Untouched by Sanctions

West’s vested interests provided an escape route to Russian Rare Earth elements

Girish LingannaGirish Linganna

In the wake of the Ukraine war, the West has imposed severe sanctions on Russia, targeting especially its energy and financial sector. For instance, the EU nations have decided to stop importing any oil from Russia that comes in by sea. This rules out two-thirds of the Russian oil supply to the EU, hitting the economy quite strongly. The US is also banning Russian oil and gas imports. Additionally, USD630 billion worth of Russia’s foreign currency reserves are now unusable due to Western countries’ freezing its central bank assets.

Yet, some remain exempt from these measures. These products are the rare earth elements.


Rare Earth Resources

Rare Earth elements (REEs) refer to 17 chemical elements in the periodic table that tend to occur together in nature. They are silver, silvery-white, or grey metals that have high electrical conductivity and other common properties. Contrary to what their name suggests, these elements are available in abundance. They are rare not because they are not available in nature but because they occur in a dispersed fashion, making economically exploitable ore deposits scarce.

REEs are used in almost every piece of modern technology. Their aerospace and military usage spans space shuttle components, drones, jet and helicopter engine turbines, aircraft frames, ships, submarines, and ground vehicles.

According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the Rare Earth sector has an estimated size of USD10 billion and USD15 billion. Annual production of these elements or metals ranges from about 100,000-110,000 tonnes globally.


Reliance on China and Russia

The West, especially the US, rely extensively on two major Rare Earth metals: Antimony and Titanium.

Antimony is a critical strategic mineral that is used in all manner of military applications, including the manufacture of armour-piercing bullets, night vision goggles, infra-red sensors, precision optics and laser sighting. In terms of armaments, it is indispensable for explosive formulations, hardened lead for bullets and shrapnel, ammunition primers, tracer ammunition, nuclear weapons and production, tritium production, flares, military clothing, and communication equipment. It is the key element in the creation of tungsten steel and the hardening of lead bullets.

As of 2020, the only Antimony that the US produced came from recycling. The country relies heavily on imports, nearly 79 per cent of which come from China.

The West, especially the US and Western Europe, also have to rely on their adversary for Titanium. Titanium and Titanium alloys are lightweight and strong. They can bear high temperatures and are highly resistant to corrosion. The metal is used extensively in the aero-structures and engines industry, power plant components, desalination plants, chemical processing vessels and piping. It also has applications in the field of medicine.

Reports suggest that titanium alloys form close to 15 per cent of the Boeing 787 airframe by weight. In the Airbus A350XWB, this number is about 14 per cent. The West relies heavily upon Russia for this metal. The reliance is so much that Airbus went on to warn that sanctioning titanium imports from Russia will hurt Europe’s aerospace industry more than it would Russia.

The sanctions, like a double-edged sword, have already hit the aviation industry of the US, the EU, and the UK. Manufacturers from these regions can no longer supply parts or services to Russian airlines using their aircraft. They are also unable to sell any new aircraft to Russian carriers. While the Russian economy hurts, the economies of Western nations are also bleeding, at least a little.

Interestingly, Ukraine is believed to possess the largest supply of recoverable rare earth resources in Europe, although substantial parts of it are undeveloped. Some cite this as one of the potentially multiple motives behind the Russian invasion. If true, this would imply that Russia can strengthen its control of the REE sector in the near future—if it wins the war.


Weaning off of Russian REEs?

While netizens worldwide continue to criticise Western nations for shying away from taking adequate actions to repel or at least deter Russia, it is evident that their vested economic interests will ensure that some sanctions remain unimplemented.

However, efforts are under-way. The Biden administration has been trying to boost its mineral reserves through legislative and executive measures. After China threatened to stop exporting REEs to the US due to the trade war the countries were embroiled in, the US Army also revealed plans to secure a domestic supply of the required metals through funding the construction of a Rare Earths processing facility.

Airbus’ US rival, Boeing, was receiving an estimated 33 per cent of its requirements from Russia. It recently claimed to have stopped using Russian Titanium in early March, boasting that it had ‘sufficient supplies after diversifying its sourcing arrangements.’

Yet, it is undeniable that the West’s aviation industry, and the military-industrial complex, rely heavily on two of its biggest adversaries—Russia and China—for their REE needs. Even with efforts to counter this dependence, it will be years, in fact, decades, before measures in this direction bear fruits.



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