US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview given at the end of February expressed his country's concern at the prospect that China may be preparing to provide weaponry to Russia for its war effort in Ukraine. According to Blinken, as quoted by Associated Press, "We've been watching this very, very closely. And, for the most part, China has been engaged in providing rhetorical, political and diplomatic support to Russia, but we have information that gives us concern that they are considering providing lethal support to Russia in the war against Ukraine."
The secretary of state did not reveal any details regarding the information the US claims to have in this regard. The interview was given two weeks ago.
CIA Director William Burns confirmed the US suspicions in an interview on CBS News on February 26. Burns said that "We're confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment." Burns continued that the US decision to make the news public was intended to deter Beijing from moving ahead with the plan.
No further details have since emerged from official voices. A retired US officer, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, in an interview with the German TV channel BR24, made the specific charge that "China has provided help to Wagner... the Chinese have taken a side." Hodges is the former commander of NATO's Allied Land Command. He left the military in 2017, however, so his words do not represent an official position, and it is not clear on what they are based.
Certainly, any assistance afforded by China to an irregular formation such as the Russian Wagner Private Military Company would appear to be entirely out of character for Beijing. China is known to favor working through strong centralized state authorities and to avoid entanglements with irregular and quasi-state formations.
Chinese involvement in Russia's invasion of Ukraine
So in the absence of any clear subsequent statements emerging from the US government, what can be said regarding these claims? Should they be taken seriously? If there is something to them, what would be the implications of a Chinese supply of arms to Russia's war effort in Ukraine, both in terms of the global strategic situation and in terms of the Middle East?
Regarding the claims themselves, it is notable that an NBC report on this subject on March 3 claimed to reveal some details regarding the process by which the information was gleaned. NBC, quoting "one current and one former US official familiar with the intelligence," contended that the intelligence was obtained from "Russian officials." The report further contended that the US authorities chose not to reveal further details of the information obtained in order to protect these sources (presumably meaning that the officials are currently serving).
In this regard, it should be noted that the current record of US intelligence on the strategic level in the Ukraine conflict is very good. Washington, as is now clear, obtained hard information in late 2021 regarding the upcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine and sought to warn the Ukrainian government and its other allies.
According to a report by the Washington Post on this issue, this "detailed intelligence picture" was "compiled from newly obtained satellite images, intercepted communications and human sources." These were made available because "The US intelligence community had penetrated multiple points of Russia's political leadership, spying apparatus and military, from senior levels to the front lines, according to US officials."
The fact that the US intelligence community appears to have got the Ukrainian invasion right in an impressive way does not mean, of course, that all of its subsequent pronouncements and assessments should be accepted at face value. Its record in recent years until that point is a lot less stellar.
Its failures led, in no small measure, to the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the evidence of recent events in the specific context of Russia and Ukraine does suggest that when top US government officials make statements concerning developments in this regard, they should be taken very seriously.
THE CHINESE Communist Party is not noted for its sentimentality. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has so far mainly been a display of shocking ineptitude. One of its notable byproducts has been swiftly to terminate the image of renewed brutal effectiveness with which its performance against weak enemies in Syria had temporarily endowed the Russian military. China's pattern of behavior globally involves the eschewing of crude displays of conventional military force. It prefers to build influence slowly, through commerce, investment and wealth.
These investments may well be intended for future strategic and military use. They are, it is often said, accompanied by the widespread and ruthless employment of espionage. But conventional military invasions, and especially incompetently managed and executed ones, are not the sort of project one would expect Beijing to get behind. Especially if doing so looks like reinforcing failure.
And yet, Beijing has acted since the Russian invasion as a type of quiet facilitator for Russia – increasing trade and shipments (by more than 26%) over the last year, helping the Russians avoid the impact of international sanctions, and apparently seeking in its "mediation," efforts to halt or freeze the conflict on terms advantageous for Russia. Beijing may not have wanted the Russian invasion, but it is clearly engaged in a broader strategy of competition with the US in which Russia is a problematic partner. As such, China surely wishes to avoid the strategic defeat of the Russian invasion.
At present, as the Russians bleed themselves in the strategically inconsequential town of Bakhmut in the Donbas, Western weapons systems – Leopard 2 tanks among them – are making their way to Ukraine. A hammer is being made ready, and it is likely to fall sometime in the spring or summer. It is therefore entirely plausible that China might wish quietly to reinforce its ally so as to balance out this Ukrainian advantage and prevent the eclipse of Russian war aims.
FINALLY, WHAT are the implications of this? If (as I would cautiously predict) it turns out to be true, it should be added to the head of the list of recent events and developments suggesting the slow emergence of a global, anti-Western bloc of states and movements, in which China is set to be by far the most powerful and consequential element. The parallel emergence of a strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, forms an additional part of the same picture. Frozen (soon to thaw) eastern Ukraine is a long way from the Middle East. But what happens there matters here.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.