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Has your washing machine turned into a banned dual-use good?


A surge in appetite for fridges, washing machines and electric breast pumps in the countries around Russia suggests that Moscow may be cannibalising European appliances for its arms industry.

Since the early days of the war, Ukrainian forces have reported finding Russian munitions built with semiconductors and other components apparently repurposed from household gadgets.

Russia has been running short on basic military-grade electronics such as transistors, transformers and microchips for years under the western-led sanctions imposed after its initial attack on Ukraine in 2014, the annexation of Crimea.

Over the past nine months these shortages have become acute and spread across the manufacturing sector, with some evidence that even games consoles have been pulled apart and their contents rewired into armaments.

Figures from the European Union's statistics agency, compiled by Bloomberg, point to a possible Russian ruse for skirting these restrictions. Armenia and Kazakhstan, two former Soviet republics, have both shown sudden surges of interest in EU white goods since the beginning of the invasion.

Armenia imported more washing machines from the EU in the eight months from January to August than it had over the previous 24 month.

In August Kazakhstan bought $21.4 million of EU refrigerators, three times as many as in the same period last year.

The most striking phenomenon was an abrupt leap in demand for European electric breast pumps, sales of which tripled year on year in Armenia even as the birth-rate fell by 4.3 per cent. Kazakhstan bought seven times more breast pumps than it had over the comparable period of 2021, while its own fertility rate dropped by 8.4 per cent.

It is hard to demonstrate that the devices are ultimately arriving in Russia, let alone that they are being dismantled for munitions parts.

Armenia, Kazakhstan and Russia are all members of the Eurasian Economic Union, which has no internal customs borders, making it relatively easy to ship goods between the countries without alerting the authorities.

Kazakhstan's government, which was once a close ally of Moscow but has become increasingly estranged since February, has explicitly promised not to help the Russians sidestep sanctions.

Given that the lack of chips is causing problems across the Russian economy, it is also conceivable that the components are being reused for other products that run on electronics, such as cars.

However, European officials have said they suspect that at least some of the white goods are ultimately finding their way into Russian tanks and missiles.