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Chinese Drones Flow To Training Centers Linked To Russian War In Ukraine


A Ukrainian soldier in Kherson prepares to operate a commercial DJI Mavic drone in June.
A Ukrainian soldier in Kherson prepares to operate a commercial DJI Mavic drone in June.

More than a year after DJI -- the preeminent Chinese drone maker -- first said it would stop doing business in Russia and Ukraine, its products continue to play a decisive role on the battlefield, with new research shared with RFE/RL showing that they are being sold to Russian companies and training centers with links to Moscow's war effort.

The findings -- compiled by Molfar, a Ukrainian business intelligence consultancy and corroborated by RFE/RL -- show that DJI's small, low-cost drones are being sold to Russian entities that are part of its sprawling military-industrial complex or to companies in the country that train government personnel or military units on how to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

In some cases, the training centers state plainly and even boast on their websites and Telegram channels that they are training pilots and members of the Russian military on DJI drones for Moscow's war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian operators fly DJI drones at a training area in August.
Ukrainian operators fly DJI drones at a training area in August.

Molfar established the connections by identifying 10 Chinese-based legal entities that, according to their certificates of conformity, are production sites linked to DJI or to its parent company IFlight that continued exports to Russia until June 2023 -- the latest available date for the documents.

Through the certificates, Molfar was able to trace various Russian entities that purchased the drones and conduct civilian and military training on how to operate them for surveillance, reconnaissance and, in some instances, how to modify them for attacks.

While the research is not a comprehensive set of all the Chinese-made drones sold to Russia or those that make their way to the battlefield in Ukraine, it offers a window into the continued flow of dual-use -- nonlethal but militarily useful -- equipment from China to Russia that is having an impact in aiding the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"Since the war began, China has shown a willingness to support Russia that comes up to, but doesn't cross, the West's red lines," Joseph Webster, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who tracks the flow of Chinese exports to Russia amid the war in Ukraine, told RFE/RL. "Ensuring dual-use shipments to Russia is likely seen by Beijing as a form of support that ensures some balance as China watches American and European military supplies go to Ukraine."

The findings also raise questions about the effectiveness of official Chinese efforts to limit the sale of drones and other dual-use technologies -- the latest of which came into effect on September 1.

A Ukrainian soldier tests a drone near Bakhmut in November 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier tests a drone near Bakhmut in November 2022.

Trade data shows that Ukrainian imports have fallen sharply following new Chinese restrictions, while Russia's remain strong.

Ukraine is facing growing difficulties in sourcing consumer drones and their parts, which is borne out in Chinese, Russian, and Ukrainian trade statistics. Those figures show that Chinese companies sent over $200,000 in direct drone shipments to Ukraine from January to June this year, while Russia received at least $14.5 million during the same span, including the training centers identified by Molfar.

This adds to a growing body of evidence since February 2022 that demonstrates how Moscow has been able to draw critical items for its military from abroad, particularly from China, despite Western attempts to restrain Russia's war machine. The European Union estimates that up to 70 percent of the vital, hi-tech products reaching the Russian military are coming from China, with David O'Sullivan, the bloc's sanctions envoy, saying in late September that the flow of such goods is "killing Ukrainians."

In response to RFE/RL's request for comment, a DJI spokesperson said the company has actively denounced the use of its products in combat and that they should not be modified "into weapons," noting that "DJI and its subsidiaries voluntarily stopped all shipments to and operations in Russia and Ukraine" in April 2022.

The spokesperson added that that the company takes compliance seriously and that "all of our distributors, resellers, and other business partners around the world are contractually obligated to prevent the sale of DJI products to customers who clearly plan to use them for combat purposes." Breaching this agreement, the spokesperson said, would lead to the company immediately ending its business relationship with the individual or entity.

The Drone War And Russian Training Centers

Despite its statements and official bans, DJI consumer drones continue to make their way to the battlefield.

Small and affordable drones, many of which can even be bought online or off the shelf, have become a staple of the war in Ukraine for both Kyiv and Moscow for reconnaissance and targeted attacks. Ukrainian forces have proven particularly adept at retrofitting consumer drones with explosives and then crashing them into Russian forces and territory.

This has led to both sides burning through the products at a high rate and constantly needing to replenish their stocks. The Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated earlier this year that Ukraine goes through 10,000 drones a month.

While Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used in the war, the consumer market is cornered by Chinese companies, with DJI holding more than 90 percent of the global consumer drone market, according to the industry research group DroneAnalyst.

DJI's dominance within the drone war in Ukraine is highlighted in Molfar's research, with many of the training centers or other entities identified specializing in the use of DJI drones.

One such company, Skymec, lists Russia's Interior Ministry, the Federal Protection Service, and the Emergency Situations Ministry as distribution clients on its website.

Other findings by the Ukrainian consultancy follow a trail of Russian training centers that more directly shows their links to the country's military.

One of these entities is Pustelga, a company that, according to its website, offers training on DJI drones to both regular and mobilized military personnel of the Russian military, the National Guard, and "specialists from other Russian security structures."

According to Russian media, the group also launched a training program in June with the National Guard focused on FPV drones, the term used for drones piloted through a video feed wirelessly transmitted to a pilot's headset, mobile device, or other display.

