Russian customs data obtained by reporters shows that at least one of its sources is in Kazakhstan. In 2022, it imported over 500 drones from a Kazakh company called Aspan Arba. This company was registered in April 2022, a few months after the start of Russia's invasion. According to Metalmininginfo, a Kazakh mining industry news outlet, it is the official dealer of DJI drones in Kazakhstan and supplies drones for mining, construction, rescue operations, and agricultural work.
Illustration by James O'Brien//OCCRP
One of the main sellers of DJI drones in Russia is a Moscow-based company called Nebesnaya Mekhanika. In February 2023, the company received 799,000 rubles ($10,800) as payment for a drone from the "People's Front: Everything for Victory," an organization that solicits donations to help equip Russian military units.
Photo from social media
DJI, a leading Chinese manufacturer, announced in late April 2022 that it does not sell its products in either Russia or Ukraine in order to prevent the use of drones in combat operations.
According to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Digital Development, Aspan Arba has received licenses to import over 18,000 DJI drones for $45 million from DJI Europe B.V., the Dutch subsidiary of the Chinese drone company. Nebesnaya Mekhanika sent 500 Aspan Arba drones to Russia.
Kazakh trade data strongly suggests that the country is used as an intermediary destination for Russian drone imports.
In 2021, before the full-scale invasion began, so few drones were imported into Kazakhstan that they did not even appear in official import-export data. In 2022, however, the country imported nearly $5 million worth of drones, almost entirely from China — and exported $1.23 million to Russia.
The import of microchips, too, has skyrocketed: In 2021, official statistics show, $35 million of the components were imported into Kazakhstan, a figure that had grown only moderately in recent years. In 2022, imports more than doubled to over $75 million.
At the same time, the export of microchips from Kazakhstan to Russia rose from a negligible $245,000 to $18 million — over 70 times higher.