Last November, the tech giant Yandex unveiled Chervonenkis, Russia’s most powerful supercomputer and the 19th most powerful commercial computer on the planet. Chervonenkis, which Yandex uses to train artificial intelligence algorithms for applications like web search and translation, was built by linking together more than 1,500 chips from the US company Nvidia.
Earlier this week, Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said that it was having trouble sourcing the home-grown chips it’s required to use, and as a result was considering returning to chips made by Intel, according to CNews, a Russian outlet.
Russia’s reliance on Western technology, particularly for chips, is at the heart of the sanctions announced Thursday by President Biden and US allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden said in an address to the nation that restrictions on Russia’s imports of key technology, including semiconductors, would squeeze its “access to finance and technology for strategic areas of its economy, and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come.” He said the sanctions would hurt Russia’s ability to modernize its military, its aerospace industry, and its space program, and would be a “major hit to Putin’s long term strategic ambitions.”
Also Thursday, the Commerce Department barred US companies from trading with 49 Russian entities with ties to that nation’s military, and said allies would follow suit. The new rules cover microelectronics, telecommunications devices, sensors, avionics, navigation and marine equipment, the department said.
“Russian industry in general has benefited from relatively open trade flow of microelectronics, semiconductors and other high tech components,” says Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian technology with CNA, a military think tank. “This could actually have a very significant effect.”
For almost a decade, the Kremlin has introduced measures designed to free Russian companies and infrastructure from foriegn technology, including cutting edge chips. So far, the effort has had limited success.
The US strategy echoes recent efforts to constrain China and its tech companies. In 2020, the White House imposed restrictions on chip exports to Chinese companies including Huawei, which it accused of espionage, and several big AI firms that it said has aided government surveillance of Muslim minorities. The chip sanctions have certainly hurt Huawei, which has seen its smartphone business damaged. They’ve also triggered an ambitious but challenging effort by China’s government to build a semiconductor industry that can produce cutting-edge components on its own.
Chip sanctions may cause less immediate hurt to Russia. But a ban may also be less damaging to US, European, and Japanese chip makers. According to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics (WSTS) organization, Russia accounts for less than 0.1 percent of global chip purchases.
“While the impact of the new rules to Russia could be significant, Russia is not a significant direct consumer of semiconductors,” says John Neuffer, CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association, a body representing US chip firms.
Zeroing in on critical technologies including semiconductors could still damage Russia’s progress and its military and cyber capabilities. And with the US and allies including the EU and Japan on board, it will prove more difficult for Russia to circumvent the sanctions.