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Watchdog

Tuesday 3 May 2022

A woman in Hong Kong stands in front of TV screens showing the news that Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24.

China has emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation and propaganda for its February invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing officials and state media echoing the Kremlin's justification for the war and often parroting false claims about events while ignoring commentary from Kyiv.

But Chinese state news agency Xinhua made the rare move on April 30 of giving Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba uncensored space to criticize the Kremlin. It also let him push for China to play a larger role in bringing Russia to the negotiating table and warn about the global consequences for Beijing in sticking with Moscow amid mounting international pressure and fallout.

“Russia is jeopardizing Chinese leaders’ Belt and Road Initiative,” Kuleba said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. “This war is not in line with China’s interests. The global food crisis and economic problems...will pose a serious threat to the Chinese economy.”

The interview with Kuleba appeared shortly after a similar one the same day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he pushed familiar Russian talking points about Ukraine being run by far-right nationalists and engaging in a Western-led proxy war with Moscow.

But while the contrasting interviews do not suggest an imminent change in Chinese policy, publishing Kuleba’s words verbatim -- where he painted Russia as a threat to global stability and an unreliable ally for Beijing -- marks an evolving line for Chinese propaganda amid the Ukraine crisis that is slowly incorporating more Ukrainian viewpoints while taking aim at the United States as the instigator of the conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.

Bolstered by nearly a decade of cooperation in international media -- including pledges signed by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin dating back to 2013 -- and a deepening partnership against the West that both leaders characterized as a “no-limits” friendship in February, Chinese state-controlled outlets have helped spread Moscow’s narrative of the war to their massive audiences at home and abroad.

China's tightly controlled media do not refer to the war as a Russian invasion and have instead used the Kremlin terminology, calling it a “special military operation.” Elsewhere, Chinese channels have pushed a Russian false claim that the United States runs dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine, have asserted that the bombing of a children’s hospital in Mariupol and the extrajudicial killing of civilians in the town of Bucha were hoaxes, and have suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was being controlled by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

“The speed with which the topic was seeded into the Chinese information environment shows the ease with which [Chinese and Russian] state-media cooperation can sow disinformation by citing each other as sources and expanding on each other’s angles,” Jerry Yu, an analyst at Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based organization that tracks Chinese disinformation and propaganda, wrote in a recent report.

An Evolving Line

China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and is mostly made up of state-backed outlets, with its Internet and social media platforms monitored by a vast censorship apparatus that removes any information deemed sensitive.

Since Russia’s February 24 invasion, China has walked a careful diplomatic line and looked to distance itself from Moscow’s war while avoiding any criticism of its actions.

While experts say Beijing is highly unlikely to drop Moscow as a partner, they acknowledge that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the economic and political blowback it has caused does not sit well with China and that Beijing may be looking to signal growing displeasure as the war shows no signs of ending.

But any speculation about the resiliency of Beijing’s support for Moscow appears misplaced when looking at the pro-Russian slant within Chinese reports.

Chinese state media still continue to lend their platforms to amplify Russian propaganda, often citing Kremlin officials and Russian-controlled media as their news sources, according to the China Digital Times, a U.S.-based group that tracks Chinese online censorship and discussion, which also notes that outlets receive regular state directives that guide their coverage.

Beijing has stayed consistent since early in the war with its line that NATO -- and the United States in particular -- are to blame for provoking Russia into attacking its neighbor.

People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.
People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.

But the nature of coverage has shifted during the 10 weeks of the conflict.

Some Chinese reports and social media posts have covered news much like that of Western media, pointing to the growing humanitarian cost of the war and efforts by international bodies like the United Nations to provide aid.

But this line has been adopted slowly. The state broadcaster CCTV, for example, didn't mention civilian casualties from Russian attacks until the third week of the war.

While criticism of Zelenskiy has been minimal, so, too, has coverage of the Ukrainian leader.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

His regular speeches to Western parliaments and nightly addresses to his country have received scant coverage with state-run media instead only quoting Zelenskiy when he has criticized Western partners over the lack of energy sanctions or inconsistent military support.

Chinese media also began to focus more coverage on warnings about neo-Nazis in Ukraine, which has been a dominant part of the Kremlin’s justification for invading.

According to a database created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group that tracks Chinese and Russian disinformation, Chinese diplomats and state media have tweeted about neo-Nazis more times since the war began than they did in the six months before.

In one notable example, Li Yang, an official with China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, tweeted a doctored photo in early April that alleged to show a group of neo-Nazis holding a banner with a swastika on it next to Ukrainian and American flags.

“Surprisingly, the [the United States] stands with the neo-Nazis!” Yang wrote above the image, which had a swastika flag inserted in place of a U.S. one that was in the original photo.

