Does China Quietly Have Russia’s Back in Invading Ukraine?

While both countries face hostility from Western democracies, experts say Beijing’s support for Putin is not a given.
Russia China Ukraine Putin
China and Russia have moved closer in recent years, as both countries engage in rising tensions with Western democracies. Photo: GREG BAKER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia deploys troops in Russia-backed separatist territories in Ukraine, a major step toward what Western officials warned could be a full-scale invasion, its most important geopolitical partner, China, is taking an ambiguous stance—at least in public. 

Beijing has refrained from explicitly supporting or opposing Moscow’s aggression as tensions escalated over the past few days. As Russia faced a chorus of condemnations at the UN Security Council on Monday, Chinese officials made vague calls for restraint and peaceful solutions.

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On the tightly controlled Chinese internet, state media have published subdued reports about the conflict. Chinese citizens in Ukraine were told by the foreign ministry to avoid going to unstable areas in the country and to stock up food. 

“The legitimate security concerns of any country shall be respected,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as telling the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday. In the latest address, Wang omitted his previous emphasis on Ukraine’s territorial integrity while calling for dialogue.

Despite Beijing’s intention to stay out of the conflict itself, it plays a major enabling role in the crisis as Russia’s most powerful ally, some analysts have argued. As its biggest trading partner, China’s economic backing helps Russia survive potential isolation and sanction efforts by Western countries, and allows Russia to focus its military activities on its western border.

“No one in the Kremlin in Moscow is expecting for China to come out and start saying, ’We fully support what the Russians are doing,’” said Alexey Muraviev, a national security and strategic expert at Australia’s Curtin University. Beijing’s “ambiguity is acceptable for the Russians,” he said.

The authoritarian governments of China and Russia have become the closest in decades, as both view themselves as facing hostility from Western democracies. Earlier this week, Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics with Chinese President Xi Jinping, amid a Washington-led diplomatic boycott. 

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They expressed joint opposition toward a further expansion of NATO, indicating Beijing is backing Moscow in objecting to Ukraine’s membership in the U.S.-led security alliance. The two leaders also signed oil and gas deals worth an estimated $117.5 billion.

“The supply of these energy resources to China makes Russia far less susceptible to any economic pressures that may come on as a result of the West imposing sanctions,” Muraviev said. He said that Russia moving troops from Siberia and the Far East, near the Russia-China border, to its western borders also showed Moscow’s trust in Beijing. 

But some experts say Beijing’s support for Putin is not a given. His recognition of two pro-Russia areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states has put the Chinese leadership in an awkward position, given Beijing’s longstanding position against separatism and diplomatic interference.

“On the one hand, they are deepening their strategic ties with Russia, and a lot of that is premised on the common goal of countering, from Moscow and Beijing's perspective, U.S. hegemony worldwide,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp. 

“On the other hand, China’s really uncomfortable with what Russia seems to be about to do in Ukraine, because that would be one sovereign country invading and destroying another sovereign country.” 

Grossman said Beijing, if perceived to be a supporter of a Russia invasion, could also get on the bad side of eastern European countries that have been more friendly toward China. China has significant infrastructure and energy investments in European countries, including Ukraine itself, as part of its Belt and Road Project. 

But if China does quietly back Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine, it won’t be the first time. In 2014, China abstained from voting on a Security Council resolution over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Chinese state banks later provided loans for Russian state-owned banks that were sanctioned by the West.

Xi might have decided his long-term friendship with Putin outweighs all the risks, according to a Foreign Affairs analysis by experts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, since Russia could return the support if and when China moves to take Taiwan by force, action that could also prompt Western sanctions.