US officials say Russia has asked China for military and economic assistance for the Ukraine war

WASHINGTON – Russia asked China to give it military equipment and support for the war in Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion last month, according to US officials.

Russia has also asked China for additional economic assistance, to help counter the damage to its economy from sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States and European and Asian countries, according to an official.

US officials, intent on keeping their intelligence-gathering means on Russia’s requests secret, declined further to describe what kind of military weapons or assistance Moscow was seeking. Officials also declined to discuss any reaction from China to the requests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping cemented his partnership with Mr. Putin and stood by him as Russia ramped up its military campaign in Ukraine, razing cities and killing hundreds or thousands of civilians. US officials are watching China closely to see if it will act on any requests for assistance from Russia. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Monday in Rome with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party of China’s elite Politburo and director of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Sullivan had intended to warn Mr. Yang about any future Chinese efforts to support Russia in its war or to undermine Ukraine and the United States and their partners. The meeting came a day after US officials told the New York Times of Russia’s request for military and economic aid from China. It was scheduled before the start of the war in Ukraine and was to serve as a follow-up discussion of a video conference meeting between President Biden and Mr. Xi in November.

“We are communicating privately with Beijing that there will certainly be consequences for efforts to evade large-scale sanctions or support Russia to refill them,” Mr. Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

“We will not allow this to go ahead and allow Russia to have a lifeline from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan made no explicit mention of possible military support from China, but other US officials spoke of Russia’s request on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of diplomatic and intelligence matters.

Liu Bingyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said he had never heard of Russia’s request. “The current situation in Ukraine is really worrying,” he said, adding that Beijing wants to see a peaceful settlement. “The top priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even spiraling out of control.”

The Biden administration is seeking to determine the consequences of its alliance with Russia and the sanctions it will face if it continues or increases its support for China. Some US officials argue that it may be possible to dissuade Beijing from stepping up its assistance to Moscow. These US officials say Chinese leaders may be content with providing rhetorical support to Moscow and may not want to get involved further with Mr. Putin by providing military support for the war.

Mr. Sullivan said that China “knew before the invasion that Vladimir Putin was planning something,” but added that the Chinese may not have known the full extent of the Russian leader’s plans. “It is very possible that Putin lied to them, in the same way that he lied to Europeans and others,” he said.

Mr. Xi has met Mr. Putin 38 times as national leaders, more than any other head of state, and the two share a drive to weaken American power.

Traditionally, China has bought military equipment from Russia and not the other way around. Russia has increased its arms sales to China in recent years. But China has advanced missile and drone capabilities that Russia can use in its campaign against Ukraine.

Although Russia on Sunday launched a missile barrage at a military training ground in western Ukraine that killed at least 35 people, there is some evidence that Russian missile supplies are running out, according to independent analysts.

Last week, the White House criticized China for helping to spread the Kremlin’s disinformation about the United States and Ukraine. In recent days, Chinese diplomats, state media organizations, and government agencies have used a combination of platforms and official social media accounts to amplify a conspiracy theory that the Pentagon is funding biological and chemical weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Right-wing political figures in the United States have also promoted this theory.

On Friday, Russia called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to present its allegations regarding the laboratories, and the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, supported his Russian counterpart.

“Now that Russia has made these false allegations, and China appears to have endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia for its potential use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using it,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary , wrote on Twitter last Wednesday.

China is also involved in Iran’s nuclear negotiations, which have stalled due to new demands from Russia on easing sanctions imposed by Western countries in response to the Ukraine war.

US officials are trying to determine to what extent China will support Russia’s position in those talks. Before Russia made the requests, officials from the countries involved were about to hammer out a version of the Obama-era nuclear border agreement that President Donald J. Trump withdrew from. Mr. Sullivan may raise Iran with Yang on Monday.

Current and former US officials say the Rome meeting is important, given the lives at stake in the Ukraine war and the potential for Russia and China to form a geopolitical united front against the United States and its allies in the coming years.

“This meeting is a crucial and perhaps a defining moment in the relationship,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

“I think what the United States will likely do is to determine the costs and consequences of China’s complicity and the potential enabling potential of a Russian invasion,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the administration has any illusions that the United States can pull China away from Russia.”

Some US officials are looking for ways to force Mr. Xi to distance himself from Mr. Putin over the war. Others see Mr. Xi as a lost cause and prefer to treat China and Russia as committed partners, hoping that it will spur policies and coordination between Asian and European allies to contain them.

Chinese officials have consistently expressed sympathy for Russia during the Ukraine war by repeating Mr. Putin’s criticism of NATO and blaming the United States for starting the conflict. They refrain from any mention of a Russian “war” or “invasion”, though they express general concern about the humanitarian crisis.

They mention support for “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a common phrase in Chinese diplomacy, but do not explicitly mention the sovereignty of the country they support – meaning the phrase could be interpreted as support for Ukraine or an endorsement of Mr. Putin’s claims to reclaim Imperial Russia.

China and Russia released a 5,000-word statement on February 4, saying their partnership was “limitless” when Mr. Putin met Mr. Xi ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. At about that time, senior Chinese officials told top Russian officials not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Games, according to US and European officials who cited a Western intelligence report.

Beginning last November, US officials have quietly held talks with Chinese officials, including the ambassador in Washington and the secretary of state, to discuss intelligence showing Putin mobilizing forces to persuade the Chinese to tell the Russians not to go to war, US officials said. US officials said that Chinese officials rejected the Americans at every meeting and expressed doubts that Mr. Putin intended to invade Ukraine.

William J. Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said Thursday at a Senate hearing that he believed Mr. Xi was “unstable” because of the Ukraine war.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Xi repeated China’s usual talking points about the war in a video call with the leaders of France and Germany. He also said that all countries should show “the utmost restraint” and that China is “deeply saddened by the outbreak of war again on the European continent,” according to a Chinese statement. He did not say that Russia started the fight.

US and European officials say large Chinese companies will likely refrain from publicly violating sanctions against Russia for fear of jeopardizing their global trade. On Thursday, some Russian news articles and commentaries questioned China’s commitment to Russia after news agencies reported that China was refusing to send aircraft parts to the country.

Russia, as US officials often remind the public, has relatively few friends or allies. The officials said that Russia’s outreach to its partners is a sign of the difficulties it is facing in trying to bring Ukraine to heel.

As the United States and Europe increased pressure and sanctions, Moscow sought more help.

In preparing for war, Russia got help from Belarus, using its territory to launch part of the invasion. Minsk also tried to help Moscow evade sanctions. These actions prompted the European Union to impose sanctions on Belarus. Sanctions limit the flow of money to Belarus from Europe and prevent some Belarusian banks from using the SWIFT system for financial messaging.

Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, accused Belarus of being a “co-aggressor” and “stabbing your neighbor in the back,” referring to Ukraine.

Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko said that his army would not take part in the war. But Russia fired missiles from Belarus and evacuated some wounded Russian soldiers to hospitals in that country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who owes his government’s survival to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, also announced his support for the Moscow invasion. The Pentagon said that Russia has tried to recruit Syrian fighters to join the Ukraine war.

While there are no details about how many recruits Moscow has recruited or whether they have made it to Ukraine, US officials said Russia’s efforts were indicative of the strategic and tactical problems plaguing its leaders.

European officials said that before the war began, Russian military contractors with experience fighting in Syria and Libya secretly entered eastern Ukraine to help lay the groundwork for the invasion.

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