Top Russian weakness that West can exploit: Russia’s Defense Industry

This essay series identifies 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities in today’s Russia across the defense, economic, and diplomatic and political domains. 

10 essays analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Federation were released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS): «Identifying Russian Vulnerabilities and How to Leverage Them” These essays provide a roadmap for a more assertive Western posture.


Russia’s reliance on imported components to produce weaponry leaves it vulnerable to efforts to restrict their supply.

By Richard Connolly

Vulnerability 1: Russia’s Defense Industry

Russia’s defense industry has long been a crucial pillar of the country’s national security and global influence. However, despite a concerted effort to reduce the defense industry’s vulnerability to sanctions ahead of the decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the sector remains highly dependent on external components and technology and, therefore, potentially vulnerable to sanctions. While allied sanctions and export controls are complicating and increasing the cost of Russia’s defense-industrial production and may be degrading some of its military capabilities, there remains room to further exploit this critical vulnerability. 

Before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian defense industry relied heavily on components and advanced technologies imported from abroad.

Such was the dependence that very few if any systems were built using purely Russian-produced components. The new Armata tank, for instance, used multiple Western components, as did many long-range precision-guided missiles, while warships were powered by foreign engines. A similar dependence on Western components was observed across the defense industry. 

This dependence was especially acute in the sphere of electronic components, machine tools, power units, armored vehicles, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The sanctions that allies imposed in the wake of 2014 restricted or prohibited the export of these critical inputs to Russia, disrupting the production of numerous military systems, including the new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The sanctions imposed after February 2022 hit even harder, targeting a much wider range of companies and technologies. Most importantly, export controls prohibited the sale of goods that were made using U.S. technologies, such as microchips, microprocessors, and optical equipment. 

Not only has Russia’s defense industry experienced challenges as a result of its reduced access to technology and parts but, after 2014, allied sanctions also hampered Russian defense firms’ access to capital from global financial markets. The number of defense firms subject to financial restrictions has grown sharply over the past year. As a result, the sector’s ability to keep pace with technological advances across the world is under increased pressure. By restricting Russian defense firms’ access to capital, sanctions should make it harder for them to invest in new equipment and research and development (R&D). Moscow will be faced with the choice of using public funds to cover the financing needs of local defense firms or allowing them to scrimp on the investment required to remain capable of developing advanced weaponry in the future. 

Responding to technological and financial sanctions costs Russia a lot of money, time, and effort. New suppliers need to be sourced, either via non-sanctioning third countries or illicit trade networks. Investment in new domestic capacity to produce substitutes also needs to take place. Both take time and do not always deliver perfect replacements for sanctioned equipment. Also, the financing needs of defense enterprises are covered by the state, putting the federal budget under increasing pressure. 

Nevertheless, because Russia possesses one of the largest defense industries in the world, and because its leadership prioritizes defense production above all else, it is unrealistic to expect that sanctions will prevent it from producing a large quantity of the platforms and munitions required to sustain the war in Ukraine. Instead, sanctions raise the cost of production, disrupt supply chains, and can result in lower-quality weaponry. Munitions might be less accurate, fighting at night could be more difficult, and sensors might be more prone to error, all of which will reduce the effectiveness of weaponry used on the battlefield. 

The difference made by sanctions, therefore, is likely to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Russia will still produce large volumes of weaponry. But it will be of a lower standard, will take longer to produce, and will be more expensive. This is likely to make it even more difficult than it was before the war for Russia to produce next-generation weaponry, such as fifth-generation combat aircraft, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled control systems, and the sensors needed to coordinate complex operations on the battlefield. Instead of building a modern force, the Russian military might have to settle for 20th century equipment. As other countries make advances in developing new generations of weaponry, the gap between Russia and its competitors could grow further. 

Russian Efforts to Mitigate or Offset the Vulnerability

Since 2014, the Russian government has sought to mitigate or offset the impact of sanctions and export control on its defense industrial base. Russia developed a multipronged response, and the Kremlin continues to adapt as new sanctions are put in place.3 However, these efforts have only delivered partial and often slow successes. 

First, the government and intelligence services have spent years building up large inventories of prohibited goods, either via open purchases from third countries or through illicit trade networks.  As a result, prohibited components are often found in weaponry used or destroyed on the battlefield in Ukraine. For instance, a recent comprehensive study found large numbers of foreign-produced components in Russian armored vehicles, missiles, electronic warfare (EW) systems, and combat aircraft, including UAVs and helicopters.

