PRC Support Underpins Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 8

Putin visited China and met with Xi Jinping before invasion of Ukraine. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • PRC aid to Russia is multidomain and underpins much of Moscow’s ability to continue to wage war in Ukraine.
  • Attempts have been made to institutionalize the Sino-Russian relationship, deepening the military aspect in particular. The relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin nevertheless remains its driving force.
  • Readouts from Sino-Russian and Sino-Ukrainian meetings suggest that Beijing is not wholly aligned with Moscow’s, and there is clear opposition to the war within sections of the PRC elite. This may mean little if Xi Jinping cannot be persuaded to signal a change in approach.


Toward the end of March, Li Hui (李辉), Special Representative of the Government for Eurasian Affairs, held a briefing on his second round of shuttle diplomacy in Ukraine (MFA, March 22). According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout from his meetings in Ukraine, he “held frank and friendly talks on Sino-Ukrainian relations and the Ukrainian crisis” (MFA, March 8). The Ukrainian side provides more detail on the meetings, noting that they informed their interlocutor of “cases of Russia’s gross violation of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” and of their efforts to “return Ukrainian citizens illegally detained by the Russian Federation and abducted children” (President of Ukraine, March 7).

Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Geng Shuang (耿爽) announced this week that the PRC “has always maintained an objective and impartial position” on the war in Ukraine and “advocated that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected” (Xinhua, April 11). To many observers, this rhetoric appears out of step with the reality of the PRC’s position. Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Roman Mashovets emphasized to Li that “components from third countries” are “becoming part of the weapons used against Ukrainian civilians.” Reading between the lines of the readout, Ukraine wants Beijing to do more to pressure Moscow and to restrict the ways in which it is assisting in the destruction of Ukraine, however indirectly.

Evidence of Support for Russia

To date it is unclear that the PRC has provided “lethal aid”—in the form of direct transfers of weapons, munitions, and other exclusively military equipment—to Russia, despite apparent Russian claims to the contrary (Foreign Affairs, February 19). However, just as PRC actions on the Second Thomas Shoal have recently stretched technical definitions of what constitutes an attack, so Beijing’s continued military collaboration with Russia, its provision of dual-use items that have advanced Russia’s defense industrial complex, and its support of the Russian economy stretches definitions about what constitutes military aid in this war (Twitter, March 25). At the very least, Beijing’s actions have allowed Russia to continue with its invasion and ensured that peace remains a distant prospect. In stronger terms, David O’Sullivan, International Special Envoy for the Implementation of EU Sanctions, has estimated that up to 70 percent of high tech imports “killing Ukrainians” are reaching Russian military via the PRC (SCMP, September 22, 2023).

The amount of technically “non-lethal” military aid from Beijing is substantial. Most recently, Bloomberg reported that the PRC has provided Russia with satellite imagery for military purposes, as well as microelectronics and machine tools for tanks (Bloomberg, April 6). It has furnished Russia with optics, propellants for use in missiles, avionics, and fighter jet engine parts. It has also provided small amounts of nitrocellulose (a key ingredient in gunpowder) (Foreign Affairs, April 9). Drones, which have had a significant impact in the war, have been supplied in large quantities, as well as drone parts (RFE/RL, October 3, 2023). Russia’s finance minister stated last October that the PRC was supplying its entire drone arsenal (Telegram, October 16) Trench-digging equipment has been imported by Russia at levels and at times of the year which indicate that they were only ever intended for use in the war effort. Vehicles such as tractors, which contain combustion engines, have also been shipped in unusually high numbers. Similarly, PRC exports of ball-bearings have surged—including an annual increase of 2,492 percent to Kyrgyzstan—likely for use in tanks (Atlantic Council November 15, 2023). Often, PRC parts are now substituting for parts that previously came from other countries who have ceased providing materiel to Russia (Reuters, April 14, 2023). The PRC has also exported many components made in the West to Russia (KSE Institute, June 19, 2023). This includes semiconductors, where it is the main intermediary for Western chips reaching Russia, and where Hong Kong is a crucial conduit (C4ADS, December 21, 2023). This belies the stance that, “as for military item exports, China has throughout adopted a prudent and responsible attitude,” as one PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson put it last year (Reuters, April 14, 2023).

PRC military cooperation with Russia has boomed. [1] The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased the number of joint activities it performs with the Russian military. The one area in which visits of high-ranking officials have tended be reciprocal (rather than predominantly one-way) has been the military-security domain (Foreign Affairs, April 9). The two countries are jointly developing ground-based lasers which could damage satellites, helicopters, submarines, missiles, and missile-launch early warning systems (Bloomberg, January 25; Foreign Affairs, March 29). At the first round of formal talks with Xi in March, more than half of Putin’s team were officials directly involved in Russia’s weapons and space programs. According to analyst Alexander Gabuev, there is “every reason to believe that Xi’s and Putin’s teams used the March meeting to come to terms on new defense agreements” (Foreign Affairs, April 12, 2023).

