Chinese Assessments of the War in Ukraine, 2 Years on
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Chinese Assessments of the War in Ukraine, 2 Years on

What insights are scholars in China drawing from the war in Ukraine, over two years on from Russia’s invasion in February 2022? Here, leading experts leverage recently translated scholarship to explore how Chinese analysts weigh the key dynamics, likely trajectory, and broader geopolitical implications of the war.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. After the U.S. Election, Parties Involved in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict May Take Steps to Discuss Ceasefire Plans by Ding Xiaoxing, director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
  2. Second Anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Effects and Implications by scholars at the Renmin University Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies.
  3. The Russian Situation Under Prolonged Warfare by Feng Yujun, professor at the Peking University Department of History.
  4. Analysis of Uncertainties Affecting the Russia-Ukraine Conflict by Ouyang Xiangying, researcher at the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Director of the Research Office of Marxist Theory of World Political Economy; and Zhang Yuxin, assistant researcher at the Xi Jinping Diplomatic Thought Research Office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Economics and Politics.

Jump to commentary from:

Evan Medeiros | Brian Hart | Elizabeth Wishnick | Joseph Webster

Evan Medeiros

Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies, School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies, Georgetown University

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, China has pursued a surprisingly consistent and persistent policy toward Russia. I and others have called this both pro-Russian neutrality” and Beijing’s “strategic straddle.” The essence of the policy is to support Russia, diplomatically, economically, and militarily while maintaining stable, if not positive, ties with the United States and Europe. Claiming neutrality and rhetorically supporting a peaceful outcome while materially assisting Russia has been China’s modus operandi since the outbreak of conflict. China wants to have its strategic cake and eat it too. From Beijing’s vantage point, this policy is working, perhaps beyond its initial expectations.  

The ideas supporting Xi Jinping’s approach are reflected—in differing ways and to varying degrees—in the articles in this collection of translated essays. As interesting as they are, the articles should be seen as a lagging, not a leading, indicator of China’s Russia policy. They reflect current government thinking—and the limited (but not nonexistent) political space to discuss Russia policy—far more than they indicate where thinking and policymaking may be going.

For Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the logic of their Russia policy is based on a shared vision, shared values, and shared interests. The shared vision is for a world in which U.S. power—and its liberal international order—is substantially diminished and the United States cannot threaten Chinese and Russian interests, especially by fomenting color revolutions. Their code language for this is promoting “greater democracy in international affairs.” Their shared values are the belief in the legitimacy and efficacy of authoritarian political systems and state-directed development strategies. Both Beijing and Moscow call this “whole-process democracy,” which they believe is better at delivering public goods to their populations. Their shared material interests are myriad: China gets discounted energy, and Russia purchases civilian and military goods to support its war effort. Chinese sales of machine tools, industrial goods, and computer chips have been critical to reinvigorating Russia’s defense-industrial base.

There is arguably one searing calculation at the heart of China’s Russia policy: Beijing cannot afford for Putin to lose the war in a manner that would threaten his political survival. Xi does not want to countenance Putin’s ouster, as that would leave China isolated in the world and could challenge its own political stability.

In recent years, Beijing believes it is pulling off this “strategic straddle,” perhaps even perfecting it. The past few months of Chinese diplomacy are a case in point. Beijing hosted both the Dutch prime minister and German chancellor for visits that focused not on European issues such as Ukraine but on bilateral trade and investment deals—aiming to remind Europe where its bread is buttered. In the interim, the U.S. secretaries of treasury and state visited Beijing to demonstrate their commitment to stable relations. Xi got a political bump from these visits by such high-level U.S. cabinet officials. Although each highlighted U.S. concerns about Chinese assistance to the Russian war machine and threatened additional and harsher sanctions, nothing has happened yet—and China has planned for such actions anyway.

Xi then visited Europe in early May with a three-nation trip to France, Serbia, and Hungary. Such a trip was designed to further appeal to French economic interests—especially in the wake of the German chancellor’s Beijing visit—while leaning into the skepticism of both NATO and the European Union in Belgrade and Budapest. Indeed, this trip was designed not only to stoke tensions in transatlantic relations but within Europe itself. Xi’s trip looked as if China had shifted from a passive strategy of slowing down convergence in policymaking toward China to actively promoting divergence, both transatlantic and within the European institutions of NATO and the European Union.