That focus on the United States amid the war in Ukraine has been a feature of Chinese coverage since the beginning, but also appears to be becoming a more dominant thread.

'They Killed People Systematically': Bucha Residents Allege War Crimes By Expelled Russian Forces
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Amid reports of atrocities by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian village of Bucha, the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, looked to absolve Russia of responsibility for the killings and instead putt the blame on Washington.

“It is regrettable that after the exposure of the ‘Bucha incident,’ the [United States], the initiator of the Ukraine crisis, has not shown any signs of urging peace and promoting talks, but is ready to exacerbate the Russia-Ukraine tensions,” the editorial said.

Beyond The War Of Words

While the full extent of any direct collusion between China and Russia on propaganda over the Ukraine war is unclear, Beijing’s rhetorical backing of Moscow has left it facing pressure from the European Union and the United States, its two-largest trading partners.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman accused Chinese state media of “parroting the Kremlin’s disinformation” and spreading conspiracy theories in late April while the EU warned Xi and other high-ranking Chinese officials during a late March summit that its support for Russia could jeopardize economic ties with Brussels.

China so far shows no signs of circumventing Western sanctions or rushing in to fill the void left by the departure of Western companies from Russia and U.S. officials told Reuters recently they were “relieved” that Chinese economic and military support has not materialized amid the war.

Writing in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs on May 2, Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, wrote that Moscow’s war has created a “strategic predicament” for China due to heightened international tensions and the disruption of billions of dollars of Chinese trade, but that Beijing is still likely to remain in Russia’s camp.

“China blames the United States for provoking Russia with its support for NATO expansion and worries that Washington will seek to prolong the conflict in Ukraine in order to bog down Russia,” he wrote. “Beijing sees little to gain from joining the international chorus condemning Moscow.

Many experts agree that Russia's offensive in Ukraine's Donbas region has not been going as well as Moscow hoped.

The bluntest assessment of how the Russian military offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is going came from someone in a very good position to know.

"The general conclusion, unfortunately, is bleak,” said Igor Girkin, a notorious Russian military commander and former intelligence officer who played an instrumental role when war first erupted in the Donbas in 2014.

“In the best-case scenario, the enemy will be slowly ‘pushed out’ of the Donbas with large losses (for both sides, of course) across many weeks and possibly many months,” he wrote in a post on his Telegram channel on April 28. “Overall, the enemy is defending competently, fiercely, it controls the situation and its troops.”

Two weeks earlier, a well-known Russian special forces veteran had an even harsher assessment, addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin directly in a video: “Vladimir Vladimirovich: are we fighting a war or are we just masturbating?”

After suffering significant setbacks in the earliest weeks of the invasion of Ukraine, failing to seize Kyiv or other major cities, and incurring major casualties, Russian commanders and political leaders have recalibrated, shifting nearly all military units eastward for an offensive in the Donbas.

Parts of two Donbas provinces -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- have been under the control of Russia-backed separatists since 2014, and Putin declared Russia was recognizing them as independent days before he launched the invasion on February 24.

On April 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that a new Russian offensive had begun. A day later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s goal was the “full liberation” of the two provinces.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

So how is it going? By all accounts, slower than anticipated. Why? That’s a more complicated question.

“It’s not so clear that the offensive has faltered, that it’s not going to deliver results,” said Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst and director of the Polish-based Rochan Consulting.

“My sources in Ukraine are very much concerned about Russian capabilities around Izyum,” he said, referring to a strategically located city in eastern Ukraine and adding that “it’s way too early to say” the Donbas offensive has faltered.

Overall, the Russian military’s failures have surprised many experts, who had predicted its larger and better equipped armed forces would quickly seize major objectives, like Kyiv and port cities such as Mariupol.

Instead, Ukraine’s dogged defenders have inflicted unusually high casualties on Russian troops, as well as taking a severe toll on Russian weapons and equipment -- a fact due in large part to the massive supplies of weaponry being shipped from the West.

Russia has not released casualty figures since March 25, when it said that 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed. Western estimates, however, put Russian losses at well over 15,000, and Ukrainian authorities claim the Russian toll exceeds 20,000. Both of those figures surpass the toll among Soviet troops during the nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“Russia is struggling with their pace of operations, it’s obvious, they have large losses, their tactics have proven unsuccessful, they’re facing a more determined defense,” said Kostas Tigkos, an expert on the Russian military at Janes Group in London. “It wasn’t that they wanted this to be a slow movement in the Donbas.”

Failing Or Merely Slow-Going?

The way the Americans and the British tell it, the offensive is progressing, albeit very slowly.

“We would assess that Russian forces are making slow and uneven and, frankly, we would describe it as incremental progress in the Donbas,” one U.S. defense official said on April 29. “There's a lot of, still, back-and-forth in the Donbas in terms of territory gained and/or lost by, frankly, both sides. So not a huge difference in the picture on the ground in the Donbas.”

