China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ Are Having a Field Day With the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Beijing’s social media pugilists are taking the opportunity to troll the U.S. and Europe.

By , policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the Friendship Palace in Beijing on April 26, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/POOL/Kyodonews

Putin’s War

As U.S. and European diplomats scramble to try to stave off another Russian invasion of Ukraine, another major player is capitalizing on the crisis to advance its geopolitical interests: China.

China’s army of so-called wolf warrior diplomats and state media personalities, who aggressively promote Beijing’s objectives online, have taken to Twitter to highlight schisms within Europe, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic alliance, painting the U.S. response as ineffective, its people unsophisticated, and its cities violent. And they are dismissing critical Western media coverage as “disinformation.”

If these narratives sound familiar, it’s because they are: Each is a standard Kremlin-backed trope.

As U.S. and European diplomats scramble to try to stave off another Russian invasion of Ukraine, another major player is capitalizing on the crisis to advance its geopolitical interests: China.

China’s army of so-called wolf warrior diplomats and state media personalities, who aggressively promote Beijing’s objectives online, have taken to Twitter to highlight schisms within Europe, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic alliance, painting the U.S. response as ineffective, its people unsophisticated, and its cities violent. And they are dismissing critical Western media coverage as “disinformation.”

If these narratives sound familiar, it’s because they are: Each is a standard Kremlin-backed trope.

Beijing and Moscow do not appear to be formally coordinating their information strategies. But on Ukraine, their near-term objectives—weakening the trans-Atlantic partnership, undermining European cohesion, disparaging liberal institutions and governments, and discrediting open media—have converged. And the combined effect of their respective propaganda efforts could have a corrosive effect on how this flash point in the contest between autocracies and democracies is perceived around the world.

Beijing’s wolf warriors are hammering the idea that the Ukraine crisis is “blowing holes” in the European project and NATO alliance, and they’re suggesting that the United States is not an effective or respected leader. In part to undermine U.S. warnings of a “swift, severe, and united response” to a Russian incursion, China’s state-funded media regularly call attention to disagreements within the trans-Atlantic alliance—arguing, not entirely without merit, that the episode puts Europe’s desire for an independent foreign policy in “direct conflict” with the United States and is exposing fissures within NATO.

This is in line with the “divide and discredit” strategy that the Kremlin has been running since last year. For weeks, Russian state media and diplomats have been highlighting differences between the United States and its European partners over their Ukraine approach and seeking to cast NATO as the true aggressor in order to dent the alliance’s credibility and appeal.

Beijing is also using the crisis to troll the United States. Chinese diplomats and state media are framing the U.S. State Department as ineffective and the American people as bumbling. After Washington decided to withdraw U.S. Embassy staffers’ families from Ukraine, diplomats and state media amplified Russian propaganda that “Americans are safer in Kiev than they are in Los Angeles … or any other crime-ridden city in the US.”

These, too, are familiar themes. Both Moscow and Beijing frequently depict the United States and other liberal democratic societies as chaotic and feckless. For Beijing, this is part of an attempt to showcase China’s governance model as a desirable alternative—an effort that has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, China’s wolf warriors are borrowing from the Kremlin’s playbook (and its talking points), characterizing critical news coverage—such as a recent report that Chinese President Xi Jinping may have asked Russian President Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine during the upcoming Beijing Olympics—as “disinformation,” echoing their Russian counterparts who called the claim “fake news.”

The report was based on the account of a single, anonymous source, and it has not been confirmed by other authoritative outlets. But a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson went further than merely dismissing its veracity, arguing the report was part of an attempt to “smear and drive a wedge in” Sino-Russian relations—an assertion multiple Chinese officials have repeated.

Beijing’s wolf warriors used similar tactics to boost Putin’s attempts to discredit the U.K. government’s warning that Russia plans to install a pro-Kremlin leader in Ukraine.

As a means of shoring up their grip on power, both Xi and Putin have an interest in denigrating the free press and discrediting those who would hold them accountable for, or build norms against, their efforts to interfere in democratic states and institutions.

Beijing has taken a similar approach in its coverage of Kazakhstan, the other major crisis brewing in the region. There, China’s state-funded media have amplified Kremlin talking points about “destructive external interference,” suggesting foreign forces are behind the recent protests. Along with Beijing’s diplomats, they have mocked U.S. media coverage of that situation and hailed Sino-Russian unity on the path forward.

None of this is entirely a surprise. In Kazakhstan as in Ukraine, discrediting political protesters, disparaging open media, tarnishing U.S. soft power, and deflecting attention from their interference activities are goals Moscow and Beijing both hold.

Even as they share a degree of common cause, though, Moscow and Beijing don’t appear to be synchronizing their information efforts in any formal way beyond a few largely symbolic agreements to distribute one another’s content through state media. But that shouldn’t be surprising, since neither party depends on a partnership to achieve its goals. Moscow has been operating from this playbook independently for some time, and Beijing can emulate the moves of its choosing.

Over the long term, Moscow and Beijing are operating from very different strategic positions and in the service of very different objectives. Russia, a declining power by most measures, seeks to compensate for its relative weakness by undermining the institutions and alliances of its liberal democratic competitors. Its activities are primarily destructive, aimed at sowing chaos and disorder. With little to lose and much to gain from attribution for its destabilizing activities, the Kremlin is not particularly concerned about the fingerprint, or the aftermath, it leaves behind.

China, on the other hand, is a rising power with much to lose, and as such it has traditionally been considerably more risk-averse and patient. It does not seek disorder but rather a new order more conducive to its interests. That may inhibit closer ties between the two parties over time.

But here and now, and in particular in Ukraine, Putin and Xi have multiple overlapping aspirations, and their propaganda efforts are mutually reinforcing, regardless of whether they are explicitly or intentionally coordinated. Both seek to erode U.S. soft power, undermine European cohesion, and exacerbate trans-Atlantic divides to weaken democratic competitors abroad. Both aim to depress trust in authoritative media and undermine democratic norms around free expression to tighten their grasp on power at home. Each stands to benefit from the work of the other.

That may be especially true for Xi. Moscow’s efforts to promote divisive content that drives polarization up and trust down erodes the appeal of democratic governance. That creates space for Beijing to tout the strengths of its own model as an alternative. As a result, Moscow’s and Beijing’s separate efforts could have a compounding detrimental effect on the health and strength of democratic systems that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Twitter is of course banned in China, and Beijing’s tweets, which, like Moscow’s, appear in multiple languages, are meant to shape how the rest of the world views the United States, Europe, NATO, and the open media. If Xi, like Putin, succeeds at denting the global appeal and prestige of democratic states, institutions, and norms, he will have succeeded at making the world safer for autocracy.

Jessica Brandt is policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology. Twitter: @jessbrandt

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