Second, the Russian government focused on reducing its dependence on imported defense technologies and components. An ambitious and well-funded import substitution plan was created in 2014 and has been bolstered with new institutional innovations ever since.  Russia now produces its own power units for large warships, something it was unable to do until very recently. The government has also actively promoted indigenous R&D in vulnerable areas of production, such as microchip and machine tool production. While the quality of the output might not be world leading, it is often good enough for the needs of the defense industry. Production facilities have also been upgraded to support the development of secure domestic supply chains. 

The Sarmat, for example, now looks set to be manufactured using entirely Russian-produced components. Over the past year, the Russian government has undertaken more institutional innovation, such as creating a Special Coordinating Council to ensure that production bottlenecks are overcome, and allocated more funds to help cushion its defense industry from sanctions and to enhance local capabilities. 

Third, Russia has cultivated closer ties with alternative suppliers in the “non-Western” world.  This has involved sourcing components used in defense-industrial production from a wider range of countries across Eurasia, such as China, Turkey, and Vietnam. Moscow has also redoubled its efforts to bolster military cooperation with countries that are not aligned with Western interests, such as China and Iran. The large-scale use of Iranian-designed UAVs across Ukraine is a prime example of Moscow adapting to the demands of war and the allied sanctions regime. If, as has been reported by the White House, Russia begins local production of UAVs, it will represent an even higher level of cooperation between Russia and Iran. 

Finally, Moscow has focused on the development of asymmetric capabilities and non-traditional defense technologies. By investing heavily in areas like cyber warfare, EW, and UAVs, Russia’s leaders hope to offset vulnerabilities from limitations caused by sanctions.

By investing heavily in areas like cyber warfare, EW, and UAVs, Russia’s leaders hope to offset vulnerabilities from limitations caused by sanctions.

As shown by the increased use of the Lancet loitering munition, there are signs of progress, even if production of other types of UAVs has been slower. 

Moscow has also pinned its hopes on developing “wonder weapons,” such as hypersonic missiles and giant nuclear-tipped torpedoes, to maintain the viability of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent force. These weapons are often presented as containing cutting-edge technologies. In practice, they are upgraded versions of existing technologies that make the most of what Russia has at its disposal.

Overall, Russia’s response to the allied sanctions regime has achieved some success. The increase in the tempo of cruise missile attacks on Ukraine in May 2023 suggests, for example, that Russian manufacturers have been able to increase the rate of production well beyond levels observed before the war. That these continue to contain recently produced Western components shows the success of Russian efforts to source components using alternative trade routes. And that these attacks have been accompanied by large numbers of the Iranian Shahed-136 strike UAV shows that Moscow has been able to fill an important hole in its arsenal by cultivating defense-industrial ties with non-Western countries that didn’t exist before the war. Indeed, reports in the Russian media indicate that production of several weapons systems has risen sharply over the last year. While these statements should be treated with a degree of skepticism, they do highlight the limits that allied powers have in undermining defense production in Russia. 

Opportunities for the U.S. and its Allies to Exploit the Vulnerability

Sanctions are unlikely to prevent the Russian defense industry—one of the three largest in the world—from producing weaponry. But they can raise the cost of production, reduce the quality and effectiveness of the weapons produced, and disrupt the rhythm of R&D and production. All these results are worthwhile objectives and will hamper the functioning of the Russian war machine. Three obvious opportunities exist to maintain this pressure.

First, more effort needs to be made in enforcing those sanctions already in place. This will require cracking down on illicit trade networks operating in allied countries and greater surveillance—and ultimately cutoff—of supplies to third countries that are profiting by reselling equipment to Russia. While China might be more difficult to dissuade, the likes of Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam might prove more amenable given their own interests in maintaining warm relations with allied countries. 

Second, the technology control regime should be expanded to target some important blind spots. Rosatom, Russia’s largest and best-equipped manufacturer of high-tech goods, stands out. Its importance in the global nuclear supply chain should not prevent allies from taking action to hinder its manufacturing operations. Rosatom is at the forefront of efforts to mitigate sanctions. It was already Russia’s leading producer of advanced materials and precision machine tools but is now leading efforts to produce microchips. More needs to be done to disrupt its manufacturing activities and those of its subsidiaries. 

Finally, the United States and Europe should increase diplomatic efforts to encourage other states to join in the allied sanctions regime. Even where countries do not impose sanctions, the deterrent effect of secondary sanctions can help dissuade thirdcountry suppliers from supporting Russian efforts to circumvent sanctions. 

Taking these steps will not stop defense production. But it will raise the cost of production, imposing greater strain on Russia’s public finances, which are now bearing the full cost of military production. It will also reduce the quality and reliability of weapons that are produced with lower-quality components. And production lines will be disrupted if Russian manufacturers are forced to regularly seek new suppliers. This will lengthen the time it takes to deliver weapons to the armed forces. Together, these efforts will make it harder for Russian forces to prevail on the battlefield.

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