President Vladimir Putin, the son of a planned economy mindset, never understood that a nation needs a wide industrial base to support a modern military. His ignorance now makes him vulnerable.
Those near the center of power in Moscow must be asking: Why couldn’t the Russian military capture Kiev when Putin used to boast he could do it in two days?
The Russian General Staff reported that the first stage of the “special military operation” in Ukraine is now ended and that they will move on to concentrate on the eastern front.
We interpret this to mean the Russians realized they could not capture Kiev to set up a friendly puppet government – at least not within the next several months. So now they are pretending their original goal was someplace on the other side of the Dnepr.
The Western media overflowed with comments about the Russian military being a Potemkin Army in reference to the falsely prosperous villages Grigory Potemkin built for his lover, Catherine II.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky credited the Ukrainian military with fighting back. We agree – they are tough and highly motivated. But we suspect another factor here.
Russian knows that it cannot fight modern precision warfare over an extended period of time without semiconductors, which in the case of Russia are mostly imported.
Before precision warfare, generals sought numerical superiority. Thousands of bombers flew in formation to drop hundreds of thousands of bombs.
However, only about 7% of the bombs dropped by the US 8th Army Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their aim point during WWII. That was a war of large numbers, not of limited precision actions.
The Korean and Vietnam wars were fought with basically the same technology. Multiple missions were flown and a number of planes were shot down just to blow up a bridge.
Hitting the bullseye with only one shot became easier by the time of the Balkan and Gulf wars. This was due mostly to semiconductors, those tiny silicon chips for computing, seeing and guiding a projectile.
Over the years, bombs and missiles became wire-guided, radio-guided, infrared-guided, laser-guided, satellite-guided and a whole lot more. With today’s technology, if you can locate the target, you can hit the target, even a moving target in the dark.
This was a game-changer: a number of accurate hits can weaken an enemy with numerical superiority. And higher the accuracy, the smaller the projectiles and the lighter the weight.
Anti-aircraft missiles like the Stinger and anti-tank missiles like the NLAW and Javelin are light enough to be “man-portable.” David can win against Goliath in this battlefield as the Ukrainians have demonstrated.
You would expect the Russians to respond in kind. But Russian precision weapons are almost totally missing in action.
The much-hyped Russian drones are nowhere to be seen. Russians are using mostly dumb (indiscriminate) artillery and unguided truck top rockets.
Occasionally a precision cruise missile appears and when the media is full of comments about the Potemkin Army, Moscow drags out its hypersonic missile to remind the world that it is a technological powerhouse.
But is it?
Russia accounts for only 0.1% of global demand for semiconductors, according to WSTS (World Semiconductor Trade Statistics) and it appears that consumption has been declining since 2018.
Autopsies of Russian drones reveal almost all imported electronic components scrounged from consumer products made by Sony, Nintendo and Samsung.
One is reminded of the Soviet Mig 25 that defected from Siberia to Japan in 1976. When the Japanese looked at the avionics, they were surprised to find that the Russians were still using vacuum tubes, not solid-state semiconductors.
Despite Sputnik, the largest megaton nukes and the hypersonic missiles, Russian military electronics has a history of lagging behind the West. One is tempted to say that this is because the Soviets neglected their consumer electronics needs.
Russia is almost totally excluded from the global semiconductor food chain. And as long as this continues, the Russian military’s electronics are likely to suffer.
Russian universities produce some of the brightest electronics engineers in the world. They can design any integrated circuit to make the smart chips that their military needs. But Russia’s ability to make them remains decades behind the West.
Fabricating a chip means using nano-level lithography to print integrated circuits onto a silicon wafer in an ultra-clean room and slicing the chips and testing them and packaging them.
The problem for Russia is that most of the “fab” equipment for these steps are made in the West, mainly the US, Japan and the EU, and they are not available for Russia to purchase.
Russian chip designs are mostly fabricated in Taiwan, South Korea and a handful of other countries. But now these sources have been sanctioned. Once Russia runs out of its stock of semiconductors, it is high and dry – like the EU running out of natural gas from Russia.
Not-so smart bombs
Granted, a lot of smuggling goes on. Go to any of the electronic bazaars in Tokyo, Seoul or Taipei and off-the-shelf semiconductor chips are readily available for suitcase transport to Vladivostok. But not all off-the-shelf chips are the same.
One can understand how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went hat in hand to Beijing recently, possibly to see if China could produce the semiconductors Russia needs. China’s chip fabs are not at the cutting edge, however, like those of Taiwan or South Korea.
Semiconductors are the weakest link in the Russian war effort. Russia’s domestic production of semiconductors is simply not enough to sustain modern precision armaments warfare.
Without semiconductors, Russia is reduced to fighting medieval siege warfare. Without precision weapons, Russia violates the Geneva Conventions.
This is not some evil Russian military doctrine; this is making do with what your industry can supply.
If Putin had air superiority and enough smart munitions, there is no reason for Russia to give up on Kiev. But that is exactly what he had to do.