Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, international observers and Ukrainian soldiers alike have repeatedly reported sightings of French technology in Russian weaponry, running the gamut from microprocessors to thermal surveillance systems. Despite repeated denials, documents obtained last week by the French investigative website Blast prove that elements of the French military-industrial complex continue to export military-grade technology to Russian organizations with proximity to the country’s war effort. Involving some of the biggest names in French military technology, these exports take advantage of loopholes in sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, while also taking advantage of arcane webs of shell companies propped up by Kremlin interlopers.
A Drone By Any Other Name
Rumors of French companies supplying Russia’s armed forces with high-end technology, despite Paris’ vocal support of Kyiv, began as the Ukrainian army shot down one of the first prototypes of the Russian Orlan-10 drone in the summer of 2022. Taking apart the drone, Pavel Kashchuk, a volunteer in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, noted that its optical trackball included sensors bearing an inscription that read “LYNRED PICO 640-056 389001098”.
In a Facebook post, Kashchuk expressed surprise; how could Lynred, a world leader in thermal imaging, have its state of the art thermal imaging matrix end up in Russian drone prototypes? Parts of the French press were equally shocked, but, when pressed for comments, Lynred assured that, if this was true, these parts came from deliveries that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The veracity of Lynred’s statement was immediately questioned; online sleuths identified some Lynred thermal sensors used in Russian gear as having been manufactured in February of 2022, the very month of the invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s Western Eyes on the Battlefield
Lynred is a Grenoble-based company which is partly owned by Thales Group, a global leader in the manufacture of electrical systems and devices as well as equipment for the defense, security, aerospace, and transportation sectors. A quarter of its shares are owned by the renowned Dassault family, while another quarter is owned by the French state itself. Thales itself was directly accused of violating sanctions as Catherine FC thermal imaging cameras were found in Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Eastern Ukraine. Rumors of Lynred’s procurement of thermal imaging technology to Russian clients were proved to be true this week by the French investigative website Blast. According to documents obtained by Blast, from as yet unknown sources, Lynred has continued selling drone components and imaging technology to Russian entities. A total of nine confirmed deliveries netted the company close to USD $2.5 million between March 2022 and April 2023; well after the imposition of sanctions on the Russian Federation.
Beyond the economic and geopolitical implications of French defense titans trading with the world’s most sanctioned state, logistical details reveal a sophisticated and intricate network used by Russian defense companies to continue operating. This excerpt reveals the important role of Texel FCG Technology, which has supplied six out of the nine shipments shown above. Texel is an Israeli-based company sanctioned by the Ukrainian government and the U.S. Treasury Department. The same is true of its owner, the Latvia-born Marks Blatts, who is a known associate of Russian arms dealers Jonatan and Igor Zimenkov per the US Office of Foreign Assets Controls.
The Zimenkovs operate a complex global network to facilitate the purchase, delivery, and import of Russian weapons and military technology across the globe, notably through the Singapore-based shell company Asia Trading & Construction PTE Limited and Blatts’ Texel. From their permanent residence in Cyprus, the father and son duo are said to have facilitated Russian arms sales across the globe, and their weapons are said to have reached as far as Latin America and Africa.
The documents also include customs forms showing the delivery of Lynred technologies to a Muscovite company, Videofon MV, which demonstrate the effectiveness of the Zimenkov system.
This instance shows how French companies make use of gray areas to deliver military-grade technology to Russian companies in two main ways. Firstly, as shown in the form, goods are not sold directly, instead transiting to a Chinese freight company, which subsequently delivers it to Videofon’s Moscow headquarters. This means that there is no direct contact between the Grenoble-based supplier and the Russian customer.
Secondly, the exported goods are of dual use per European legislation, meaning that they could be used in civilian and military purposes. As an example, the Swiss microprocessor heavyweight STMicroelectronics (STM), also under fire for selling microchips to Russia after the imposition of sanctions, sells products that can be used to manufacture high end weapons, but also cars and printers, which would also be Lynred’s rationale. It would be difficult for Lynred to play coy about how Videofon would make use of its thermal imaging technology. The Moscow-based group proudly touts the work it has done for key Russian governmental agencies on its website, which include clients such as the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Moscow municipality’s IT services.
Simply put, it is hard to believe that Lynred and other French firms actively circumventing sanctions did not know to whom their goods were headed and what was their most likely usage.
Yet, it is precisely due to these loopholes in sanctions enforcement that such a parallel economy is able to grow as the war in Ukraine drags on.
Eyes Wide Shut
The contribution of companies such as Thales, Lynred, and STM to the Russian war effort is not negligible. Thermal imaging technology has been a crucial component of Russian armed incursions into Eastern Ukraine, be they fitted to tanks, reconnaissance drones, or kamikaze drones. Lynred’s thermal imagery matrix is described in sales brochures as being able to spot targets day or night, and even through the foliage of trees. Per the company, targets can be detected from as far as 700 meters away. According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), STMicroelectronic chips are fuelling Russian cruise missiles, communication systems, and electronic warfare components; RUSI has counted over 450 different kinds of unique foreign-made components in Russian systems.
Yet, given the truly industrial scale of these parallel tradings, are Western European governments aware? Given that the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has not responded to these revelations, it is not possible to say with certainty. However, considering Paris’ stake in Lynred’s parent company, it is difficult to imagine that they are ignorant of what is taking place. According to the latest report of the French Observatoire des armements, sales of dual use products, defined from France to Russia have grown exponentially since the beginning of the war. As long as these loopholes are not tightened, we are unlikely to see a reversal of this tendency.
Understanding the importance and impact of this story does not require a sophisticated narrative. No, French multinationals are not fifth columns within NATO that are motivated by some nebulous hatred of Ukraine or allegiance to Russia. McCarthyist tropes are not needed to understand the actions of a Thales or a Lynred: as multinationals, they seek to make a profit, independently of who their customer is. Further, this would not be the first instance of European entities putting money before principles as regards Russia as seen in the cases of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former French Prime Minister François Fillon, and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Finally, as shown in the Predator Files, French surveillance and technological giants are not particularly scrupulous over who they do business with, selling to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. This is a story about how, in the heat of war, transparency of how states’ affairs are handled are more important than ever.
This story also calls for a re-evaluation of the European Union’s approach to sanctioning Russia. It highlights that sanctions alone have been unable to cripple Russia in the way that Brussels and Washington anticipated, instead paving the way for a parallel economy that is booming. Russia was and remains among the wealthiest countries in its region of the world, it is also a country where there is demand for weapons. Will Europe’s military industrial complex be able to resist the siren songs of Russian money? To answer that, Western decision-makers must choose what is most valuable to it between pecuniary gain and principles. They must address the ever growing role played by wartime profiteering. They must give themselves the means to buttress slogans of support into fulsome and continued action for Ukraine. This, at the very least, starts by not arming the regime that has started the war.