This sequence of diplomatic activities culminated in Putin’s mid-May visit to China, during which both leaders reiterated their shared visions and values—especially contempt for the U.S. role in the world—and signed a 20-page joint statement to capture these ideas. In sum, Beijing’s strategic straddle is now shifting into high gear as China balances all its interests at the same time—while paying minimal cost for doing so.  

Some of the thinking that informs this strategy is reflected in the essays in this collection.

  • First, none of the essays criticize or call into question China’s support for Russia or its nominal claims of neutrality. These are treated as accepted facts.
  • Second, to the extent that there is space to debate China’s policy, it is over Russia’s approach toward Ukraine and the various mistakes Moscow has made in prosecuting the conflict, especially in the first year. Criticizing Russia seems to be a viable approach in the current Chinese political context. It is possible these arguments are Chinese experts’ musings about the problems Beijing should seek to avoid in a military campaign against Taiwan.
  • Third, the essays suggest an incipient confidence on the part of Beijing that the straddle policy is working. Support for this policy is provided in all the articles, validating not only the assumptions driving it but also its key tenets.   
  • Fourth, the articles discuss how the war in Ukraine—and, implicitly, China’s backing of Russia—has actually created opportunities for Beijing to advance its geopolitical interests. Examples include how the war is an opening for China to advance Xi’s Global Security Initiative, play a role in rebuilding Ukraine, and shape ongoing global discussions about the digital and green revolutions, as well as global trade patterns more broadly.

Brian Hart

Fellow, China Power Project, CSIS

Less than two weeks into Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Chinese scholar Hu Wei published a provocative article in which he argued that China should distance itself from Russia. Beijing has roundly rejected this recommendation, serving as a crucial diplomatic and economic lifeline for Moscow throughout the war. However, more than two years into the fighting, many of Hu’s predictions about how the conflict would reshape the international landscape have panned out: the West is more united under U.S. leadership, NATO has expanded, and the world is more divided between democracies and authoritarians.  

The four texts translated by Interpret: China show that many of Hu’s early predictions on the international impacts of the war have become part of the consensus view among Chinese experts. The four documents show that many Chinese scholars believe the war has left the world more deeply fractured, competitive, and fraught with uncertainty.

All of these translated articles conclude that the war in Ukraine has left the world more starkly separated into “camps,” with Russia on one side and the U.S.-led West on the other. Several of the translated documents emphasize that the confrontation between these two camps is a long-term war of attrition that goes beyond fights on the battlefield to the level of great-power competition across all areas of national might.

In particular, multiple texts note the critical importance of science and technology (S&T) in this competition. Ding Xiaoxing, the director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, highlights the important new role of drones in modern warfare. Experts from Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies take a broader view, writing that the war “has highlighted the vital importance of S&T to national security” and “caused the West to accelerate its ‘small yard, high fence’ strategy” to decouple Russia from Western technologies.

This emphasis on broader competition is reminiscent of analysis by other Chinese scholars, who argue that Western support for Ukraine is unprecedented. One Chinese expert put forward a new theory that the United States and its allies are engaged in “avatar warfare” (分身战) against Russia. That is, they are so deeply and comprehensively supporting Kyiv that fighting Ukraine is like confronting a weaker and smaller version of the United States. In this view, the enhanced level of support flowing to Ukraine goes well beyond traditional notions of proxy warfare.

In looking to the future of this intense confrontation between Russia and the West, the translated texts draw out numerous important observations. Two of these are worth mentioning in detail.

First, domestic politics will determine the willingness of key powers to engage in the conflict. Because the United States has so greatly affected the course of the war—and because support for Ukraine has become so politicized in Washington—the November 2024 U.S. elections will have a major impact on how Ukraine will fare in the coming year, as Feng Yujun of Peking University argues. Feng also notes that domestic politics will shape Russia’s actions as well. While he views the chance of Vladimir Putin leaving power soon as “very small,” Feng has separately written that the failed June 2023 Wagner Group rebellion and recent Moscow terrorist attack indicate Putin’s regime faces substantial challenges at home. Similarly, researchers Ouyang Xiangying and Zhang Yuxin predict, “It will be difficult for Europe to maintain its support for Ukraine in the long term if its politics become more right-wing, populist, and fragmented.”

Second, given the worsening international environment, Chinese researchers believe Beijing needs to play a greater role in shaping global developments. Experts from the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies call for pursuing greater multilateralism, with a focus on engaging the Global South through efforts and mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Group of Twenty (G20), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and BRICS. Engaging BRICS is particularly important for Beijing, as China has been investing in the organization and its expansion to serve as a greater counterweight against U.S.-dominated institutions such as the Group of Seven (G7), which Washington has leveraged to confront Russia.