The PRC has also assisted Russia in other ways. PRC media has frequently amplified Russian narratives and conspiracy theories, both at home and abroad (EU Parliament, March). Economically, bilateral trade has leapt to historic levels in the last two years, reaching $240 billion in 2023, 70 percent of which was settled in Renminbi. Revenues from this trade are funding Russia’s war effort. Moreover, closer PRC relations with North Korea and Iran, both of whom are directly providing lethal aid to Russia, underline Beijing’s unwillingness to halt the war (The Wire China, January 28; Foreign Affairs, March 29).

Shifting Attitudes in the PRC

It is difficult to gauge the extent to which Beijing supports the war. Beijing has been slow and cautious to react at times—both following the initial invasion in February 2022 and following the Prigozhin coup attempt in mid-2023—but has been consistently and heavily supportive of Moscow. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have been in regular communication since their joint statement on February 4, 2022, where they emphasized the “indivisibility of security.” The two leaders have called at least five times over the period and have met in person three times. A fourth meeting, this time in Beijing, is apparently planned for next month (Ukrainska Pravda, March 19). The two men have met over 40 times in total (People’s Daily, October 15, 2023). Numerous meetings and dialogues have also been held by other senior officials. Meanwhile, Xi has held just one phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy—nearly a year ago—and Premier Li Qiang’s delegation in Switzerland earlier this year declined to meet with that of Ukraine (Politico, January 17). Xi’s call with Zelenskyy was likely in part only to smooth over the relationship, following the PRC’s ambassador to France arguing—incorrectly—that “ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law” (France24, April 24, 2023). In a press conference this week, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning would only say that “China will continue to promote peace talks in our own way, maintain communication with Russia, Ukraine and other parties,” in response to a question on whether the PRC leadership planned on communicating with Ukrainian counterparts (FMPRC, April 8).

Sino-Russian bilateral relations are officially at the “highest historical level of comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era” (Xinhua, April 9). More concerningly, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently mentioned discussing the “prospect of forming a new security structure in Eurasia” (MFA Russia, April 9). The increase in official exchanges and relationship-building beyond the leadership level indicates an apparent attempt to depersonalize the relationship and institutionalize ties (The China Russia Report, September 30, 2023). The relationship between Xi and Putin underpins to bilateral ties. Mao Ning emphasized this week that “heads-of-state diplomacy provides the fundamental underpinning for the steady and sustained growth of China-Russia relations” (FMPRC, April 9). And Xi stated that “Putin and I have agreed to maintain close contact to ensure the smooth and stable development of China-Russia relations” (Xinhua, April 9).

It is unclear how much further PRC support for Russia extends beyond the leadership. Increasingly, PRC experts are vocal about their opposition to the war. Some worry about the first- and second-order effects for the world. [2] Others, such as Feng Yujun (冯玉军), deputy dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, have argued that viewing the war “as a strategic opportunity for China would be wrong,” and that the PRC’s stance toward Russia “has reverted from the ‘no limits’ stance of early 2022” (Shanghai Global Governance and Regional Studies Research Institute, March 13, 2022; Economist, April 11). Qin Hui, recently retired from Tsinghua University, has consistently sought to demolish Russia’s justifications for the war (Financial Times Chinese, February 24, 2022; Youtube, February 25, 2022). Meanwhile, Sun Liping has warned against closer ties with Putin’s Russia (Weixin, March 14, 2022). These are select and prominent voices among sizeable swathes of the intellectual and policy elite who are privately increasingly at odds with Xi Jinping on a number of key areas (cf. Economist, April 9). But as ever, it is difficult to assess which portion of the CCP leadership these voices represent, and what power to sway the overall policy trajectory they have.

Russian statements suggest some daylight between the two countries’ public positions. Lavrov declared that the PRC had confirmed with him “the conclusion about the futility of any international efforts that do not take into account Russia’s position … and promote an absolutely empty, ultimatum-like ‘Zelenskyy’s peace formula’” (MFA Russia, April 9). His counterpart, Wang Yi, was more conciliatory, advocating for both countries to pursue “five always (五个始终)” (Xinhua, April 9). These include “always adhering to the principle of ‘non-alliance, non-confrontation, and not targeting any third party,’ and ‘always pursuing inclusive and win-win cooperation.’ This is not a full-throated endorsement of the Russian position but, much like other peace initiatives the PRC has undertaken, comes across as gestural and insubstantial (FMPRC, February 24, 2023).


Xi Jinping is unlikely to be persuaded by any of the arguments presented by dissenting voices. Cracks that exist in the Sino-Russian relationship are minimal next to the overwhelming support with which the PRC buttresses the Russian war machine. Many PRC experts refer to the conflict as a “proxy war (代理人战争)” or “avatar war (分身战),” referring the US and Western support for Ukraine. But the level of PRC support for Russia suggests that the PRC is every bit as involved on the other side of the conflict. Switzerland is planning to host a peace conference, involving 80 to 100 nations, in June (Bloomberg, April 8). Much of the outcome will depend on Beijing’s willingness to pressure Russia and the other countries it relies on to abide by the principles it professes to hold dear.


[1] Brands, Hal. “The Ukraine War and Global Order.” In Brands, Hal, ed. War in Ukraine. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2024

[2] Lin, Bonny & Brian Hart. “Accelerating Profound Changes Unseen in a Century.” In Brands, Hal, ed. War in Ukraine. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2024