Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, engineers at Convex, a Russian telecommunications company, needed to find American equipment to transmit data to the country’s feared intelligence service. But no gear was flowing in after Western nations imposed sweeping new trade limits on Russia.
Convex’s employees soon found a solution. While Cisco, a U.S. tech provider, had halted sales to Russia on March 3, 2022, Convex’s engineers easily obtained the Cisco gear they needed through an obscure Russian e-commerce site called Nag, which had gotten around international trade restrictions by buying the American equipment through a web of suppliers in China.
Flexibility has been paramount. In weekly emails, Russian trade officials shared tips on which ports would transfer goods, who would trade in rubles and where Russian-flagged ships could be repaired, the documents show. If one supplier stopped selling, they found another. If a shipping route was cut off, new ones took up the slack.
The documents offer a rare glimpse of a race in which Russian traders have reliably stayed one step ahead of U.S.-led efforts to cut them off. Their success shows how difficult it is to stop the global movement of commercial technology, raising questions about the effectiveness of Western trade restrictions and whether tech giants should better control the destinations of their products — and if it is even possible to do so.
The pain did not last as President Vladimir V. Putin remade Russia’s economy. Russian officials and executives swiftly teamed up to find workarounds. Political loyalists profited as Western companies fled.
China and Hong Kong supplied 85 percent of semiconductors imported to Russia from March 2022 to September 2023, up from 27 percent before the conflict, according to the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a nonprofit that studies Russian trade routes.
Nag, which sells hardware to regional telecoms and surveillance contractors, is one major seller of Western equipment through these loopholes.