How Beijing Is Lending Moscow’s War Effort a Hand
While China has observed Western arms sanctions against Russia so far, it has rapidly developed into the leading provider of dual-use goods.
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 and the introduction of Western military-technological sanctions, the issue of Russia-China military cooperation has become increasingly relevant. The main question is whether Moscow might be able to mitigate the effects of Western technological sanctions by strengthening military cooperation with Beijing.
Asymmetric Military-Technological Cooperation since 2014
The first Western sanctions, in response to Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, started to hit Russia’s military-industrial complex. Russia was now banned from importing weapon systems and also several components from the West. A well-known fact is that, due to these sanctions, France cancelled the contract for the delivery of helicopter-carrying Mistral attack ships, agreed upon only in 2011. Had the Russian fleet possessed Mistral ships in 2022, the defense of Mykolaiv and Odesa would have been a lot more complicated.
A lesser known element is that the Russian navy suffered also because Western-made ship engines have become unavailable, such as the ones produced by Finland’s Wärtsila or Germany’s MAN. Evidently, Ukrainian-made engines also became inaccessible after 2014. Several Russian ship-building projects had to be redesigned due to the shortage of proper engines, including the Buyan-M and Karakurt-class corvettes and the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates.
As a reaction to the worsening relations with the West and the emerging shortages of components, Russia started to intensify military-technological cooperation with China from 2014 onward. However, this resulted in a rather asymmetrical trend. Partially as gestures of goodwill, Russia sold China the modern S-400 air defense missile system as early as the summer of 2014, followed by the sale of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet in late 2015. In other words, Moscow exported the most high-tech systems it could provide to China.
Meanwhile, Beijing reacted with less enthusiasm. In terms of ship engines, the motors provided by Beijing hardly satisfied the needs of the Russian navy. The Chinese substitutes of Western diesel engines were derivatives of civilian ones, which fell short of the performance, reliability, and flexibility-related requirements of military use. In other cases, China could provide no alternative solution at all. While the production of the Buyan and Karakurt ships could eventually continue, once Russia managed to develop its own engines, in the case of the Admiral Grigorich-class frigates no proper substitute engine could be found; hence, the project had to be scrapped.
Russia’s Needs Are Growing
Since Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine started in February 2022, Moscow’s needs for additional military supplies and technology have been steadily growing, due to two main reasons. The first one is evidently the battlefield losses suffered by the Russian forces. Based on the available open-source information collected by the ORYX group, the Russian ground forces lost more than 2100 tanks, some 2500 infantry fighting vehicles, and nearly a thousand artillery systems, including destroyed, damaged, and captured ones. Russia’s military industry is unable to replace these losses with modern equipment at the pace they are occurring. Hence, Moscow increasingly needs to deploy re-activated, hastily modernized, outdated ex-Soviet vehicles.
The situation is particularly severe regarding tanks. Moscow had approximately 3,400 active service tanks before the war. Losing more than 2,100 of these is a tragically high ratio. As a result, Russia needs to increasingly rely on antique T-62 tanks (the number 62 means that the original model entered service in the Soviet army in 1962); moreover, some T-55s have been spotted as well.
The second reason why Moscow needs more active military cooperation with China is the introduction of new Western sanctions since February 2022, which are significantly more severe than the ones imposed between 2014 and 2022. The new sanctions banned Russia from accessing even electronic components or parts of military equipment that were not yet sanctioned after 2022. This affected sensors, gyroscopes, computer parts, and several other elements used in hundreds of Russian weapon systems.
The voluntary withdrawal of more than a thousand Western companies from the Russian market made the situation even harder. For example, the exit of the automotive giant Bosch led to the Russian military truck factory KAMAZ being forced to stop the production of many of its models (used also as chasses for air defense systems and special equipment) until the Bosch injectors used in them could be replaced by Russian—and, increasingly, Chinese—models.
Of course, in addition to using reserves stockpiled before 2022, Russia and its industrial leaders have been remarkably successful in circumventing the sanctions, by finding sources of gray imports. Hence, the collapse of the Russian military industry could be avoided. Alternative supply chains have been established, using third countries, shell companies, and several other means and ways. However, gray imports are always unpredictable and vulnerable to further sanctions, as well as to the stronger implementation of the existing ones. Hence, in the long run Russia needs to strengthen its own domestic productions capabilities, and where this is technologically not possible, increasingly rely on more established, predictable partnerships with other producers who can produce high-tech equipment and did not join Western restrictive measures—again, primarily China.
Political Motives and Limitations
According to a cold-eyed, realist logic, the war is to a certain extent beneficial for China, because the longer it lasts, the more attention and resources the United States is forced to direct at it. In other words, Russia’s war against Ukraine is diverting American political, economic, and military resources that Washington could otherwise use against Beijing. In accordance with this logic, it is in China’s best interest to make sure that Russia does not stop its aggression against Ukraine, but remains in the fight, despite the staggering losses it suffered on the battlefield and despite the massive Western support received by Kyiv.
