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Russian titanium keeps flowing to the West despite invasion of Ukraine

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Western firms bought hundreds of millions of dollars of titanium metal from a Russian company with deep ties to the country’s defense industry following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, according to a review of Russian export data.

The purchases illustrate how the West remains dependent on Russia for certain products despite pledges to break economic ties with Moscow. In the case of titanium, that dependence raises security concerns, industry and defense analysts say, as the metal is vital in the manufacturing of both commercial and military airplanes.

“Russia could shut off the flow of these … materials and leave companies critical to national defense and civil aviation scrambling,” said William George, director of research at ImportGenius, the company that supplied the trade data gathered from an official Russian database to The Washington Post.

After more than two years of war in Ukraine, Russia continues to export oil and gas that eventually reaches the United States and its allies, and Russian firms are still able to sell everything from diamonds to uranium because the West wants the goods and allows carve-outs from sanctions.

The titanium firm, VSMPO-AVISMA, has not been placed under sanctions by the United States or the European Union despite being partly owned by Rostec, a defense conglomerate that owns hundreds of companies and is under U.S. and European sanctions. Rostec is led by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Chemezov, who has been personally sanctioned since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Roughly 15,000 tons of titanium worth $370 million were exported by VSMPO in 2022, the vast majority of it sent to Western nations that supported Ukraine, according to the export database, with Germany, France, the United States and Britain topping the list. VSMPO, which essentially is a monopoly in Russia, then exported at least $345 million in titanium in 2023, according to more-limited data for that year seen by The Post. Russian trade data was difficult to acquire in 2023, with the available data lacking most of the details that showed transactions with Western firms. George said ImportGenius could not comment on why certain details were no longer in the data.

VSMPO and its international subsidiary, VSMPO-Tirus, did not respond to requests for comment.

Ukraine is the only country to have placed the Russian firm under sanctions. In September, the U.S. Commerce Department imposed export controls on VSPMO, stating that it was “directly involved in producing and manufacturing titanium and metal products for the Russian military and security services.” Those controls prohibit exports of goods to the company in Russia, not of its titanium to the United States, however.

“We think sanctioning titanium from Russia would be sanctioning ourselves,” Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury told reporters in June 2022.

According to the Russian export database, Russian titanium marked for delivery to the European aerospace giant increased to at least $24 million in 2022, the most in the available data for any European or American company and an increase of 940 percent from Airbus’s purchases the year before.

Airbus said in December 2022 that it would decouple from Russian titanium within months; it appeared to still be receiving imports from the Russian firm until at least November 2023, according to the available data for last year.

In a statement, an Airbus spokesperson said the company did not comment on sourcing volumes and supplier contracts but was complying with all prevailing sanctions against Russia. The statement noted that the company had already procured titanium from suppliers outside Russia, including in Europe, the United States and Asia.

“Airbus (and the entire European supply chain) continues to work on operational actions to reduce critical dependency on Russian sources of titanium,” the statement said.

The U.S. aerospace company Boeing, Airbus’s chief rival, pursued a starkly different track in 2022 when it announced it would stop buying Russian titanium, ending a decades-long relationship with VSMPO and derailing a multimillion-dollar joint venture that had been announced just months before.

However, while the company was not shown to have received imports from the Russian firm since spring 2022, suppliers for the company had made significant purchases long after that date. It was not possible to estimate how much Russian titanium was still going into Boeing planes. A representative for the company declined to comment on its suppliers.

Struggling to find alternatives to Russia

Titanium’s importance comes from an array of factors. As strong as steel but 45 percent lighter, it’s also more resistant to heat and corrosion, and can be used in multiple products from paint to body implants. Its most critical modern use is in aerospace as the industry has pursued ever-lighter aircraft.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western governments encouraged aerospace firms to do business with VSMPO, which had enormous capacity after the end of the Cold War, and until 2022, the Russian firm was estimated to supply roughly a third of the high-grade titanium used by the aviation sector globally.

Only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, did Western companies begin to break these ties. Most significantly, Ural Boeing Manufacturing, a joint venture of Boeing and VSMPO, was canceled in 2022. In a statement, Boeing said it now “sources titanium predominantly in the U.S.”

Major suppliers for Boeing have continued purchasing Russian titanium, however.

The Safran Group, the French aerospace company that works on engines and landing gears for aerospace companies, including Boeing, saw its imports from the Russian firm rise in 2022, hitting over $20 million compared with $8.6 million the year before. As recently as November of last year, Russian trade documents stated that exports to France were going to the Safran-made LEAP 1B engines used in the Boeing 737 Max airliner.

In a statement, Safran said that its purchases had increased in volume in 2022 but that “the share of Russian titanium in our purchases did not increase.”

