Two years after Apple quit Russia over Ukraine, Vision Pros are for sale in Moscow

Politics

The Javers Files: Apple Vision Pro in Moscow

WASHINGTON — Just one week after Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine in 2022, Apple announced it was stopping exports of its products into the country. “We are deeply concerned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stand with all of the people who are suffering as a result of the violence,” the company said in a statement on March 1, 2022.

But now, days ahead of the two-year anniversary of the invasion, stores in Moscow are bustling with Apple products – and Russian customers are making appointments to see demonstrations of the brand-new Apple Vision Pro at shops located just blocks from the Kremlin. 

Russians aren’t supposed to have access to the Vision Pro: The brand-new product, which was released on Feb. 2 and available in Moscow just days later, is only officially available for sale inside the United States. 

Asked about Vision Pro sales in Russia, an Apple spokesperson told CNBC, “As you are aware, Apple Vision Pro is only available at Apple Retail stores in the US.” 

But a CNBC survey of Russian websites and tech blogs as well as channel checks at stores in Moscow suggests that Apple’s statement doesn’t square with reality.  

The fact that customers in Moscow can buy the Vision Pro before people in London can officially do so is a high-profile demonstration of the difficulty of unraveling the global economy, and the nuanced decisions American companies have taken even as they express their horror over Russian atrocities in Ukraine. 

On the ground in Moscow, Apple products including MacBooks, iPhones and iPads are available in stores, although prices may be higher than they were pre-invasion. The Russian version of Apple’s tech support website is still active, but the official Apple Store website is offline, displaying a message in Russian saying, “The Apple Store is currently closed.” 

People stand in a “re:store,” an Apple resale store in a shopping center in St. Petersburg. Apple has suspended sales of its products in Russia because of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. 

Igor Russak | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Still, at a retail outlet “re:Store,” (pronounced Ree-store) a former official Apple reseller offers Apple products for sale at shops in Moscow. The chain’s website features a large photo of a user strapped into an Apple Vision Pro, and the iconic bitten Apple logo with text reading, “Vision Pro: The era of spatial computers has come. Apple Vision Pro is already on sale.” 

At one re:Store location in Moscow, clerks offer by-appointment demonstrations of the new goggles, and the cheapest model Vision Pro is offered at about $6,307 — more than 57% higher than its retail price in the U.S.

Just one day after CEO Tim Cook took part in a splashy launch of the Apple Vision Pro at the company’s flagship store in New York, a well-known Russian tech blogger who goes by “Romancev768” posted a video to his more than 1 million followers, showing him unboxing his own Apple headset and demonstrating how it works.

A few days later, he posted a video offering his opinions on the device as he walked through the posh Moscow district of Patriarshiye.

Seated in a restaurant, he tells viewers that even though he has the volume all the way up, customers near him can’t hear anything. He shows himself testing the device at the re:Store shop in Moscow’s shopping mall called “GUM,” located adjacent to Red Square, across from the Kremlin. 

The blogger’s real-world name is Sergey Romantsev. In an email exchange with CNBC, he explained how he got the Vision Pro in Moscow so quickly: “There’s nothing complicated about it,” he wrote, saying his team placed a preorder for the device in New York. “The person received it on the day of the start of sales and immediately flew to Moscow,” Romantsev wrote. “Through New York, Istanbul, Moscow, we brought Vision very quickly.”

He explained that Apple devices, though expensive, are available in Russia. “Officially, Apple does not sell anything in Russia. Russian companies buy equipment in other countries and bring it to their stores. This has led to a huge increase in prices. So Vision Pro in Moscow costs not $3,500 but $5,000.”

But some consumers, at least, are willing to pay that price: “Apple is very popular in Russia and we keep an eye on all new products,” Romantsev wrote. “We are trying to get them. It’s difficult.” 

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He said he has no difficulty operating his Vision Pro in Russia. But it’s a different picture with the competing American product from Meta, the Meta Quest 3.

In 2022, a Russian court banned Facebook and Instagram from the country after Meta loosened its policies on hate speech toward Russian soldiers in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Meta is recognized as an extremist organization in Russia,” Romantsev wrote. “Meta servers are blocked in Russia. To activate Quest 3, you need to install a VPN on your home WiFi. There are also a lot of restrictions, since constant work via VPN is very difficult.” A Meta spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

None of this has happened by accident. The Russian government has done what it can to ensure that many Western products continue to flow into the country. In 2022, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade issued a document permitting Apple products to be imported to Russia even when official supplies to Russia are banned or suspended by the manufacturer.

In Russia, this is known as “parallel import.” The exact supply chain feeding this demand is unclear, but likely involves former Soviet republics or Middle Eastern import-export businesses. 

Back in 2022, Apple laid out a specific set of steps it would take to dial back its business in Russia. The company said it had “paused” all product sales in Russia and stopped all exports into Apple’s sales channel in country. The company said it removed Russian state-controlled media outlets RT News and Sputnik News from the App Store outside of Russia, and limited Apple Pay and other services. 

Some internet activists in 2022 urged American tech firms to continue to supply Russian customers with the tools they need to access information on the open internet, and especially messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp and Threema.

But even before it pulled out of the country in 2022, Apple had struggled to balance open access with the demands of the Russian government. According to media reports, the company deleted an app associated with the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian prison this week, and agreed to promote Russian state-operated apps in the country. An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the moves. 

For all that, the continued sales of Apple’s consumer-focused products in Russia are not likely to raise eyebrows in Washington. “We’re focused on disrupting Russia’s procurement of items for the military industrial base,” a White House official told CNBC.

“In general, we don’t have a comprehensive trade embargo in place and there are exceptions for many communications-related devices across our sanctions and export controls, as long as they aren’t going to sanctioned Russian end users,” the official said.

— CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this report.

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