According to a Nikkei analysis of customs clearance data, Russia is suspected of buying back military supplies previously sent to Myanmar and India.
The study found records of Russian buybacks of tank and missile parts that had been exported to Myanmar and India. Russia may be re-importing components to upgrade older weapons intended for use in Ukraine with the help of countries with which it has long-standing military ties.
The United States, European countries and Japan have banned exports to Russia of products with possible military use since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
Nikkei analyzed customs clearance data on shipments to Russia made available by ImportGenius, a US research specialist, India’s Exim Trade Data and other sources, examining records on Russia’s imports of parts for weapons such as tanks and missiles.
UralVagonZavod, which makes tanks for the Russian army, for example, imported $24 million worth of military products from the Myanmar army on December 9, 2022. The components were recorded as being made by UralVagonZavod.
The Harmonized System (HS) codes of the re-imported goods suggest that the company repurchased 6,775 riflescopes and 200 cameras to install in tanks. These are likely “optical devices for measuring the distance to and aiming at targets,” according to Nobuyuki Akatani, a retired senior officer in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces who was involved in tank development.
Russia has an inventory of about 5,000 main battle 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-72 [tanks] in storage that need modernization and could then be sent to the front lines,” said Oleg Ignatov, a Russia analyst at 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 is plausible that they try to get optics this way.”
Russia, which previously relied on Western technology to produce optical equipment, according to past trade data, appears to be having a difficult time procuring the necessary components as a result of trade sanctions.
Nikkei asked UralVagonZavod, the Russian government and Myanmar’s military regime’s Defense Ministry to provide details about the Russian company’s buyback of military products but received no response by press time.
In the customs clearance data, a reference to “imported under claim certificate” was found. UralVagonZavod exported military products to the Myanmar Army in 2019; the reference suggests that the returned items were defective. But according to Kinichi Nishimura, a military analyst who previously served in Japan’s Defense Ministry, “Any defective products should have been replaced when discovered in a full inspection conducted at the time of importation.”
Other analysts agree: “For a warranty return, this would be, as far as I know, an unusual amount,” said Jakub Janovsky of Oryx, a Dutch defense intelligence analysis website.
The Russian NPK KBM, the Russian initials for the Machine Building Design Bureau, in charge of missile production, purchased a total of six components for night vision sights for surface-to-air missiles for $150,000 from the Indian Ministry of Defense in August and November 2022. All the parts are necessary to ensure the missiles can work 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 re-imported the parts for repair, but as of the end of March this year, there was no record of them being returned to India. 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 third largest arms exporter in the world, and India is its main client, with 35% of Russian arms shipments abroad in the last decade.
SIPRI bases its conclusions on its own Trend Indicator Value (TIV), which takes into account factors such as trade volume, manufacturing costs and weapons capabilities. India is followed as a buyer of Russian arms by China, with 15% of total exports, and Algeria, with 10%. Buy-backs of exported material allow older weapons in the Russian arsenal to be upgraded and sent to the battlefield.
The leaders of the Group of Seven, at their summit in Hiroshima, Japan, last month, called on the other countries to end military support for Russia. But “it’s hard to get cooperation from countries that rely on Russian-made weapons,” said Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor who studies arms control at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.
Efforts to stem the flow of military hardware to Russia and from there to the front lines in Ukraine require strict measures such as establishing means to disclose agreements with Russia.