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Moscow's Battlefront Drones Linked To Chinese Manufacturer

  • Research by Molfar reveals Chinese drones are still sold to Russian military-linked entities despite DJI's sales ban.
  • Ukraine faces difficulty obtaining drones as China's dual-use exports to Russia remain robust.
  • Despite restrictions, global logistics ensure drones still reach the conflict zones, with China playing a significant role.
Russia

More than a year after DJI -- the preeminent Chinese drone maker -- first said it would stop doing business in Russia and Ukraine, its products continue to play a decisive role on the battlefield, with new research shared with RFE/RL showing that they are being sold to Russian companies and training centers with links to Moscow's war effort.

The findings -- compiled by Molfar, a Ukrainian business intelligence consultancy and corroborated by RFE/RL -- show that DJI's small, low-cost drones are being sold to Russian entities that are part of its sprawling military-industrial complex or to companies in the country that train government personnel or military units on how to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

In some cases, the training centers state plainly and even boast on their websites and Telegram channels that they are training pilots and members of the Russian military on DJI drones for Moscow's war in Ukraine.

Molfar established the connections by identifying 10 Chinese-based legal entities that, according to their certificates of conformity, are production sites linked to DJI or to its parent company IFlight that continued exports to Russia until June 2023 -- the latest available date for the documents.

Through the certificates, Molfar was able to trace various Russian entities that purchased the drones and conduct civilian and military training on how to operate them for surveillance, reconnaissance and, in some instances, how to modify them for attacks.

While the research is not a comprehensive set of all the Chinese-made drones sold to Russia or those that make their way to the battlefield in Ukraine, it offers a window into the continued flow of dual-use -- nonlethal but militarily useful -- equipment from China to Russia that is having an impact in aiding the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"Since the war began, China has shown a willingness to support Russia that comes up to, but doesn't cross, the West's red lines," Joseph Webster, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who tracks the flow of Chinese exports to Russia amid the war in Ukraine, told RFE/RL. "Ensuring dual-use shipments to Russia is likely seen by Beijing as a form of support that ensures some balance as China watches American and European military supplies go to Ukraine."

The findings also raise questions about the effectiveness of official Chinese efforts to limit the sale of drones and other dual-use technologies -- the latest of which came into effect on September 1.

Trade data shows that Ukrainian imports have fallen sharply following new Chinese restrictions, while Russia's remain strong.

Ukraine is facing growing difficulties in sourcing consumer drones and their parts, which is borne out in Chinese, Russian, and Ukrainian trade statistics. Those figures show that Chinese companies sent over $200,000 in direct drone shipments to Ukraine from January to June this year, while Russia received at least $14.5 million during the same span, including the training centers identified by Molfar.

This adds to a growing body of evidence since February 2022 that demonstrates how Moscow has been able to draw critical items for its military from abroad, particularly from China, despite Western attempts to restrain Russia's war machine. The European Union estimates that up to 70 percent of the vital, hi-tech products reaching the Russian military are coming from China, with David O'Sullivan, the bloc's sanctions envoy, saying in late September that the flow of such goods is "killing Ukrainians."

DJI did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment, but the company announced in April 2022 that it would halt most direct sales to Russia and Ukraine. At the time, a company spokesperson told Reuters that DJI "abhors any use of our drones to cause harm" and that the use of their drones in warfare is "inappropriate."

The Drone War And Russian Training Centers

Despite its statements and official bans, DJI consumer drones continue to make their way to the battlefield.

Small and affordable drones, many of which can even be bought online or off the shelf, have become a staple of the war in Ukraine for both Kyiv and Moscow for reconnaissance and targeted attacks. Ukrainian forces have proven particularly adept at retrofitting consumer drones with explosives and then crashing them into Russian forces and territory.

This has led to both sides burning through the products at a high rate and constantly needing to replenish their stocks. The Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated earlier this year that Ukraine goes through 10,000 drones a month.

While Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used in the war, the consumer market is cornered by Chinese companies, with DJI holding more than 90 percent of the global consumer drone market, according to the industry research group DroneAnalyst.

DJI's dominance within the drone war in Ukraine is highlighted in Molfar's research, with many of the training centers or other entities identified specializing in the use of DJI drones.

One such company, Skymec, lists Russia's Interior Ministry, the Federal Protection Service, and the Emergency Situations Ministry as distribution clients on its website.

Other findings by the Ukrainian consultancy follow a trail of Russian training centers that more directly shows their links to the country's military.

One of these entities is Pustelga, a company that, according to its website, offers training on DJI drones to both regular and mobilized military personnel of the Russian military, the National Guard, and "specialists from other Russian security structures."

According to Russian media, the group also launched a training program in June with the National Guard focused on FPV drones, the term used for drones piloted through a video feed wirelessly transmitted to a pilot's headset, mobile device, or other display.

