COCOM (Coordinating Committee) was a semi-secretive export control system made up of NATO members plus Japan. During the Cold War, COCOM was an important factor in keeping high technology from the USSR.
When COCOM was ended by President Clinton in 1996, well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was not enough to make a big difference for Russia, but its demise fueled China’s rapid expansion thanks to imports of Western technology.
We now know that in the Ukraine war, Russia has a severe shortage of high-end precision weapons because it lacks imported technology to make them work.
In the Cold War, it became clear to the United States and some of its allies that Russia’s arms buildup needed high-tech hardware, especially computers and electronics, to be able to compete effectively with their NATO counterparts.
Under the KGB First Directorate, the Soviets organized Directorate T to manage the acquisition of Western strategic, military and industrial technology. By 1972, Directorate T had a headquarters staff of several hundred officers in addition to specialists stationed at major Soviet embassies.
The Directorate’s operations were coordinated with the scientific and technical collection activities of other KGB elements, and with the State Scientific and Technical Committee (GNTK). Western insight into Directorate T operations came from a French-run KGB insider spy, Vladimir Vetrov (code name, Farewell).
Directorate T focused on so-called dual-use technology, that is commercial technology with significant military applications. Separately, Soviet military intelligence, the GRU (the main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces) focused on acquiring, usually through clandestine means, military technology from abroad.
Both Directorate T and the GRU were very important, but the biggest need of the Soviet Union was commercial high-tech to upgrade their guns, missiles, warships and submarines and aircraft.
NATO’s force multiplier
The Pentagon assessed that while NATO forces were smaller than the forces of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, NATO’s increasing use of computers and semiconductors gave it a significant force multiplier and the ability to field more accurate, therefore more lethal, weapons in the battlespace.
Thanks to US leadership and COCOM restrictions, plus increasingly effective enforcement, the Soviet Union was not able to import the technology it needed, and its efforts to build a high technology industrial base for computers and semiconductors floundered.
Most famously the USSR ran a big R&D and manufacturing operation in the then-closed city of Zelenograd. Despite massive investment and heavy spying, Zelenograd rapidly fell behind its Western counterparts – estimates have it that by the mid-1980s the Soviets were at least seven years behind in electronics, with no real hope of significant improvement.