The company claims to be operational since March and runs an active Telegram channel where it regularly offers updates on its courses and graduates, including with photos and videos.

The group says it also operates two training programs in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine and, in a video posted on May 5, a man in a military uniform with a Russian Army patch is seen receiving a diploma from Pustelga.

Another post from May 25 includes photos of DJI consumer drones next to explosives with the caption: "Our graduate will soon receive these drones on the Zaporizhzhya front and will effectively combine them with the new standard ammunition. We not only educate, but we also support our graduates with words, deeds, and equipment as much as we can."

Another company identified by Molfar is SHUBBA-Octagon, a drone-pilot school based in St. Petersburg that offers courses across Russia. According to its website, it specializes in training DJI Mavic drones and offers a path for its students to be militarily recognized as drone pilots.

An undated photo from the website of the SHUBBA-Octagon drone pilot school in St. Petersburg shows the Wagner insignia in an office window.
An undated photo from the website of the SHUBBA-Octagon drone pilot school in St. Petersburg shows the Wagner insignia in an office window.

While the group has no explicit ties to the Wagner mercenary group, the private military company's insignia can be seen on the windows in photos posted to SHUBBA-Octagon's website.

Additional photos on the training center's website show a person whom it says is one of the program's instructors in a military uniform with the call sign "Svyatoy" displayed. Another photo shows military equipment belonging to Svyatoy shown next to a Syrian flag, where Wagner has been operating since 2015.

On SHUBBA-Octagon's Telegram channel, the center claims Svyatoy and other instructors identified only by their call signs received medals from the government for their military service and that they've served among the Russian General Staff, the National Guard, and Wagner in the past.

An undated photo from SHUBBA-Octagon's website shows a person in military uniform with the call sign “Svyatoy.”
An undated photo from SHUBBA-Octagon's website shows a person in military uniform with the call sign “Svyatoy.”

Not all of the companies traced through Molfar's investigation have clear military connections. One entity that received DJI drones is a limited-liability company registered to Avanti Education, a company that sponsors robotics competitions and conducts training for young people. A separate LLC linked to Avanti Education that records show was established in May uses a legal registration code that is commonly applied by scientific organizations in Russia that work closely with the military, according to Molfar analysts.

Molfar also identified two other companies that offer training courses on DJI drones and in their resale throughout Russia using certificates of conformity from China that use the same registration code usually associated with military work.

Shifting Supply Lines

Molfar couldn't find out how many DJI drones are being sent to the Russian entities and is unable to say if Chinese authorities played any role in the sales or if it is merely Chinese businesses taking advantage of opportunities presented by the war in Ukraine.

As consumer drones have become prominent on the battlefield, global logistical networks have sprung up to navigate sanctions and other obstacles to ensure that unmanned vehicles reach both militaries on the front. These networks have varied from leaning directly on Chinese exporters to corporate cutouts in neighboring countries and crowdfunding campaigns run by volunteers at home and abroad.

The full effect of the September 1 export restrictions on drone components enacted by Chinese authorities is still unclear.

As seen in 2023 trade data, Ukraine still obtained millions in Chinese-made drones and components, although Russia has been able to purchase far larger amounts and Ukrainian customs data shows that most sales to the country came through European intermediaries.

A photo on SHUBBA-Octagon's website shows a DJI drone armed with an explosive.
A photo on SHUBBA-Octagon's website shows a DJI drone armed with an explosive.

Several Ukrainian activists and others involved in crowdfunding DJI drone purchases have posted publicly that Chinese firms are still willing to sell to Ukrainian buyers, but the sales often involve intermediaries and prices for the drones are increasing. Some Chinese suppliers or resellers based elsewhere are also reportedly turning to an open bidding system for the drones that sometimes involves Russian and Ukrainian buyers competing against one another.

Others have raised alarm that the Chinese export restrictions seem to affect Ukraine disproportionately. Writing in June on X (formerly known as Twitter), Serhiy Sternenko, a Ukrainian activist involved in crowdfunding drone purchases, said he worried the looming restrictions leave Ukraine at a disadvantage as it looks for new intermediaries to buy drones while Russian entities could still make direct purchases.

Some Russian entities also say they have felt the effects of the Chinese restrictions. According to a September survey of companies done by the Russian daily Kommersant, the measures have caused supply disruptions and shortages in the country.

Explosions of Russian military vehicles filmed by a drone from Aerorozvidka, a group of operators that work closely with the Ukrainian military.
Explosions of Russian military vehicles filmed by a drone from Aerorozvidka, a group of operators that work closely with the Ukrainian military.

Many Russian agricultural, surveillance, and industrial drone retailers told Kommersant they had either run out of stock entirely or doubled prices due to the export curbs. Other companies said they had stocked up on Chinese-made drones and components ahead of the September restrictions coming into force, with some stockpiling supplies that could last up to six months.

Whether this will have a lasting effect in curbing Chinese drones on the battlefield is unknown. The Atlantic Council's Webster says that while the restrictions could cause some immediate disruption to logistics networks, "they're unlikely to have an impact in the long term," especially when it comes to shipments to Russia.

"There are just too many ways for something to get to Russia. It can be direct and it can go through Belarus, Central Asia, Turkey, or elsewhere using intermediaries," Webster said. "These new controls are not likely to be effective."

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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