As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Beijing at a March 23 press conference not to aid Russia in the Ukraine war, a batch of e-mails believed to be sent by Chinese state-sponsored hackers landed in the inboxes of researchers and engineers at several Russian military-development institutes.
The e-mails all carried the same headline purporting to contain Russian names on a U.S. sanctions list over Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but according to a recent report by the Israeli-American cybersecurity firm Check Point, they were part of a multiyear Chinese spy operation against Russia that actually contained documents that installed malware on the sensitive networks after being opened.
Taken together, the two events on the same day in March exemplify the increasingly complex relations between the two countries as they build solidarity over their antagonism toward the United States while simultaneously being tested by the political and economic fallout from Russia’s February 24 invasion.
After three months of war in Ukraine, Beijing still refuses to condemn Moscow's actions and Chinese President Xi Jinping is among the few world leaders yet to have direct talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. China has also continued to speak out against Western sanctions targeting Russia and has begun ramping up purchases of Russian oil at bargain prices, helping to fill the vacuum left by Western buyers that backed away from the market following the start of the war.
“Now that the West has taken a ‘dictator's position’ [against Russia], our economic ties with China will grow even faster,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on May 23.
But despite drawing closer in many respects -- a fact laid bare by a February 4 announcement by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they heralded a new era of “no-limits” partnership -- distrust, criticism, and a quiet rivalry remain part of the two countries’ complicated ties.
“The so-called revitalization of Russia under Putin's reign is based on a false premise,” said Gao Yusheng, who served as China's ambassador to Ukraine from 2005 to 2007. “Russia's decline is evident in all areas...and has had a significant negative impact on the Russian military and its combat capabilities.”
Gao’s comments came at a Beijing seminar in April that was later published by Phoenix News Media, a partially state-owned Chinese television network, as a transcript on May 10.
“The Russian military’s economic and financial strength, which are not commensurate with its status as a so-called military superpower, could not support a high-tech war,” Gao said. “The Russian Army’s poverty-driven defeat was evident.”
The article was taken down within hours of being posted, but the public criticism by Gao is part of a growing number of Chinese analysts and former officials who have voiced skepticism about Moscow's motives for invading and its future as a partner given the military failures it has suffered in Ukraine.
“I still don't see how any country would have dared to invade the world's [number] 2 military power,” Gong Fangbin, a military strategist and retired professor at China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) National Defense University, wrote in a recent article on WeChat. “Russia has shown the world time and again that no one dares touch an inch of its land.”
The article by Gong was also censored, but it points toward growing frustration among Chinese experts and scholars with Moscow’s argument that it's being cornered by NATO, a claim it has used to rationalize the invasion of Ukraine.
While such commentators are still blaming Washington for the conflict, they highlight a growing vein of criticism of Russia’s actions that first appeared in early March when Hu Wei, vice chairman of the Public Policy Research Center, which sits under an advisory agency to China’s state council, called on Beijing to distance itself from Russia as soon as possible over its war in Ukraine.
As the nature of the war in Ukraine has continued to evolve, Beijing has become increasingly cautious in dealing with Moscow. Chinese companies and the government have not sent economic or military aid to Russia and Chinese brokers have been careful to avoid secondary sanctions in dealing with the Russian economy.
Elsewhere, Chinese diplomats have looked to portray themselves as neutral in the Ukraine war and gone into damage control to avoid reputational blowback.
“Russia's war with Ukraine, no matter how reasonable in responding to NATO’s expansion, cannot be said to be legitimate,” Zhou Bo, a retired senior PLA officer, said on May 9 at an event hosted by an Indian think tank in Delhi. “Both [India and China] have suffered a bit in terms of our credibility and reputation because we refuse to overtly condemn Russia.”
Below The Surface
While Beijing shows no signs of dropping Russia as a partner, the Ukraine war has strained how many Chinese policymakers and thinkers view the country’s future trajectory.
“We have a fundamental difference in our overlooks and outlooks regarding an international order,” said Zhou, who added that Russia’s growing isolation will lead to its export-dependent economy coming under increasing strain.
This could mask a growing imbalance between the two countries, as they remain together in their shared desire to push back against U.S. influence around the world, but increasingly divergent in their abilities to do so.
Given the Chinese espionage operation, which according to Check Point began as early as July 2021, Beijing wants access to Russian military technology and secrets, something that China is believed to have been targeting for decades.
Despite the war, military cooperation is also still under way. China and Russia held their first joint military exercise since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on May 24, with both countries sending out nuclear-capable bombers over areas of northeast Asia in a display of force while U.S. President Joe Biden visited the region.
Still, the Ukraine war has damaged Russia’s image in the eyes of a growing array of Chinese analysts.
“So, apart from the largest nuclear arsenal, how important [will] Russia be 20 years from now?” Zhou said.