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How China indirectly supports Russia's war in Ukraine

May 16, 2024

The relationship between Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping is even more important now that China is Russia's main supplier of microelectronics, which are vital to the war in Ukraine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, October 18, 2023
Russia's war in Ukraine may be a topic at talks between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin this weekImage: Suo Takekuma/REUTERS

China has become the main supplier of microelectronics and machine tools for Russian weapons, and NATO countries are worried Russia may use these weapons on targets well beyond Ukraine.

In late 2023, the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) concluded in an analysis that, in the worst-case scenario, NATO had only five more years to ensure that the 32-country bloc has the potential to deter a possible Russian attack on a NATO member.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin needs the war to continue because he has conjured up so many specters that may be unable to accept peace," the study's author, Christian Mölling, head of the DGAP's Center for Security and Defense, told DW.

Russia and NATO headed for confrontation?

"The ongoing large-scale military reforms indicate Russia may be preparing for a confrontation with NATO within the next two decades, including a large-scale conventional war," found an April study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.

The report, entitled "Back in Stock? The State of Russia's Defense Industry after Two Years of the War," tracks the foreign supply of goods to the Russian arms industry and the circumvention of Western sanctions since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian electronics imports bypass Western sanctions

For the study, researchers analyzed publicly available data on the trade of goods to Russia — especially in relation to microelectronics for missiles and glide bombs used in Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russian glide bombs pose increasing threat in Ukraine

CSIS also looked at trade in CNC machines, computer-controlled instruments used for metal processing which are needed for the construction of artillery shells and other ammunition.

"Russia's defense industry has found ways to get what it needs to ramp up arms production," the CSIS analysis found. "The Kremlin has continued to rely on foreign components imported via a complicated network of intermediaries. This has proved critical to sustaining the Russian military in Ukraine."

According to the report, China has been Russia's most important supplier since summer 2023. "Nearly all of the top exporters of microelectronics are based in China and Hong Kong, with one entity based in Turkey," said the report.

Russia sees surge in Chinese imports

There was a sudden influx in shipments of high-priority items from China to Russia in March 2023, when President Xi Jinping visited Russia.

"Russian imports of CNC machines — which are used to provide precise parts for various weapons systems from ammunition to aircraft — from Chinese companies also experienced a sharp increase in the months following the Xi-Putin March 2023 meeting," wrote CSIS.

In several charts, the center showed that companies from China and Hong Kong supplied Russia with electronics between 200,000 and 300,000 times a month between March and July 2023.

A particularly salient point is the comparison of drone deliveries.

"Within the first six months of 2023, Russia received at least $14.5 million [€13.2 million] in direct drone shipments from Chinese trading companies, while Ukraine received only around $200,000 worth of shipments."

"Even though Ukraine still managed to obtain millions of dollars’ worth of Chinese-made drones and components, most came from European intermediaries."

China and Russia — true friends or marriage of convenience?

Some of the companies from China and Hong Kong that are supplying Russia are also said to be doing business with Ukraine.

This puts the European Union and the United States in a tricky position, as they are imposing sanctions on companies that supply Russia's arms industry. Trade restrictions against these companies in Asia could also end up affecting Ukraine as well.

Ultimately, the US researchers concluded that "Russia's industrial sector has become fully dependent on China for machine tools, and components critical to arms manufacturing."

This is consistent with investigations in Ukraine where Russian missiles, glide bombs and drones have been intercepted by the Ukrainian air defense system and dismantled into their individual parts.

Since 2023, the Ukrainian army has primarily identified Chinese-made electronics in Russian weapons, said sanctions expert Vladyslav Vlasiuk from the Ukrainian presidential administration.

In the first year of the war, Ukraine was able to recover numerous Western high-tech products from Russian weapons — many of them from Europe and especially from Germany.

A Grad multiple rocket launcher fires off the back of a truck in a grassy field surrounded by trees.
This 2023 image, supplied by Russia's state TASS agency, shows Russian forces firing a multiple rocket launcherImage: Alexei Konovalov/TASS via picture alliance

Russian weapons less high-tech

In comparison to before it invaded Ukraine, Russia is now producing more ammunition and weapons without Western high-tech components. This has primarily included glide bombs and Shahed drones originating in Iran.

Since early 2024, Russia's air force has been using these drones to increasingly overcome the air defenses of Ukraine, which itself is short on Western missiles.

At the moment, it's a battle between cheaply manufactured artillery shells and glide bombs with Chinese electronics against highly sophisticated Western anti-aircraft missiles, of which Ukraine has far too few.

"If all of the imports of microelectronics to Russia stop tomorrow, they won't be able to produce the weapons," Vlasiuk told DW.

Russia has already successfully adapted its high-tech arms industry to use simpler components mainly sourced from China.

"In terms of the key components and electronics the Kremlin needs for its war machine," wrote CSIS in its analysis, "it has moved away from tailored high-end military components toward dual-use or even purely civilian technologies."

In other words, Russia has moved toward using items that are not covered by Western arms sanctions.

Are Russia's latest weapons game-changing?

Mykola Berdnyk contributed to this article, which was originally written in German.

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