The Russian government has asked China for military equipment and other support, a U.S. official told POLITICO on Sunday, possibly indicating that Moscow fears its position after struggling to advance deeper into Ukraine more than two weeks into its invasion.
The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, would not offer specifics about Russia’s request or how the United States came to learn about it. The White House wouldn’t comment on the record.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have seen their campaign to take the capital, Kyiv, and other regions mostly stalled because of Ukraine’s Western-backed resistance. The introduction of thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, along with other advanced equipment, has helped overmatched Ukrainian troops destroy Russia’s warplanes, helicopters and other vehicles. While Russia maintains a military advantage, experts say, the hardware losses have made an already complicated campaign that much harder.
The revelation of the Kremlin’s request comes a day before national security adviser Jake Sullivan is set to meet Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Rome to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war.
Earlier on Sunday, Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” that “we are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them. We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world.”
The U.S. and Europe-led economic sanctions campaign to punish Russia for the invasion has pushed Moscow to seek more economic help from China.
“We have part of our gold and foreign exchange reserves in the Chinese currency, in yuan,” Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said during a Sunday TV interview. “And we see what pressure is being exerted by Western countries on China in order to limit mutual trade with China.”
The military support Russia needs from China is less clear. Perhaps Moscow is asking for “exploratory talks,” said Michael Kofman, Russia director at the Virginia-based CNA think tank, or it “could be chips, which is what they really need.” But the majority of semiconductors, he noted, come from Taiwan, whose government is enforcing the global export restrictions on Russia.
Russia has “definitely set themselves behind several years of procurement in terms of equipment,” Kofman said.
The Kremlin’s request raises important questions about how Russia sees its progress, or lack thereof, on the Ukrainian battlefield and about the Moscow-Beijing relationship writ large.
Seeking military assistance just two weeks into the war could indicate Russian military leaders assess that they need a backfill of equipment to sustain the invasion, especially as the campaign to take Kyiv remains mostly stalled.
And how Chinese leader Xi Jinping chooses to back Putin — with whom he has met 38 times — could provide a clear signal about the strength of their ties. Usually Russia sells weapons to China, so agreeing to the request would underscore a changed dynamic.