December 21, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 11035

Drone Shortage On The Ukrainian Front: Despite Putin Denial, Chinese Restrictions And Russian Bureaucracy Create UAV Scarcity

December 21, 2023
Russia, China | Special Dispatch No. 11035

On December 14, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in a "Direct Line" event, during which the President answers questions from journalists and ordinary citizens. Replying to a question from the Xinhua News Agency about Russia's relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), the president praised an "unprecedented" level of close relations, noting the two countries' cooperation in "military, economic and humanitarian fields."[1] Earlier, in November, Putin had mentioned, "Russia's high-tech military cooperation with China."

Chinese accounts of the two countries' level of cooperation vary. In February 2022, the day before the Russian attack on Ukraine, Chinese officials were enthusiastic on the subject of Russia-Sino relations: "Exchanges and interaction between the two sides in the field of high-tech equipment technology have become an important element of Sino-Russian military-technical cooperation," said the Chinese Ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui.[2] At that time, a day before the start of the war in Ukraine, the statement seemed to mean that China had agreed to supply arms to Russia. Yet a month later, in March 2022, China's ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, denied that China had supplied any arms that could be used in Russia's war with Ukraine.[3] This may be true. However, civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Mavic series, can be modified for military use, and deployed for reconnaissance purposes. The pro-Russian TG channels and streams on YouTube are full of fund-rasing campaigns for the civilian UAVs, or drones, for Russian troops. The U.S. Department of Defense noted that, from March 2022 until the beginning of 2023, Chinese firms exported more than $12 million worth of drones and associated components to Russia.[4]

On October 18, the PRC's press release, focused on Putin-Xi's talk, was slightly vaguer. Its account spoke  of: "high-quality practical cooperation [...] in emerging industries that are of strategic importance."[5]

A screenshot from the December 3, 2023, YouTube video of "Mountains of News Z" ("Горы Новостей Z")[6] with host Olgerd Semyonov. The livestream included a fund-raising campaign to purchase a DJI Mavic UAV for Russian troops. The caption in the top right corner reads "Donations for the Front."

The posts[7] on Olgerd Semyonov's personal Telegram channels also reminded his followers that the Mavic UAVs purchased with their donations were being used in hostilities in the "Holy War." The video accompanying the post shows how Mavic drones were being used to adjust artillery fire from the Russian 43rd separate company.

The caption of the post reads, "We remind you that there is a reason why we are fundraising for Maviks in the first place… So, every ruble, my friends, is your personal contribution to the Holy War that our army wages."

On September 1, against a background of growing U.S. control over military supply chains, the PRC introduced restrictions on the export of certain types of drones and a number of their components. The restrictions covered mainly UAV engines, laser sensors, and communications equipment; drones weighing more than four kilograms or other devices that can carry and drop cargo, or models that allow such modifications. Acquiring authorization for purchase, according to estimates, may take up to a year for Russian companies, provided they are able to prove that the UAVs in question will not be used in hostilities.

On September 28, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, imposed restrictions on an Iranian company, Pishgam Electronic Safeh; on a Hong Kong company, Hongkong Himark; on Turkish companies Madencilik Turizm Sanayi Ve Ticaret Anonim Sirketi and Ic Ve Dis Ticaret INSAAT Lojistik Sanayi Limited Sirketi; and on Farhad Ghaedi Goods Wholesalers of the United Arab Emirates. However, Russian buyers of the PRC-made drones faced similar issues as early as 2022, at a time of growing demand.

At the same time, a Chinese high-tech company, Da-Jiang Innovations (known as DJI, which translates to Great Frontier Innovations), withdrew from the market. According to the CEO of Russia's RuDrones company, Dmitry Datsykov,[8] in August 2023 Russian drone manufacturers were creating stockpiles of UAV components, such as  cameras, sensors, motor controllers, as well as devices to counter enemy UAVs. In addition, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade (Minpromtorg), warned UAV manufacturers in advance about the need to increase stocks, stating, on September 18, "The Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia has not yet received any requests from manufacturers about problems with the export of UAS [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] and its components."[9] However, Minpromtorg didn't introduce any planned restrictions on the purchase of foreign UAS either (which were due in Autumn 2023), so the situation might be not as bright.

