It is not yet clear whether China intends to provide Russia with that assistance, US officials familiar with the intelligence tell CNN. But during an intense, seven-hour meeting in Rome, a top aide to President Joe Biden warned his Chinese counterpart of “potential implications and consequences” for China should support for Russia be forthcoming, a senior administration official said.
The series of events underscored the growing concern among American officials at the budding partnership between Moscow and Beijing as Biden works to isolate and punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. While officials have said the Chinese President was alarmed at what has taken place since Russia invaded, there is little to indicate China is prepared to cut off its support entirely.
That leaves open a troubling possibility for American officials — that China may help prolong a bloody conflict that is increasingly killing civilians, while also cementing an authoritarian alliance in direct competition with the United States.
In a diplomatic cable, the US relayed to its allies in Europe and Asia that China had conveyed a willingness to assist Russia, which has asked for military support. The cable did not state definitively that assistance had been provided. One official also said the US warned in the cable that China would likely deny it was willing to provide assistance.
Among the assistance Russia requested was pre-packaged, non-perishable military food kits, known in the US as “meal, ready-to-eat,” or MREs, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The request underscores the basic logistical challenges that military analysts and officials say have stymied Russian progress in Ukraine — and raises questions about the fundamental readiness of the Russian military.
Forward-deployed units have routinely outstripped their supply convoys and open source reports have shown Russian troops breaking into grocery stores in search of food as the invasion has progressed. One of the sources suggested that food might be a request that China would be willing to meet, because it stops short of lethal assistance that would be seen as deeply provocative by the west.
The Chinese Communist Party leadership is not all in agreement regarding how to respond to Russia’s request for assistance, said one of the sources. Two officials said that China’s desire to avoid economic consequences may limit its appetite to help Russia. Officials separately told CNN that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been unnerved by how the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated the NATO alliance.
“There is real concern by some that their involvement could hurt economic relationships with the West, on which China relies,” said one of the sources.
Officials are also monitoring whether China provides some economic and diplomatic relief for Russia in other forms, like abstention votes at the United Nations.
In Rome, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and a US delegation who met with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi “raised directly and very clearly” concerns about Chinese “support to Russia in the wake of the invasion, and the implications that any such support would have for” China’s relationship with the US and partners around the world, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
“That includes allies and partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” Price said at a State Department briefing Monday.
Concerns over China’s potential involvement in the war came as bombardments intensified in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and Russia’s military campaign moved westward. Still, there remained signs that Russia’s armed forces are being hampered by Ukrainian fighters, underscoring Russia’s need for outside assistance.
Ukrainian forces have “effectively struck Russian logistics and sustainment capabilities” in the war, a senior US defense official told reporters on Monday. And the US does not believe Russia’s missile strikes on a Ukrainian military training center in western Ukraine will affect American efforts to provide weapons shipments to that country’s military.
Biden, who is working to rally international support for Ukraine, could travel to Europe soon to further consult with allies there, people familiar with the plans said, though as of Monday no trip had been finalized. His administration is also considering expediting the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees with US ties. The US President may face increased pressure to assist displaced Ukrainians soon — the nation’s President, Volodomyr Zelensky, plans to virtually address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
US watching how China responds to Russian invasion of Ukraine
Heading into the meeting, US officials said they expected Yang to portray China as a neutral partner willing to help facilitate talks between the two sides aimed at bringing an end to hostilities. China has ramped up its diplomatic efforts in the past days, including in a call last week between Xi and the leaders of France and Germany meant to signal a willingness to adopt a more proactive role in the crisis.
The US has viewed those efforts somewhat skeptically, given China’s recent closeness with Russia. And over the weekend, US officials said they had information that Russia had asked China for military support, including drones, as its invasion advances more slowly than the Kremlin had expected. Both the Chinese and Russian governments publicly denied that the request had been made.
Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that China providing Russia with support is a “concern.”
“We also are watching closely to see the extent to which China actually does provide any form of support, material support or economic support, to Russia. It is a concern of ours. And we have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions,” Sullivan said.
American officials say they believe Xi has been unsettled by Russia’s invasion and the performance of Russia’s military, which has experienced logistical and strategic setbacks since the invasion began more than two weeks ago. Watching from Beijing, Xi was caught off-guard that his own intelligence had not been able to predict what happened, even though the United States had been warning of an invasion for weeks, the officials said.
“They may not have understood the full extent of it,” Sullivan said on CNN on Sunday, “because it’s very possible that Putin lied to them, the same way that he lied to Europeans and others.”
The mostly global repudiation of Russia’s actions has caused China to weigh what damage it may suffer to its reputation by sticking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And an economic rupture with Europe or the United States could damage a Chinese economy already growing more slowly than it has in 30 years.
For all those reasons, American officials believe now is a moment when engaging with China is an imperative as it determines how to proceed amid Russia’s aggression. US and Chinese officials have been in regular touch over the past several weeks, including in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion.
Price said the US is “watching very closely the extent to which the PRC” — another name for China — “or any other country, for that matter, provides any form of support, whether that’s material support, whether that’s economic support, whether that’s financial support to Russia.”
“Any such support from anywhere in the world would be of great concern to us,” he said.
He declined to comment specifically on reports about the diplomatic cable.
“We have communicated very clearly to Beijing that we won’t stand by. … We will not allow each country to compensate Russia for its losses,” he added.
Price characterized the Chinese response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as somewhat “ambivalent.”
“I read a statement the other day from a PRC official calling the situation complicated. There’s nothing complicated about this. This is naked aggression,” he said.
Russian invasion of Ukraine tosses its relationship with China into tumult
Sullivan’s meeting Monday in Rome was originally meant as a follow-up to US President Joe Biden and Xi’s nearly three-hour virtual summit in November, which occurred at the same time American officials began warning of a massive buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. On that call, Xi warned Biden that dividing the world into competing blocs would “inevitably bring disaster,” according to a Chinese readout.
Yet Russia’s invasion has done more to align the world in competing alliances than anything Biden had done with the aim of bolstering American relationships — an outcome American intelligence has found Xi was also unprepared for, believing instead that European economic interests would prevent countries there from imposing severe sanctions.
That dynamic has complicated a relationship that Xi and Putin declared had “no limits” in a lengthy document in February, when Putin visited Beijing for talks and to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The US decision to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Games infuriated Xi, officials have said, making Putin’s presence in the stadium even more important.
The evolving response in China to the Russian invasion — from denying one would happen to avoiding public condemnation to presenting itself as a possible mediator — has been closely monitored by the White House, where the potential of a Moscow-Beijing alliance is viewed with heightened concern. CIA Director Bill Burns said last week the partnership was rooted in “a lot of very cold-blooded reasons.”
A new “axis” forming in opposition to American-led efforts at bolstering regional security has been in the works since before the war in Ukraine, including in the economic, political and military sectors. But the US does not view the partnership as fully developed, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers last week.
“We do see it as not yet at the point where we are, for example, with allies,” Haines said. “They have not achieved that kind of level of cooperation, and we anticipate it is unlikely in the next five years that they will … become the way we are an ally with our other NATO members in that context.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.