Will China help Russia in war on Ukraine? All you need know amid fears Putin’s war could spread

Moscow and Beijing announced ‘no limits’ partnership in early February

Rory Sullivan
Monday 14 March 2022 19:38 GMT
Ukrainian forces reportedly shoot down Russian SU-34 outside Izyum

The US has warned China not to help Russia with its war in Ukraine, threatening severe consequences if it does so.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan conveyed the warning to Yang Jeichi, China’s most senior diplomat, at a meeting in Rome on Monday, the day after Washington claimed Moscow had asked Beijing to send it weapons.

Both the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party denied that such a request was made, with the Chinese foreign ministry calling it “disinformation”.

If Chinese president Xi Jinping does closely support Vladimir Putin’s regime, the US could hamper trade flows to China and withhold American technology from the country.

Over the weekend, Mr Sullivan laid out the Biden administration’s response to any pro-Russian action from China.

“We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing, that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them,” the national security adviser told CNN on Sunday.

“We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world,” he added.

The suggestion that Russia has sought help from China comes almost three weeks into a war which analysts predicted would be won quickly and decisively by Mr Putin.

The Kremlin continues to claim the war is “going to plan” and that Russia can achieve its aims without outside support.

However, Viktor Zolotov, a close Putin ally in charge of the Russian national guard, admitted there have been failures. “I would like to say that yes, not everything is going as fast as we would like,” he said.

“But we are going towards our goal step by step and victory will be for us,” he claimed.

Russian bombs continue to rain down indiscrimately on besieged Ukrainian cities. So far, at least 636 civilians have been killed in Russian attacks, according to the UN.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (L) meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (R) in Beijing on 4 February, 202
Russian president Vladimir Putin (L) meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (R) in Beijing on 4 February, 202 (AP)

Is China involved in the Ukraine war?

Although China is not actively supporting Russia in its war efforts, Beijing is toeing a fine line between maintaining its close alliance with Russia and trying not to worsen its relationship with the west.

Weeks before Mr Putin invaded Ukraine, President Xi met his Russian counterpart and agreed to upgrade their countries’ relationship to a “no limits” partnership. The pair also issued a joint statement against Nato.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has nevertheless attempted to appear neutral over Mr Putin’s war, calling the situation in Ukraine “disconcerting”.

“The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control,”  a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the US said this week.

“China calls for exercising utmost restraint and preventing a massive humanitarian crisis,” they added.

Despite such attempts at appearing neutral, China has conspicuously not condemned the Kremlin for its attack on Ukraine and has refused to call it an “invasion”.

Similarly, Chinese state media has promoted Russian disinformation, including the unsubstantiated story that the US was developing chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Russia’s advance in Ukraine has not been as fast as many predicted
Russia’s advance in Ukraine has not been as fast as many predicted (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

What has China said about the war so far?

China’s outward position on the war has been one of mixed messaging.

From the statements it has released, it is clear that Beijing stands with Russia but is also worried about the knock-on effects of Russia’s war.

President Xi declared last week that China’s relationship with Moscow was still “rock solid”, while the Chinese president spoke this week of how the conflict will “dampen the global economy that is already ravaged by the pandemic”.

In particular, China, which imports more oil and gas than any other country, will be affected by the steep rise in prices fuelled by the war.

What do the experts say?

China and Russia are closer now than they have been for decades, with Beijing very much “the clear senior partner in the relationship now”, according to former top CIA China analyst Chris Johnson.

If Beijing even considers assisting Russia in its war, “that speaks volumes about the personalised nature of the relationship amidst Chinese fears that Putin could fall”, he told the Financial Times.

Elsewhere, Anthony Saich, an international affairs professor at Harvard Kennedy School, said China must consider its relationship with Washington in its handling of the war in Ukraine.

“I don’t think Beijing will want the relationship with Washington to deteriorate too far that it becomes impossible to salvage it,” he said.

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