $12 million in drone shipments might appear small, experts believe it considerably affects the front lines.
Drone maker finds no evidence of DJI drones sold to Russia
A DJI spokesperson reportedly stated that the company found no evidence of direct sales to Russia since April 16, 2022, and the drone maker would look into other companies seemingly selling to Russia.
They added that DJI halted all shipments and operations in Russia and Ukraine since the war began and had strict procedures to avoid violating U.S. sanctions.
“Like any consumer electronics company with products sold at many different electronics stores, we cannot influence how all our products are being used once they leave our control,” the DJI spokesman told the newspaper.
DJI's official response
Later in the day, drone maker DJI tweeted the following statement:
We are aware of recent media reports claiming that DJI is still shipping drones to Russia.
These reports quote a small number of databases we believe to be highly inaccurate. The only named database we can access, ImportGenius, identifies us as shipping agent for competitors such as Parrot and Insta360 with whom we have no relationship whatsoever.
We asked media to name the sources of the other databases they referred to, as the screenshots they shared with us lack concrete and traceable information. They did not respond.
We state again: DJI and its subsidiaries stopped all shipments to and operations in Russia and Ukraine in April 2022. We have notified our distribution network that they must block any sale of products or spare parts to customers in the two countries regardless of intended end use.
The NY Times also reported that drone maker Autel Robotics was “not aware of any sales to Russia and was conducting an internal investigation about the issue.”
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