Poisonous pommes frites

Last week we reported on a French operation to close down a company that was supplying semi-conductors to the Russian arms industry. Russia is desperate for these – it cannot provide enough for its own needs and just a single piece of weaponry might require dozens of these chips.

The Russian intelligence services have actually set up a very effective black market supply line. It has several elements: first, diversion via different countries such as India, Switzerland and Turkey. Efforts are being made to close these loopholes, for instance, Turkey has just issued a Presidential decree banning certain key compnents from being exported to Russia. But the main point of diversion is China, especially Hong Kong. In April 2023, Nikkei estimated that 75% of chips being supplied to Russia were going through Hong Kong companies. China is co-operating with Russia in its war on Ukraine and there is little the West can do to change that.

The second problem is the sheer number of small companies that can be used for diversion. Even if you detect them and close them down, it is so easy to set up a dozen new ones that it is an almost impossible task.

So, how do Western intelligence and security services combat this?

Well, they have gone back to a tactic that originated in the Reagan era. In those days, micro computers had just emerged and were desperately sought by the Soviet Union in its economic war with the West. As with semi-conductors today, it was almost impossible to completely prevent equipment from getting through. So, what the Western agencies did was let some get through and those that did they had secretly modified. It was impossible for the Russians to check the circuit boards of every single computer they bought and certain chips had malware pre-loaded by the West. They were programmed either to destroy key data after a certain amount of time, create “back doors” so that they could be hacked or even to search out internet communications and send key data back to the West. The value of these operations is still difficult to evaluate as details of the effects are classified, but it is thought that they were a significant factor in the Soviet Union’s economic decline and eventual collapse.

The same is now true of semi-conductors. Some of the chips that are getting through are “poisoned” i.e. they have been altered so that they will cause muntions to fail at critical moments or even blow up. Obviously if all chips were effected, the Russans would spot it so it is only selected chips, maybe one in a hundred, but that is all it takes to spread doubt. It may be more than that: Western sources are currently claiming a failure rate of 40% on chips imported illegally into Russia. Even if that is propaganda, it indicates what the West is hoping to achieve seeing as it cannot stop the supply entirely.

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