March 2, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S., Allies Should Swiftly Penalize China for Supporting Russia’s War Against Ukraine

March 2, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S., Allies Should Swiftly Penalize China for Supporting Russia’s War Against Ukraine

China is allegedly considering supplying Russia with lethal military assistance, including Shahed-like suicide drones and artillery ammunition. This assistance could have a significant impact on the battlefield in Ukraine, depending on the type and quantity provided.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in February that Chinese firms have already provided non-lethal aid to Russia’s war effort. This assistance allegedly includes satellite imagery for Russia’s Wagner Group as well as body armor and helmets. In addition, China has emerged as the chief lifeline for Russia’s defense industrial base. Russian firms routinely circumvent Western export controls by procuring microelectronics and other sensitive products through China-based traders and shell companies. Chinese firms, including state-owned enterprises, have also continued to supply sanctioned Russian defense contractors with goods such as navigation equipment and fighter jet parts.

Now, Beijing is “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia,” Blinken alleged. On Thursday, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that the Russian military and China’s Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology are negotiating a deal under which the company would produce and test a hundred ZT-180 one-way attack drones, delivering them to Moscow by April. Russia would also receive components and know-how enabling it to produce 100 of the drones per month.

The ZT-180 reportedly carries a 35-50-kilogram warhead and has a design similar to the Iranian-made Shahed-136. Russia began using the Shahed-136 last year, mainly to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure, especially the power grid. With a larger quantity of suicide drones, Russia could increase the size and frequency of its barrages, further straining Ukrainian air defenses.

Furthermore, according to U.S. government sources cited by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, China may supply Russia with artillery ammunition, although CNN reported the ammunition would likely be for small arms rather than artillery.

Russia’s military, like Ukraine’s, relies heavily on artillery. Throughout the war, availability of artillery ammunition has greatly influenced battlefield outcomes. In their Donbas campaign last year, Russian forces inched forward thanks to enormous volumes of artillery fire. More recently, withering barrages have helped Russia advance in and around Bakhmut. However, Moscow’s stockpiles appear to be dwindling, forcing Russia to conserve ammunition.

This shortage will worsen unless Russia can secure substantial supplies from abroad. Moscow has reportedly received some artillery ammunition from North Korea and Iran, but China could potentially send much more, enabling Russia to employ a higher rate of fire or its current rate for longer. This could help Russia frustrate Ukrainian advances, occupy more territory, and prolong the war.

Washington has already warned Beijing that it will face “real costs” if it provides lethal aid to Russia. At a minimum, the United States should sanction culpable Chinese firms.

But Washington should not wait for Beijing to send lethal aid before acting. Many Chinese companies have engaged in sanctionable activity by providing other sorts of support to Russia’s war machine, but Treasury has designated only a fraction of them. That should change.

The United States should also push European allies — many of which have been slower than the United States to cut ties with companies linked to the Chinese military — to join the U.S. sanctions. In addition to helping prevent China from exploiting gaps in Western sanctions regimes, European participation would make clear to Beijing that supporting Russian aggression in Ukraine puts at risk China’s economic ties with Europe.

Failing to penalize Chinese entities that engage in sanctionable activity with Russian defense companies undermines the credibility and efficacy of U.S. sanctions threats. Conversely, swiftly targeting those entities could help deter Beijing from deepening its support for Moscow’s war effort.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from the authors and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


China Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance