U.S., Russia and China
As conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensifies this spring, China’s potential support for Russia may also intensify.
Renewed offensives by Russia and Ukraine, that are anticipated for this spring, may have already begun. Or at least to some observers, Russia has been conducting the beginnings of its anticipated offensive for the past 2-3 weeks. The war, which slowed in December and January, will pick up in intensity as the weather warms and as larger stockpiles of Western military equipment, including armored vehicles necessary for maneuver warfare, reach Ukraine. Russia, in turn, has called up roughly 500,000 recruits and may have now trained and deployed them to the Donbas region of Ukraine. Which side sees greater success in the spring and summer will have a significant impact on the course of the larger war. This means that both sides, and their supporting states, may be willing to take larger risks, which will mean an increasing impact in political, economic, and military terms beyond Ukraine’s borders.
For example, China may provide lethal military aid to Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had recently cancelled his scheduled trip to Beijing over the Chinese spy-balloon incident, warned his Chinese counterpart against such a move at the Munich Security Conference. Beijing has so far been treading an interesting middle road on the conflict – on the one hand making it clear that they would like the war to stop (and preferred Russia had not initiated it in the first place), but on the other buying Russian oil and other commodities and providing non-lethal assistance to Moscow.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to make what is billed as a “peace speech” on February 24, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. China’s foreign minister criticized the West for supporting Ukraine and not doing enough to encourage peace. It is not clear what China has done, or is doing, to encourage Russia to stop the war. Beijing knows that Putin has now put himself in a corner and will not negotiate absent significant gains on the ground. This may be Beijing’s calculus – provide weapons to Russia to support gains and then push for a negotiated settlement. China may also believe that hinting at lethal aid for Russia may scare a West that does not want an endless war and does not want to become engaged in a military-industrial contest with both Russia and China. Beijing may hope that the West will pressure Ukraine to negotiate.
The issues with such a strategy are threefold. First, Washington is already threatening wider and deeper sanctions directly against China if it provides lethal military assistance to Russia. Such a step could accelerate an existing trend of onshoring and reshoring by Western companies as well as leading to the strengthening of a Russia-Iran-China economic and strategic axis. Second, if Russia were to make gains on the ground with Chinese military aid, it is unclear that Putin would stop or settle for something less than the complete subjugation of Ukraine. Finally, Chinese lethal military aid may not make a difference if it does not arrive in sufficient time or numbers or because Russia simply does not have the trained manpower to make good use of it in time. Meanwhile, Ukraine could conduct a series of successful offensives in the coming months, pressuring Putin to escalate. Such escalation could come in the form of threatening nuclear use, cutting off Ukrainian grain shipments, and/or attacking NATO countries openly.