“Anemic” is how another senior U.S. defense official described the offensive on May 2.

“Russia still faces considerable challenges. It has been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from the failed advances in northeast Ukraine,” the British Defense Ministry said on May 2. “Many of these units are likely suffering from weakened morale.”

Western officials for weeks have pointed to morale and discipline problems as being a major contributing factor to the underperformance of Russia’s military. That is also believed to be a factor in the unusual number of generals being sent to frontline positions, and then exposed to Ukrainian attack.

The lull in fighting north of Kyiv was closely watched by observers, as Russian forces withdrew and began to reposition to the east as part of a new priority ordered by Putin. Putin also appointed a single commander, Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, to take overall charge of the offensive, something that was absent earlier on.

Since then, however, Russian troops have made only limited gains. For example, around Izyum, reports show that Ukrainian forces have retaken other territory in the Kharkiv region, though it’s unclear whether it was merely due to Russian troops withdrawing. Other intelligence reports have suggested that Russian commanders were seeking a “pincer movement” from the south and the north, to try and encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

That hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway.

“They’re not committing everything at once,” Muzyka said. “It makes me think they are trying to do a piecemeal attack, not wage any substantial operations with these [units] but rather using them one-by-one.”

So is the offensive faltering or merely slow-going?

Johan Norberg, a senior military analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, a government-funded research organization, said those two terms weren’t mutually exclusive.

“The vast majority of Russian power has been consumed by now -- after two months, they’ve taken a pretty heavy beating in terms of fatalities, and they’ve lost lots of equipment,” Norberg told RFE/RL. “They have very little choice but to do it more slowly and methodically.”

“They aren’t dragging out this for fun,” he said.

The question of how the offensive is going opened further this weekend with the visit of Russia’s highest military officer, General Valery Gerasimov, to the frontline town of Izyum, just northwest of the Donbas.

Analysts say it is highly unusual for a senior commander or general to be in a contested frontline position in just about any war; it’s even more unusual given that at least seven Russian generals have been confirmed killed during the Ukraine war.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a top Zelenskiy adviser, said several senior Russian officers were killed on April 30, when Ukrainian forces used rockets and artillery to hit a command post near Izyum, and there were possibly scores of casualties.

Ukrainian Soldiers Say Russian Troops Look 'Desperate' In Battle For Donetsk Region
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Ukrainian forces also asserted that they had repelled a Russian attack there.

Gerasimov, who is chairman of Russia’s joint chiefs of staff, was also reportedly present at the post on April 30, though he had left prior to the Ukrainian barrage. Arsen Avakov, a former Ukrainian Interior Minister, asserted that Gerasimov had been slightly wounded by shrapnel.

“Gerasimov may have been trying to establish why the Russian offensive has largely stalled out on the Izyum axis and whether it is worth continuing to invest in strengthening their offensive grouping in that area instead of switching” forces toward Donetsk, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a May 1 report.

Gerasimov’s visit may be less indicative of problems with leadership and discipline, Norberg said, than simply of Gerasimov not trusting overly rosy reports from frontline commanders, and wanting to see what was happening with his own eyes.

“You want to see for yourself, you want to smell the war, that’s a very much a military instinct,” he said. “I think it’s more like he wants to see what it’s like.”

Take Your Best Shot

In the Donbas, Russian commanders are “gluing together” units, some heavily damaged, from the previous fronts near Kyiv, said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.

“Their odds of success in my view [in the Donbas] are very indeterminate, very contingent,” Kofman said in a podcast on the War On The Rocks website.

Kofman suggested another reason why Russian commanders were moving more slowly and methodically.

“They want basically to take their [best] shot at this, because the truth is after this offensive, the Russian military is a spent force when it comes to their potential for future offensives,” he said. “However this offensive plays out…they do not have the capacity for another major offensive in Ukraine.”

As for larger systemic issues, Norberg said Russia was nearing a major inflection point in the war: A decision on whether to commit more soldiers to the fight, which could entail declaring general mobilization.

“It’s the fog of war and all, but I think there are fewer soldiers in the Russian armed forces than we knew,” Norberg said. “If the pre-war figures were true, if you had more [soldiers], you would add them now.

“But the Russians have not, they don’t have the force to make a decisive move against the Ukrainians,” he said. “Russia doesn’t have the conventional force to make a major move.”

To bring in a major new influx of soldiers, experts said, would potentially require Putin declaring all-out war on Ukraine, possibly framing the fight as one against NATO, and general mobilization -- a major escalation.

“There can be no larger movement of troops, or fresh troops in the next week or two, given simply the available troops on the ground,” Tigkos told RFE/RL. “It is unlikely there will be an intensification of operations, simply because there are not enough troops to cover that entire front.”

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