Whispers of Putin’s Secret Lifeline Threaten Rebound in Russia’s War

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Over a year into the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a critical spot.

Initial efforts to force Ukraine to capitulate failed, Ukraine took back much of Russia’s gains, and, as the conflict drags on, the military’s supplies of everything from tanks to missiles are starting to dwindle. While Ukraine has been able to acquire a variety of modern weapons from the US and Europefew countries have been willing to do the same for Russia. Iran sends drones and is in discussions to send missiles. There are also allegations of Russian PMCs buying arms from North Koreabut no country with the means to seriously support Russia’s military has yet done so.

That might be changing. Over the last two weeks, US officials have been claiming that Beijing is planning to supply weapons and “lethal aid” to Russia—and are considering releasing intelligence to prove it.

China is something of a wildcard at this stage. For the past year of fighting, Beijing has remained well clear of serious commitment, despite being quick to echo Moscow’s anti-NATO messaging. The US sanctioned some Chinese companies for providing support to Russian private military companies (PMCs), but there has not yet been a concerted effort to materially support Russia. Chinese-made commercial drones and electronics, for instance, flow to both sides with little restriction.

Chinese companies could sell any kind of military technology to Russia, but reports so far indicate interest in two specific purchases: drones and artillery shells.

‘Lethal’ Chinese Gifts to Putin Could Spark ‘New Cold War’ With US

On Feb. 23, Der Spiegel reported that a Chinese company is working to build drones for the Russian military, allegedly to supplement those provided by Iran. The report only specifies the production of 100 drones by April, but, alongside more Iranian deliveries, it could help Russian attacks on Ukraine’s cities. Russian use of Iranian-made Shahed-131 and 136 drones has declined since the beginning of the year, so another source of similar weapons could increase the size and tempo of attacks. Of course, new types of drones could also challenge Ukraine’s air defenses if they have new or different capabilities.

Most concerning of all, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 24 that China may send 122mm and 152mm artillery shells in the near future. Massed artillery has been one of the core ways Russian forces gain territory, but they’re currently short of shells. While selling more ammunition won’t overcome other issues with Russian artillery, like poor accuracy and spotting compared to their Ukrainian opponents, it will still make offensives easier for Russia, and counteroffensives harder for Ukraine.

Walking the tightrope

Chinese support for Russia presents several quandaries on and off the battlefield. Even if they ultimately decide to limit their sales to nonlethal items, like transportation vehicles or communications equipment, it will help Russia overcome some of its key shortages.

But there is a limit to what Beijing can provide. China has its own defense needs and export contracts to fulfill. Transferring large numbers of advanced systems could also harm them position as an arms exporter if they do not perform as advertised in such a well-documented conflict.

Chinese diplomats are also eagerly pushing a 12-point peace plan released on the anniversary of Putin’s invasion. Beijing’s efforts to mediate, however, are vague and seemingly contradictory: calls to respect sovereignty, for instance, are at odds with encouraging Ukraine to negotiate away their territory after a violation of their sovereignty.

For NATO members and Ukraine, the offer has led to mixed responses. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban spoke support of the plan on Monday, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron both expressed an eagerness to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss Beijing’s proposal.

US officials expressed doubts about how feasible the Chinese plan is, but Zelensky and Macron’s positions are easy to understand. From Ukraine’s perspective, it is better to engage with the Chinese perspective on the conflict when possible—rather than take offense at their initial proposal and risk strengthening Beijing’s case to support Russia.

Putin-Xi Meeting Threatens Chinese Curveball in Russia’s War

China has not yet decided whether to go through with supporting Russia, and there are a few reasons against it. Beijing has a lot to lose if the US and other supporters of Ukraine start to apply the same kinds of financial and diplomatic penalties they’ve issued to Russian and Iranian companies. Major Chinese tech companies benefit from access to international markets, and would be deeply harmed by sanctions if they are involved in sales or support to Russia.

President Joe Biden told ABC news that he does not anticipate a “major initiative” to support Russia. If China decides to help Russia, Biden’s response will matter. Beijing can always scale its aid up depending on how harshly the international community reacts to initial sales or donations.

China may be rhetorically interested in ending the conflict, but Beijing’s substantial support for the Russian military ultimately makes the prospects for peace slimmer. Anything that increases Putin’s confidence that he can continue the war will make him more intransigent as a negotiator, and in turn make it less likely that he’d present acceptable terms to Ukraine.

In the meantime, Russian forces will continue to beat Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and Zelensky’s generals will have to figure out the best way to recapture their territory against a better-equipped Russian army.

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