Hi-Tech Hijinks

Ilias Sabirov, a Moscow businessman, had supplied Russia’s military with high-performance computer chips made in the United States for years.

His business became more difficult in 2014 when Russia seized the peninsula of Crimea. At that time, the US clamped down on Russia with a series of new sanctions and export controls. These severely restricted the sale of the chips that Sabirov had provided to his country’s military for so long.

Putin listens to the chief executive director of the Almaz-Antey Air Defense firm during a tour of its plant in Moscow. Image credit: Reuters/RIA Novosti

The problem for Sabirov was that he grew quite fond of the considerable sums of money he was earning supplying these special chips to the Russian military machine, and the sanctions did not stop him from obtaining more.

In the spring of 2015, a box containing more than 100 memory chips (specially hardened to resist radiation and extreme temperatures) arrived at Sabirov’s business address in Moscow. You can’t just order this type of thing online from Newegg; these were military-grade, critical components of missile systems and military spy satellites.

The Texas-Moscow Connection

American prosecutors who caught on to what Sabirov was up to determined that these “rad-hard” chips were sourced from a US company in Austin, Texas. That company was Silicone Space Technology or SST for short. The radiation-hardened chips were shipped to Russia via a firm in Bulgaria in an attempt to evade US export law.

Do a Google search for “Silicone Space Technology,” and you won’t come up with much. That’s because they changed their name to Vorago Technologies back in 2015 after all of this ugliness was made public.

Today, Vorago will sell you all of the rad-hardened computer chips your heart desires, as long as you are not a Russian secret agent. Image Credit: Screenshot from voragotech.com

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, the US and more than 30 other nations responded with another huge round of sanctions and export restrictions on Putin’s government. Still, the story of how sensitive American computer chips made it from Texas to Russia serves as a cautionary tale of how even the tightest controls can be worked around.

The criminal case against Sabirov and his Bulgarian accomplices remains open, and new details are coming out on how their deception was achieved. It points to challenges restricting the exports of hi-tech electronics components, especially when they are considered “dual-use,” that is, suitable for military and civilian applications.

A careful investigation uncovered a chain of willing suppliers, shell companies, and false claims on export forms stating that the items were intended solely for civilian rather than military use. Besides electronics, Russians were also obtaining precision tooling to be used for military purposes from the US.

Still on the Lookout

US Department of Defense spokeswoman Sue Gough is on the record as saying that rad-hard chips play an essential role in military communications, intelligence, and surveillance.
She has said,

“Acquisition of radiation-hardening technology by nuclear-capable aggressive states, like Russia, could embolden them, increasing international security destabilization. Therefore, protection of these chips is extremely important to U.S. national security.”

Not surprisingly, Russia’s attempts to bypass international sanctions and export laws regarding sensitive technology are on the rise. As a result, a specialized unit of 25 US counterproliferation analysts working for Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) shifted its focus from China to Russia in late February. Their job is to locate and investigate suspect international shipments of tech goods.

Greg Slavens, who recently retired after working 30 years as an HSI counterproliferation supervisor, states:

“China doesn’t dominate our attention like they used to, and it’s Russia where we’ve seen the biggest increase lately. The Russians have steadily increased their attempts to get chips for missile and space technology.”

When asked, the Kremlin failed to respond to questions about US accusations that it used deceptive schemes to bypass western sanctions and export restrictions. Russia has previously stated that they view sanctions as a hostile act.