However, there are limitations, too. The Chinese economy is a lot more integrated into the world market than the Russian one is. While Russia’s exports are dominantly composed of energy resources and, to a smaller extent, weapons, China is a global economic power with immense and very diverse exports. Hence, Beijing cannot—and evidently, does not want to—risk that the West would introduce sanctions against it for violating the ban to supply Russia with weapons, ammunition, or any other lethal aid. This constitutes a significant constraint on Beijing’s willingness to support Russia.
Another constraint is that the scope of such weapons, that China could theoretically provide and Russia could use without major training and infrastructural programs, is rather limited. As stated before, due to the staggering losses suffered in Ukraine, Russia would desperately need modern tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and artillery ammunition, as well as drones.
Regarding tanks, however, Chinese and Russian tank production have been taking different paths, despite the Soviet roots of Chinese tank development. The newest tank type in the inventory of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—or rather, its reserve stockpiles—which is fully compatible with Russia’s tanks is the obsolete Soviet T-54A, which was assembled and later produced in China under the name Type 59. China’s first indigenously developed main battle tank, the Type 69, albeit strongly related to the Soviet T-62, is already a different design. Hence, the newest tank Beijing could theoretically provide to Moscow without much re-training of the crew or the logistics is some 70 years old, and Moscow is not short of antique tanks. Should Moscow and Beijing agree on the shipment of any more modern armor, it would require crew training programs, deployment of logistics, spare parts, and integration with existing systems. In other words, it would not be any less complex than the Western endeavor of providing Ukraine with Leopards or Challengers. The situation is largely similar with infantry fighting vehicles: The paths of Soviet/Russian and Chinese vehicles development parted decades ago; hence, there is practically no interoperability.
Meanwhile, there is a lot more potential in the field of artillery and ammunition. The PLA still has hundreds of ex-Soviet 122mm and 152mm field howitzers and 120mm mortars in service, and thousands in reserve. Ammunition stockpiles for these systems are vast. China received these guns and mortars from Moscow back in the 1950s and 1960s, before the relations between Beijing and Moscow started to turn sour. Hence, even though these systems are already outdated, they could still be put into action. Moreover, during its aggression against Ukraine, the Russian army—and particularly the lesser trained units—has been using huge numbers of these ex-Soviet field artillery pieces and mortars. Should China decide to start transferring its own stockpiles, there would be hardly any interoperability-related problems at all. The question is whether there is the political will to do so, currently apparently absent due to reasons described above. While the US in late February 2023 made public alleged intelligence information on Beijing preparing to do so, so far no such lethal transfers have been documented.
The Potential of Dual-Use
The Chinese leadership is apparently unwilling to risk that its industry and economy fall under Western sanctions by transferring weapons and ammunition to Russia. Meanwhile, however, China has gradually become a crucial supplier of Russia with dual-use technologies. The term dual-use means such products that can be used both for civilian and military purposes: An all-terrain truck can work in the forestry service, or can tow a gun on unpaved roads; a camera drone can take wedding pictures or provide fire coordinates for artillery.
In a recent article Politico uncovered a number of Chinese companies that are delivering huge quantities of allegedly dual-use products to Russia. Various Russian companies imported drones from China worth more than $100 million (!); as light commercial drones used on the frontline (by both sides) cost only a few thousand dollars each, the aggregated value of $100 million means thousands of drones at least. Large shipments of bullet-proof vests and helmets were also provided by Chinese companies to Russian buyers. Contacted by Politico, the companies rejected the suggestion that any of their products could be used for military purposes. Yet, blatant denial is a well-known, integral part of sanctions-circumvention. The use of frequently changing shell companies and off-shore accounts is another tool, which makes both detection and sanctions implementation extremely hard.
Another complicating factor is that dual-use products are often intentionally mis-labelled in order to conceal their real purpose. The same article mentioned “airsoft helmets for paintball games” ordered in large quantities by Russian customers; there was other earlier information on China delivering “hunting rifles” to Russia amidst the ongoing war. De jure, none of these markedly peaceful products would violate any sanctions, because their declared use is civilian (sporting or hunting), but not military. De facto, however, official labels do not always reflect the main purpose or the future use of the given product.
China Will Remain Reluctant
All in all, at present it seems to be unlikely that China would give up its reluctance and start delivering weapons, ammunition, and other lethal military equipment to Russia. While such transfers, depending on their scale, would likely have a meaningful impact on the battlefield dynamics, it is unlikely that Beijing would be willing to risk falling under Western restrictive measures by openly violating the arms sanctions.
Meanwhile, however, China has apparently been successful in mapping out the loopholes both of the legislation and the implementation of sanctions regarding dual-use equipment. As far as it can be reconstructed from open sources, as of July 2023 China has become by far the most important supplier of Russia with a plethora of dual-use products, ranging from small drones to high-tech electronics and personal protective gear. As long as the US and the EU remain unable to convince China to stop doing so, there is no reason to believe that Beijing would abandon this practice, which is highly lucrative both financially and politically. In other words, China is likely to remain a key supplier of the Russian war effort with those dual-use goods that Russia cannot procure from the West anymore.
András Rácz is Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia and Senior Lecturer at the Corvinus University in Budapest. The background research for this article has been supported by the Bolyai János Research Grant of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.