A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 9, 2022

How NATO Is Using Sanctions To Degrade Russia's Tech Capabilities

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US and NATO allies relaxed restrictions on technological imports to Russia. And Russia became dependent on them, realizing that even after China's economic advances, its technology was simply not as good. 

With the sanctions imposed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the west is once again degrading Russia's technological capabilities and future development - and the consequences are expected to be felt by that country for the long term. JL 

Robert Farley reports in 19fortyfive:

After Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the US and other countries established the most aggressive technological sanctions in history against Moscow. Beginning in 1945, the United States engaged in a decades-long effort to restrict the Soviet Union’s access to advanced military and civilian technologies. Soviet science and engineering were held back. Western technology pulled ahead of Soviet equivalents. Captured and destroyed Russian weaponry in Ukraine has (now) demonstrated that Russian equipment is dependent on computer chips produced in the West. Russia sourced its chips from the West and not from China for reasons; Chinese technology simply isn’t as competitive.

The Biden administration has taken drastic measures to limit the transfer of technology to Russia in the months since that country invaded Ukraine. This is not the first time that the United States has waged a war of technology against Moscow. Beginning in 1945, the United States engaged in a decades-long effort to restrict the Soviet Union’s access to the most advanced military and civilian technologies.

It isn’t quite correct to say that export controls were invented to contain the Soviet Union, but it isn’t quite wrong, either. Before World War II, efforts to control the export of military equipment were haphazard, and they did not generally focus on technology. In United States vs. Curtiss Wright, the ruling that the Roosevelt administration had the inherent authority to prevent the export of military technology to Bolivia created the basic legal foundation for export management. Beginning in 1935, the Neutrality Acts restricted U.S. arms exports to combatants, out of the belief that these weapons could spark or extend wars. 

Shifting the Focus of Battles Over Technology

Civilian equipment that contained technology with possible military applications was a different question entirely. For a time, it received little attention. The U.S. exported significant amounts of technology to the Soviet Union in the interwar period, and so did France and Britain. During World War II, the U.S. transferred huge amounts of military equipment to the Soviets, including tanks, trucks, and aircraft. One piece of equipment that the U.S. did not export was the B-29 Superfortress, an aircraft that the Americans had spent an enormous amount of money developing. They did not intend to just give it away. But it didn’t matter: The Russians got their hands on three aircraft that landed after bombing raids against Japan, took them apart, and eventually produced the bomber in bulk. After World War II, U.S. planners believed that they would require a significant technological advantage in order to offset the numerical superiority of the Soviet military, and thus instituted strict rules on the export of equipment with military applications. Much of this effort had its origins in the race to grab Nazi technology in the immediate wake of the war, when it became apparent that the Soviets very much wanted to catch up with the U.S. in military sophistication. New rules forced U.S. companies to seek approval from the U.S. government for the transfer of sensitive technologies. Essentially, the new regime made military and even non-military technology a matter of national security, and thus subject to the scrutiny of the state.  

The U.S. strategy for technology management had an international aspect. Although the U.S. designed the system in order to prevent its own companies from transferring technology to the Soviet Union, in practice many friendly states found themselves the target of the export controls, due to concern that they would trade with the USSR or with its Eastern European satellites. 

The international manifestation of export controls was the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, more commonly known as CoCom. Designed to coordinate high-technology export policies across the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, CoCom came into effect in 1950. The U.S. leaned hard on allied states, mostly Japan and the members of the NATO alliance, to limit the transfer of military and dual-use technology to the Soviet bloc, and to customers sympathetic with the Soviet bloc. This included not just transfers from the U.S., but also technology developed in Europe and Japan. 

The system of protection that concentrated on the movement of things in the 1940s and the 1950s soon turned its attention to people. Stopping the Soviets from acquiring technology was one problem, but stopping them from acquiring know-how was perhaps even more important. This manifested not only in visa regulations applied to foreign scholars and engineers, but also in schemes designed to prevent suspect individuals from accessing critical knowledge. Even the spread of unclassified information became problematic, if it might lead to the revelation of classified knowledge. Soviet efforts to collect vast reams of Western scientific knowledge undoubtedly heightened U.S. concerns. 

A Return to the Technology Restrictions

All of this was costly to the United States, and to the scientific community as a whole. Efforts to limit Soviet access to knowledge necessarily reduced the scientific capacity of the United States and its allies, both by compartmentalizing information and by insulating Western scientific communities from foreign knowledge and expertise. However, U..S policymakers believed that controls designed to limit personal interaction with Soviet and Soviet-sympathizing scientists would hurt the Russians more than they would hurt America. 