The company claims to be operational since March and runs an active Telegram channel where it regularly offers updates on its courses and graduates, including with photos and videos.

The group says it also operates two training programs in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine and, in a video posted on May 5, a man in a military uniform with a Russian Army patch is seen receiving a diploma from Pustelga.

Another post from May 25 includes photos of DJI consumer drones next to explosives with the caption: "Our graduate will soon receive these drones on the Zaporizhzhya front and will effectively combine them with the new standard ammunition. We not only educate, but we also support our graduates with words, deeds, and equipment as much as we can."

Another company identified by Molfar is SHUBBA-Octagon, a drone-pilot school based in St. Petersburg that offers courses across Russia. According to its website, it specializes in training DJI Mavic drones and offers a path for its students to be militarily recognized as drone pilots.

While the group has no explicit ties to the Wagner mercenary group, the private military company's insignia can be seen on the windows in photos posted to SHUBBA-Octagon's website.

Additional photos on the training center's website show a person whom it says is one of the program's instructors in a military uniform with the call sign "Svyatoy" displayed. Another photo shows military equipment belonging to Svyatoy shown next to a Syrian flag, where Wagner has been operating since 2015.

On SHUBBA-Octagon's Telegram channel, the center claims Svyatoy and other instructors identified only by their call signs received medals from the government for their military service and that they've served among the Russian General Staff, the National Guard, and Wagner in the past.

Not all of the companies traced through Molfar's investigation have clear military connections. One entity that received DJI drones is a limited-liability company registered to Avanti Education, a company that sponsors robotics competitions and conducts training for young people. A separate LLC linked to Avanti Education that records show was established in May uses a legal registration code that is commonly applied by scientific organizations in Russia that work closely with the military, according to Molfar analysts.

Molfar also identified two other companies that offer training courses on DJI drones and in their resale throughout Russia using certificates of conformity from China that use the same registration code usually associated with military work.

Shifting Supply Lines

Molfar couldn't find out how many DJI drones are being sent to the Russian entities and is unable to say if Chinese authorities played any role in the sales or if it is merely Chinese businesses taking advantage of opportunities presented by the war in Ukraine.

As consumer drones have become prominent on the battlefield, global logistical networks have sprung up to navigate sanctions and other obstacles to ensure that unmanned vehicles reach both militaries on the front. These networks have varied from leaning directly on Chinese exporters to corporate cutouts in neighboring countries and crowdfunding campaigns run by volunteers at home and abroad.

The full effect of the September 1 export restrictions on drone components enacted by Chinese authorities is still unclear.

As seen in 2023 trade data, Ukraine still obtained millions in Chinese-made drones and components, although Russia has been able to purchase far larger amounts and Ukrainian customs data shows that most sales to the country came through European intermediaries.

Several Ukrainian activists and others involved in crowdfunding DJI drone purchases have posted publicly that Chinese firms are still willing to sell to Ukrainian buyers, but the sales often involve intermediaries and prices for the drones are increasing. Some Chinese suppliers or resellers based elsewhere are also reportedly turning to an open bidding system for the drones that sometimes involves Russian and Ukrainian buyers competing against one another.

Others have raised alarm that the Chinese export restrictions seem to affect Ukraine disproportionately. Writing in June on X (formerly known as Twitter), Serhiy Sternenko, a Ukrainian activist involved in crowdfunding drone purchases, said he worried the looming restrictions leave Ukraine at a disadvantage as it looks for new intermediaries to buy drones while Russian entities could still make direct purchases.

Some Russian entities also say they have felt the effects of the Chinese restrictions. According to a September survey of companies done by the Russian daily Kommersant, the measures have caused supply disruptions and shortages in the country.

Many Russian agricultural, surveillance, and industrial drone retailers told Kommersant they had either run out of stock entirely or doubled prices due to the export curbs. Other companies said they had stocked up on Chinese-made drones and components ahead of the September restrictions coming into force, with some stockpiling supplies that could last up to six months.

Whether this will have a lasting effect in curbing Chinese drones on the battlefield is unknown. The Atlantic Council's Webster says that while the restrictions could cause some immediate disruption to logistics networks, "they're unlikely to have an impact in the long term," especially when it comes to shipments to Russia.

"There are just too many ways for something to get to Russia. It can be direct and it can go through Belarus, Central Asia, Turkey, or elsewhere using intermediaries," Webster said. "These new controls are not likely to be effective."

By RFE/RL

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Leave a comment
  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 06 2023 said:
    So what? China would be helping a friend and a strategic ally exactly as the United States, the EU and NATO have been supplying Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars in military and financial aid not to mention the direct and indirect involvement in the actual fighting.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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