Elizabeth Wishnick

Senior Research Scientist, China Studies, Center for Naval Analysis
Senior Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Although statements from Beijing largely echo Moscow’s positions on the war in Ukraine, and China has been a key supporter—providing a substantial amount of dual-use items for the battlefield as well as a market for Russian oil and gas and a degree of political cover internationally—these translated articles reveal the spectrum of Chinese experts’ views on the war. To be sure, none of the experts directly criticize Beijing’s policies, but within the boundaries of the tightened censorship under Xi Jinping, they do provide critical assessments of the consequences of the war and its implications for China.

Feng Yujun, now a professor at Peking University and the former director of Fudan University’s Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies—one of the more critical voices on Russia’s war in Ukraine—argues that it has a negative impact on Russia’s domestic political and economic situation. The only one of this group of experts to refer consistently to a “war,” rather than a “conflict” or a “special military operation” (the term favored in Russia), he also emphasizes that Russian actions in Ukraine have led to a sharp deterioration in its international environment. Feng is skeptical of arguments that Russia is appealing to the Global South and contends that Russia’s long “shadow” is responsible for the intensification of conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In this translated report, written in late 2023, he refers to Russia’s “desperate counterattack” and, unusually for Chinese analysis, highlights the significant political divisions within the country, including the development of collaborationist militias supporting Ukrainian efforts on Russian territory. (More recently, Feng predicted in The Economist that Russia will be defeated in Ukraine.) Despite Putin’s continued hold on power and the inertia of Russian political culture, Feng warns that in Russian history, military defeats have led to sudden political upheavals.

Ding Xiaoxing, director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), under the Ministry of State Security, takes a more forgiving tone on Russia’s difficulties in achieving its aims in Ukraine, referring to “an error of judgment” in assuming that a “blitzkrieg approach” would succeed without much resistance from Ukraine. While making the United States the scapegoat for the ongoing war (he refers to it as both a “conflict” and a “war”), Ding also notes that the 2023 Russian foreign policy concept encourages global confrontation by bifurcating the world into Russia-friendly and unfriendly countries. He points out that without addressing the underlying problems of European security, it will be difficult to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. For Ding, 2024 is likely to be the decisive year due to the U.S. presidential election. Unlike Feng, Ding sees Ukraine facing an increasingly unfavorable situation, especially due its dependence on U.S. aid in an election year. For the most part, Ding portrays Russia as a passive victim of U.S. politics—although he points to the high risk of nuclear accidents and other “secondary disasters,” he falsely claims that indiscriminate bombing (presumably by Russia) cannot possibly be occurring due to the availability of videos documenting the ongoing war.

Ouyang Xiangying and Zhang Yuxin, researchers at the Institute of World Economics and Politics within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, provide analysis that also hews very closely to official Chinese government positions, blaming the continuation of the “conflict” on the Biden administration and what they see as Ukraine’s intransigence in insisting on Russian withdrawal from its territory. Without leadership change, especially in the United States, the authors foresee an intensification of the conflict, with detrimental consequences for the Russian economy, and do not rule out the prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons. Ouyang and Zhang see the best scenario as a ceasefire involving a frozen conflict in the east of Ukraine, as it would complicate plans for future military aid to Kyiv. Curiously, the authors propose Turkey as the most likely mediator, rather than China, despite Beijing’s efforts to position itself in this role.

Scholars from the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University focus on the lessons China should learn from the conflict. Although China is typically seen to benefit from its greater access to Russian oil and gas, the authors contend that the conflict is impeding the Chinese energy transition. In fact, they warn China and other developing countries against falling into a new “transition trap” in which global declines in oil and gas supply (as producing countries shift toward green energy sources) would reduce their access to fossil fuels and slow down their development. The scholars urge China to play a greater role in formulating the rules of the evolving global economic order, buffeted by the growing military role of U.S. private-sector technology companies and the increasing vulnerability of supply chains, especially in the (likely) scenario of a protracted war.

Joseph Webster

Senior Fellow, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council
Editor of the independent China-Russia Report

This analysis reflects his personal opinion.

Some Chinese scholars hold that Europe is “sacrificing development in exchange for security” through its backing of Ukraine. This framing, widely repeated throughout the Chinese foreign policy community, naturally leads to another question: But what of the costs to China?

