Russia turns to China for machinery as Western sanctions bite

Russia’s turn toward China for industrial machinery underscores how sanctions are squeezing Moscow’s ability to source vital manufacturing equipment and components from Western suppliers.

With Western sanctions squeezing Russia’s access to manufacturing equipment, the country’s defence industry increasingly turns to an unlikely source – decommissioned machinery from China.

According to trade data and corporate records, several Russian firms involved in the military-industrial complex have drastically ramped up their purchases of used machine tools and factory equipment from Chinese suppliers over the past year.

One such company is AMG, a major manufacturer of components for the Russian aerospace and defence sectors. Before the sanctions, AMG sourced most of its computer numerical control (CNC) lathes and milling machines from Japan’s Tsugami Corporation. But in 2022, Tsugami halted all sales to Russia to comply with sanctions.

AMG has pivoted to buying decommissioned and secondhand equipment from Chinese factories and machining companies to fill the gap. Records show AMG’s purchases from Chinese suppliers have skyrocketed from around $600,000 in 2021 to over $50 million so far this year.

Russia’s turn toward China for industrial machinery underscores how sanctions are squeezing Moscow’s ability to source vital manufacturing equipment and components from Western suppliers. It also highlights China’s role as a potential sanction-circumvention route for Russian defence companies.

U.S. and European officials have repeatedly warned China about the risks of violating sanctions by assisting Russia’s military-industrial base. So far, Beijing has walked a careful line – criticizing the sanctions while urging a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

However, trade data suggests the flow of secondhand industrial equipment from China to Russia is escalating rapidly. Chinese exports of metalworking machinery to Russia more than tripled in value last year compared to 2021, reaching $274 million, according to customs data.

The Russian government and major defence firms did not respond to requests for comment. Chinese trade officials acknowledged the machinery exports but insisted they were not intended for military purposes. Some Chinese suppliers admitted the surge in demand from Russian buyers was lucrative.

For Russia’s military-industrial complex, access to secondhand machinery from China may help mitigate – but not entirely offset – the technology squeeze from Western sanctions. But the real challenge, experts say, is replenishing its depleted stocks of semiconductors, precision components, and other specialized inputs that keep weapons production humming.