Executives with Rolls-Royce, a British company that produces engines for both Airbus and Boeing, said in the spring of 2022 that they would stop purchasing Russian titanium. Trade data suggests that imports from VSMPO continued throughout 2022, increasing from $5 million in 2021 to $6.7 million in 2022, with VSMPO deliveries marked for Rolls-Royce as recently as April 2023.

“Rolls-Royce strictly adheres to applicable export control and sanctions requirements and we are securing alternative supply chain capacity to deliver our transition,” the company said in a statement.

The continued reliance on Russian titanium by European firms is shown in European Union trade data. The bloc imported $244 million worth of Russian titanium in 2023, only 20 percent down from its highest-ever volume, in 2019. U.S. trade data for 2023 shows $47 million worth of Russian titanium purchases, almost 80 percent lower than the 2019 peak.

Analysts said Western companies were probably struggling to find alternatives to VSMPO. One American who worked with VSMPO before the invasion of Ukraine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations, said Russia’s lower overheads meant VSMPO could also offer discounted prices.

“They have the scale that allows that cost of production to go way down,” the American said.

Concern about national security

While no sanctions prohibit the purchase of Russian titanium for commercial purposes, the use of specialty metals for the U.S. military is regulated. This can cause costly problems: In 2022, the discovery of a Chinese alloy in the assembly of F-35 fighter jets led to a production halt and investigation. The Pentagon later issued a waiver for the alloy.

Under a regulation known as the Specialty Metals Amendment, the Defense Department is required to source titanium and titanium alloys from American sources or other qualified countries — usually NATO members or other U.S. allies. “Russia is not a qualified country,” Jeff Jurgensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in an email.

But the rules are complex. Jeff Green, a lobbyist and former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, pointed out that commercial companies are allowed to buy metals from non-qualified countries for use on dual-use items as long as they also buy a certain percentage of U.S.-produced metals. Until last year, there were no rules about where a qualified country could make its purchases from, Green added.

“The loophole had always been that the Russians could pass material through those partner nations,” Green said. Though Congress amended this in the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, it is not clear whether it has flowed down into practice, Green added. “There is a key vulnerability right now,” he said.

The European Union, meanwhile, does not have restrictions on the sourcing of specialty metals for military items.

Several large commercial firms, including Airbus and Safran, also supply the U.S. and European militaries. In a statement, Airbus said it did not use VSMPO-supplied titanium in any military products, while Safran said that since the invasion of Ukraine, it no longer uses VSMPO’s titanium in “dedicated military products.”

Other firms listed in the Russian database worked on complex programs like the F-35, known for its web of globe-spanning supply chains — including Rolls-Royce, which produces an engine that uses titanium parts for variations of the warplane. Rolls-Royce said it does not comment on defense contracts.

Smaller companies that provide niche titanium parts to prime military contractors, as well as to commercial companies, were also listed. The British subsidiaries of Wyman-Gordon, a U.S. company that supplies titanium structures for the F-35, and Canadian aerospace company Magellan, a supplier of machined wing tie bars for the F-35, were named in the database as having received increased exports of Russian titanium in 2022.

In an email, David Dugan, director of corporate communications for Precision Castparts, parent company of Wyman-Gordon, said that the increased orders from VSMPO were made before the war on behalf of a U.K.-based customer for the production of commercial aircraft parts. After this order closed, Wyman-Gordon made no additional purchases from VSMPO in 2023 or 2024, Dugan said.

Magellan did not respond to requests for comment.

F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin said it worked “closely with the DOD, other government agencies and our suppliers to assess parts and material availability to meet all U.S. government contractual requirements.”

Jurgensen, the Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email that the Defense Department had recently released its first-ever National Defense Industrial Strategy to help address supply issues. “We are developing significantly improved supply chain mapping tools and completing a comprehensive supply chain study to help mitigate the potential presence of materials from competitors and other unreliable sources of supply,” Jurgensen said.

The Pentagon’s contract management agency “has not performed an audit specific to titanium,” Jurgensen said.

While U.S. titanium firms can create aerospace-grade metal, after closures in 2020, they have been reliant on imports of titanium sponge, the first stage in making the metal. Roughly 80 percent of titanium sponge used in the United States comes from Japan, which has struggled to keep up with demand.

Bob Wetherbee, president of Dallas-based Allegheny Technologies, one of the three big producers of U.S. titanium metal, said that he believed all of the American titanium producers had seen demand double, but that U.S. companies would need government help to restart sufficient sponge production in the United States.

“The lack of action is having an impact on national security,” Wetherbee said

Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in manufacturing, said that the U.S. titanium industry could certainly fill the hole in the global market left by VSMPO, but that it would require significant investment and probably the embrace of new technologies to create cleaner, more-efficient titanium.

“We tend to be short-term-focused and price-focused,” Shih said. “But if you really think of these things as being strategic, then you have to play the long game.”

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