U.K.: China Views Russia’s War as ‘Bad for Business’

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Beijing views Moscow as an increasingly “inconvenient friend” as the war in Ukraine is further bogged down.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk by a row of troops
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk by a row of troops
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) reviews a military honor guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) in Beijing on June 8, 2018. Greg Baker/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

China appears to be increasingly embarrassed by Russia’s conduct of its war in Ukraine, Britain’s defense secretary told reporters on Tuesday, underlining a growing split in the once-budding relationship between the two powers that has dissuaded Beijing from providing material support to Moscow over the course of the ongoing conflict. 

In more than two months of war, while China has refused to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion and has helped parrot Russian disinformation, it has also stopped short of providing real support for the Kremlin’s war effort. There was speculation that China could supply rations for hard-pressed Russian troops or backfill Russian arms needs, but that hasn’t come to pass. China’s top drone-maker, DJI, suspended operations in Russia and Ukraine in late April, depriving ill-supplied Russian units of additional capability to send off-the-shelf intelligence into Ukraine’s skies. China has also balked at providing Russia with spare parts for its sanctioned civilian airliner fleet, underscoring Moscow’s isolation under an array of economic and financial sanctions. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said that there was no indication that Beijing was supplying anything of scale.

“I think China views instability [as] bad for business,” British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace said. “I think probably China is rather embarrassed by the behavior of Putin. He’s a rather inconvenient friend, and … you don’t see a full-throated support.”

China appears to be increasingly embarrassed by Russia’s conduct of its war in Ukraine, Britain’s defense secretary told reporters on Tuesday, underlining a growing split in the once-budding relationship between the two powers that has dissuaded Beijing from providing material support to Moscow over the course of the ongoing conflict. 

In more than two months of war, while China has refused to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion and has helped parrot Russian disinformation, it has also stopped short of providing real support for the Kremlin’s war effort. There was speculation that China could supply rations for hard-pressed Russian troops or backfill Russian arms needs, but that hasn’t come to pass. China’s top drone-maker, DJI, suspended operations in Russia and Ukraine in late April, depriving ill-supplied Russian units of additional capability to send off-the-shelf intelligence into Ukraine’s skies. China has also balked at providing Russia with spare parts for its sanctioned civilian airliner fleet, underscoring Moscow’s isolation under an array of economic and financial sanctions. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said that there was no indication that Beijing was supplying anything of scale.

“I think China views instability [as] bad for business,” British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace said. “I think probably China is rather embarrassed by the behavior of Putin. He’s a rather inconvenient friend, and … you don’t see a full-throated support.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasing international isolation—and the threat of courting opprobrium from the West—are making it more difficult for countries to do business with Russia during the Ukraine war. “How many world leaders are going to be taking Putin on line two?” Wallace added.

Wallace and other top British officials, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have taken to calling Russia a “pariah state” to call attention to Moscow’s international isolation since the invasion of Ukraine, with Qatar, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, and Finland among the non-NATO countries joining a U.S.-led gathering of 40 nations helping to arm Ukraine. Wallace said when he traveled to Moscow before the war to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, he told Kremlin officials that Europeans would wean off of Russian natural gas imports “bit by bit,” forcing greater Russian reliance on the Chinese market. (The European Union has taken steps to reduce consumption of Russian gas, but Hungary—a Putin ally inside NATO—has so far blocked the EU from imposing a blanket ban on imports of Russian oil.)

But Russia may not need China to supply howitzers and helicopters. Some former officials worry that Western sanctions aren’t enough to deter China from supplying Russia with critical materials. They say the United States and European allies should be doing more to cover up gaps in sanctions and export control regimes—or even launch a full economic embargo of Russia along the lines of long-standing U.S. policy toward Iran and Cuba. 

“China has the key supply chains to many sorts of items that you need for your military equipment,” said Nazak Nikakhtar, a former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce during the Trump administration and now a partner at Wiley Rein LLP, a law firm. “There’s still an ability through China, through our lax rules, through our allies, for Russia to get the things that it needs to continue to build dangerous weapons.”

But Russia’s relationship with China is also competitive, as the two grapple for influence everywhere from the Arctic and Central Asia to Central Africa. Wallace said Russia is “really worried” about China dominating the high north and could be in a weaker position coming out of the invasion. He said that Russia’s losses—which the British government has pegged at some 15,000 troops, while the Ukrainian government has tallied over 25,000—have likely demoralized leadership. The Kremlin appears to be taking troops out of Syria and other overseas bases, such as Georgia, Libya, and Mali, to cover for tens of thousands of losses, and it seems to be replacing regular forces with Wagner Group mercenaries. And Russia is likely to continue to take heavy losses by trying to use larger numbers of less-trained forces to overwhelm the Ukrainians in the Donbas. “Their solution is just cannon fodder,” Wallace said.

It’s not just a question of what Russia’s not getting. There’s also the question of what Russia has to offer. Russian gear—from jets to helicopters to advanced battle tanks—have been massacred in the fighting so far. That could have implications for China, which has based its fighter jets and some surface-to-air missiles on Russian designs. And Ukraine’s defeat of top-level Russian military equipment, such as Sukhoi fighter jets and modern T-90 tanks, with handheld Western-made weapons, such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and British-made NLAWs, is leading Russia’s military customers to think twice about buying more equipment. 

“Who’s going to be buying Russian kit? We have seen in Libya, in Syria, in Azerbaijan, and now in Ukraine, Russian equipment being defeated by predominantly handheld equipment,” Wallace said. “When a TB-2 [drone] takes out your SA-22 [Russian missile defense system] … I think that has an impact on what is Russia’s offer.” Russia’s inability to coordinate air and ground forces on the way to Kyiv also allowed Putin’s forces to be bested by less sophisticated Western weapons, Wallace said, and Russia is having similar challenges in the Donbas.

“He’s got to reconcile that in the long run, he’s lost,” Wallace said. “So whatever happens in Ukraine, let’s consider that Russia is a lesser country now than it was before this invasion.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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