Later in the Cold War, the role of export controls in maintaining American technological supremacy came under debate. On one hand, scholars and policymakers associated with the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment emphasized the need for the United States to stay ahead of the USSR in technology in order to offset Soviet numerical superiority. On the other hand, détente provided the basis for a variety of social and scientific exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. When détente waned following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, advocates of tighter controls gained the upper hand. Even tighter restrictions on scientific cooperation and the export of dual-use equipment ensued.


In an important sense, the campaign worked. The USSR wasn’t completely cut off from technological developments, but Soviet science and engineering were undoubtedly held back because they could not collaborate with the best scholars and engineers from the West. Different norms of research and publication developed on either side of the Iron Curtain, and Western military and civilian technology steadily pulled ahead of their Soviet equivalents. After 1992 everything loosened up, and Russia gained access to the most advanced international technology.

In retrospect, it may seem that the three decades that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a brief, bright, fleeting window in U.S.-Russia scientific and technology relations.


Immediately after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the United States and an alliance of other countries established some of the most aggressive technological sanctions in history against Moscow.

In some ways, this resembled the effort to strangle Russian technology during the Cold War, cutting the Soviet Union off from development in international technology was central to U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War. Indeed, isolating the Soviets was one of the most consistent aspects of a U.S. containment policy that varied widely in its application. 

Chip Reliance Breaks Under Cold War-Esque Sanctions

The Truman and Eisenhower administrations came to the conclusion that cutting Russia off from technology would have a long-term detrimental effect on Soviet economic power, and consequently on Soviet military power. The same calculation is in play now; the sanctions are intended to cripple, in the long-term, the growth of Russian science and technology.

Analysis of captured and destroyed Russian weaponry in Ukraine has demonstrated that Russian equipment is deeply dependent on computer chips produced in the West. Even the most autarkic country in the most autarkic of industries cannot avoid integration and interdependence. But while the effects on Russia’s military are important, they aren’t the main story. 

Russia wasn’t going to be able to replace its battlefield losses with new production. So slowing Russian tank construction won’t be decisive. Rather, the important question is the long-term impact on Russia’s ability to compete technologically. The main impact will be on the civilian sector, not the military. Some of the effects are already being felt; the Russian airline industry is suffering from the effects of sanctions, and will likely hurt even more over the coming months as spare parts run short and maintenance time runs thin.

If China decides to commit to supporting Russia at the expense of its relationships in the West, it could solve some of Russia’s problems with technology availability. However, the Chinese have to this point displayed a great deal of sensitivity about being targeted by Western sanctions. China’s technology firms remain deeply integrated with the global economy and don’t want to cut themselves off from global markets. 

The relationship between the Chinese government and the private firms that make up its tech sector is complicated. It’s not obvious that Beijing could force the industry to support Russia even if it wanted to. Given the choice between Russia and the world, China may prefer the world. Moreover, Russia sourced its chips from the West and not from China for reasons; Chinese technology simply isn’t as competitive. Finally, China isn’t above taking advantage of Russia’s situation by hacking Russian technology companies. 

Russia Digs Deeper Into a Hole

Russia probably hasn’t helped itself by abrogating its international intellectual property protection obligations. In the short-term, the promise of simply appropriating Western IP surely sounds very appealing to Russians; in one move Moscow can stick it to the West, hurt Western technology companies, and distribute some goodies to well-connected companies. But the Chinese companies that Russia will depend upon will absolutely not have a sense of humor about Russian violations of their intellectual property rights, and the fact that Moscow has decided to be cavalier about IP protection may dissuade Chinese tech firms from engaging with the Russian market.

The scientific war of attrition against the Soviet Union during the Cold War was fought on both a physical and an intellectual level and involved significant restrictions on the ability of Soviet students, scientists, and engineers to study in the United States and in other Western countries. U.S. policymakers have certainly floated the possibility of restricting visas issued to Chinese students for study in the United States, especially in high technology fields, and plenty of U.S.-based universities took steps to curtail their cooperation with China.

At least one congressman suggested kicking Russian students out of the U.S. (some 5,000 study here), but as of yet, there’s been little follow-up. The travel of Russians has by and large not been limited in any formal way, although it has become physically difficult for many Russians to travel because of the aforementioned airline problems. Of course, we no longer live in the technological reality of the 1950s; data flow far more easily now, and the ability to be in a specific location isn’t nearly as important as it was in the Cold War. There’s probably not much point to attempting to exclude Russian students, scientists, and engineers from the West, even if doing so does not represent a basic abrogation of liberal, cosmopolitan values. 

Russian thinking on the implications of this war remains unclear. Did Moscow anticipate the volume of Western sanctions, price them into the invasion, and decide that the benefits outweighed the costs? Did Putin believe that the war would be over quickly and that the West would simply forget? Or does Russia have a plan for navigating the sanctions regime that will enable it to access the technology it needs while building domestic capacity?  These are questions that cannot be answered in the short term.


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