Sanctions May Push Russia into 'Technological Regress'

A CNAS report warned that Moscow's increased sense of vulnerability could lead it to “double down” on nuclear capabilities.

International sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine have hampered the country’s access to critical technologies needed for its advanced weapons, leading Moscow to pursue closer ties to China and placing a greater emphasis on its nuclear capabilities, according to a report released Friday by the Center for a New American Security think tank. 

The report identified two key drivers of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy advanced military systems through 2030: “The impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s government revenue and ability to access critical technology, and the extent of the degradation of the Russian military in Ukraine, which will force choices on the Kremlin about how to prioritize military expenditures.”

While Russia has been under international sanctions since 2014—when it illegally annexed Crimea and emboldened separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region—the more stringent sanctions imposed since February are “much greater, affecting a broader range of goods and a wider range of sanctioned entities” and “Russia’s future military capabilities by limiting Russia’s access to technology.”

“Furthermore, the imposition of export controls means that Russia cannot access strategically important goods such as semiconductors or precision machine tools that are produced in third countries, including China, India, Singapore and Taiwan, when they use equipment licensed from the United States or its allies,” the report said. 

According to the report, this lack of access means “it is likely that Russia will experience some degree of ‘technological regress,’ in which the range and sophistication of products available in the country dwindle over time.” Because of ongoing international pressure, coupled with military and equipment losses in Ukraine, the report said that Russia “almost certainly will seek to adapt its tactics, creating new front companies, fake end-user certificates and transshipment points” in order to procure needed technologies for its weapons.

Although the report estimated that the war in Ukraine, combined with international sanctions, could set Moscow’s defense industry behind “by approximately five years,” it also warned that “Russia’s sense of vulnerability, given the degradation of its conventional capabilities, will lead Moscow to double down on the development of its nuclear forces, especially theater nuclear weapons.” 

In addition to placing a greater emphasis on nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the U.S., NATO members, and other European countries, the report warned that Russia is likely to “increase its dependence on China,” particularly when it comes to “key technology transfers previously unseen.”

“Moscow has the option of switching to less reliable but readily accessible components from China, especially as the sophistication of China’s own defense industrial production grows,” the report noted. 

To counter the increased risk of nuclear proliferation and “Russian cooperation with other U.S. adversaries such as China,” the report recommended that the U.S. and its allies examine the evolving nuclear landscape and that Congress “increase the priority it places on gathering intelligence on Russia-China defense cooperation.”

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set in motion several new dynamics that require the United States and its NATO allies to reassess the nature of the future Russian threat,” the report said. “The United States and its allies now must remain united in their understanding of these changes and in their efforts to anticipate, plan and prepare to effectively navigate these new realities.”