Chinese scholars and state media suggest Beijing finds the war’s costs acceptable and perhaps even temporary. Beijing doubts the West’s staying power in Ukraine, believing the conflict’s economic distortions may produce electoral results that weaken Western support for Ukraine or even sharply degrade transatlantic cooperation. Importantly, however, China’s “pro-Russia neutrality” allows it to preserve flexibility, mitigate risks, and seize opportunities. By not openly declaring support for Moscow, Beijing can stabilize relations with the West if Russia is defeated or, alternatively, reengage economically with Europe in the event of a transatlantic rift or rupture. Beijing’s stance—and potential implicit support for Russian interference in Western elections—raises difficult but important questions for constitutional democracies.

The Chinese economy has been damaged by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Conservative estimates hold that the supply-chain disruptions, spikes in commodity prices, and interest-rate increases from the war lowered Chinese GDP from baseline estimates by at least $140 billion, or 0.7 percent of GDP.

The war’s long-term impact on China’s economy could be more significant. Beijing’s pro-Russia neutrality has strained relations with the West, leading to increased scrutiny of trade and investment, especially in semiconductors and green technologies. The West’s—especially Europe’s—reevaluation of ties with China may be one of the most consequential outcomes of the war. Unless Europe’s turn proves to be only temporary, of course.

Beijing assesses that Western elections could, at a minimum, substantially curtail external support for Ukraine or even lead to a rupture in the transatlantic relationship. Zhang Yuxin and Ouyang Xiangying elaborate on how Western support for Ukraine could weaken due to U.S. elections, while authoritative state media has hinted that a more fundamental breakdown in transatlantic ties is possible. In the event of a transatlantic rupture, Beijing reckons its economic and political ties with an increasingly isolated Europe may recover or even be enhanced.

Moscow is actively attempting to effect a transatlantic cleavage via electoral-interference campaigns. The Kremlin, recognizing that most swing voters are motivated by material conditions rather than ideology, is leveraging the conflict to drive up inflation and interest rates, weaken the performance legitimacy of constitutional democracies, and strengthen populist or authoritarian candidates that are more friendly to Russia.

Many analysts believe Beijing is ambivalent about the outcome of Western elections—yet, importantly, it does not appear to have discouraged the Kremlin’s interference campaigns. Indeed, some indications suggest Beijing complements these efforts with its own disinformation operations. Most crucially, China’s industrial support for the Russian war machine prolongs the conflict’s economic disruptions, implicitly supporting the Kremlin’s political aims.

Beijing is incentivized to undermine the more powerful U.S.-led alliance system, either directly or via proxy. Even a conservative definition of the constitutional bloc shows it produced nearly 60 percent of world GDP in 2023, as measured at current prices, over three times the share of the China-Russia axis.

Additionally, despite warmer ties between Beijing and Moscow, the constitutional-democracy bloc is more cohesive. Democracies integrate their militaries, while China routinely steals Russian military technology and Russian forces have rehearsed tactical nuclear strikes against Chinese targets.

China and Russia’s energy and economic relationship is also more fraught than generally understood. The two sides are unlikely to ever reach an agreement over the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline, and Russia is one of the few markets where Chinese exports of solar panels have fallen in recent years. Indeed, China’s industrial overcapacity and exports to Russia will likely become a significant, perhaps major, post-war irritant.

Some scholars see the China-Russia axis as increasingly resolute. Both sides undeniably share deep suspicions of the Washington- and Brussels-led alliance. Still, future terms of bilateral economic interactions are uncertain, as Beijing’s military-tech espionage against Russia may strain ties and Vladimir Putin’s long-term hold on power is unsure. Beijing’s limited—but growing—anxiety about future relations with Moscow is reflected in its new framing of ties since the failed Prigozhin mutiny in June 2023. Aiming to institutionalize relations for whenever the 71-year-old Putin leaves office, Beijing now says bilateral relations benefit the “fundamental interests of their respective countries and peoples” (各自国家和人民根本利益).

Given the constitutional-democracy bloc’s strength and cohesiveness, and the China-Russia axis’s uncertain future, Beijing may seek to undermine inter-democracy cooperation by directly interfering in elections or, by default, merely allowing the Kremlin to proceed with its own plans. Beijing is likely to continue the latter approach, which preserves deniability and flexibility.

The axis’s approach to Western elections raises difficult questions. Should constitutional democracies passively observe as Moscow—with Beijing’s tacit approval or even participation—uses informational and, perhaps much more importantly, economic tools to bolster preferred candidates? Or should they counteract these efforts? Democracies face a difficult and consequential test.

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