It would be difficult, if not impossible to completely sever UAV supply routes or grey imports, even assuming they comply with existing restrictions. According to an investigation conducted by Radio Svoboda journalists , Moscow is able to acquire even NATO-manufactured components for UAVs. The purchases were conducted through a network of companies, some registered in Kazakhstan and Kirgizia.[10] The import restrictions affect not only the civilian market, but also military and industrial areas. The Head of the Novorossiya Assistance Coordination Center, Alexander Lyubimov, in an interview[11] with IA Regnum media,[12] stated that Russian military drones, not only civilian models, contain many Chinese-manufactured components: "[T]he engines, blades, gearboxes, and body of the UAV are manufactured in Russia, but the electronics are Chinese, and nothing can be done about it yet." The Kremlin also invests in developing software for UAVs. Indeed, a Development Competence Center for engineering of UAV software was created under the auspices of the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media. The state plans to allocate about $9 billion U.S. dollars for the project.[13]

It is noteworthy that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are also experiencing a shortage of civilian UAVs, due to imposed restrictions.[14]

The ever-decreasing options of the grey imports of UAVs and their requisite components (as well as their increasing price) prompted the Russian authorities to invest relatively substantial funds into domestic production. For instance, drone engines have always been a weak point of Russian industry. However, Russia announced plans for an imminent launch of a serial production of electric motors for drones, with a planned output capacity of thousands of engines from 100 watts, up to 10-12 kilowatts.[15] In addition, as in the case of the "Mountains of News Z" YouTube highlighted above, pro-Russian streamers have no particular trouble in purchasing UAVs to use during their livestreams. However, it appears that the domestic UAV manufacturing industry may be dealing with corruption and nepotism—two problems which have long plagued Russia's industries.

The screenshot depicts an August 15, 2023 post[16] from the "Two Majors" Telegram channel. The post focuses on the problem of supplies of "Sibiryachok" [Siberian native] UAVs to the Russian Armed Forces. Despite what the name suggests, the drone is assembled from components bought via a website called "Alikespress" and is being supplied to the troops for about $27,700 U.S. dollars (comparable to the price of roughly five Mavic 3 UAVs). The post draws attention to the poor quality and high price of the Sibiryachok. The drone manufacturer Gaskar Group LLC is, reportedly, associated with Marat Khusnullin, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Government.[17] The images that accompany the post depict the many foreign components used in the drone.

During the Direct Line press conference mentioned above, held in December 2023, a journalist from "Channel One Russia" television channel noted a severe lack of drones at the Ukrainian-Russian front and the need to conduct fund-raising campaigns for these weapons. The journalist asked Putin when the situation would improve. Despite the fact that the president made the journalist state that the "drone issue" was slowly improving, the reporter revealed the bureaucracy problem plaguing the Russian Armed Forces. It seems that in order to acquire UAVs through the Ministry of Defense, a soldier not only must file a great deal of paperwork, prove that they have the appropriate course certificate, and also bear financial responsibility for the vehicle. Considering an ever-increasing price, and the fact that a first-person view (FPV) drone will likely be destroyed or damaged during the operation, many soldiers shy away from the complicated procedure required to obtain the drone.

The Telegram channel with the Call Sign "OSETIN," which has over 52,000 subscribers, described the problem.

The post[18] from the Telegram channel called "Call sign OSETIN" describes the problem in obtaining UAVs and getting them to the front.

The post reads: "Previously, I visited the Ministry of Defense's warehouses, (I won't tell you the geolocation). And I was in more than one. Yesterday a friend went there and also witnessed this. The warehouses were full and remain full--thousands of Mavics, Matriks, Heratrics, Outels, and Reversals lie idle, including some electronic warfare tools. No one wants to take on the responsibility of writing off [the balance for any damaged UAVs]; no one wants to write applications, no one wants to check applications, no one seems to want anything."

It seems, that despite the authorities' efforts, the servicemen still have to turn to fund-raising campaigns, which become increasingly difficult given ever-tightening restrictions and poor command decisions.









[8], September 18, 2023.

[9], September 18, 2023.

[10], August 15, 2023.

[11], September18, 2023.

[12], September18, 2023.




[16] Me/dva_majors/18002.



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