There is no evidence that arms transfers have taken place, said these officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US government’s assessment. But if China proceeds, it would be the first time Beijing has provided deadly aid to the conflict, despite repeated warnings from the United States not to provide such aid. It would also go against the spirit of a peace plan proposed by Chinese leaders on Friday.
The aid being considered consists of 122-millimeter and 152-millimeter rounds, of which Russia has a dwindling supply as it continues a war fought largely with artillery, the officials said.
The revelation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Friday, follows a public warning from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said last weekend Beijing was seriously considering providing lethal aid. It also comes as Western countries are increasingly concerned that China’s involvement in the conflict could be a significant setback for Ukraine and its backers.
“China has the ability to change the game,” said a senior US government official.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Responding to Blinken’s warning, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week that China “will never accept the US pointing the finger at Sino-Russian relations or even coercing us.” Wang urged the United States to “think seriously about its own actions,” Wang said, “It is the United States, not China, that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield.”
China calls for end of sanctions against Russia, ceasefire in Ukraine
Right now, both Russia and Ukraine are scouring the Earth for more ammunition. Moscow is calling on North Korea and Iran to supply 122mm and 152mm, both of which are also used by China. Western allies are trying to get more 152mm ammunition for Ukraine’s Soviet-era howitzers, as well as trying to produce more of the 155mm NATO standard for artillery they have supplied to Ukraine since the start of the war.
The desperate hunt is driven by the sheer volume of shelling carried out daily by Ukrainian and Russian forces – a point NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized this month.
“The war in Ukraine is consuming a huge amount of ammunition and depleting Allied supplies,” Stoltenberg said at a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels. “Ukraine’s current rate of ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production.”
Russia is running out of ammunition, US officials said, but China, with its vaunted production capability for long-range artillery, rocket launchers, surface-to-surface missiles and drones, could make up for the shortfall.
That was a focus during last week’s meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Munich security conference.
Blinken warned Wang that there would be “consequences if China provided material support to Russia or helped evade systematic sanctions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Beijing has so far not provided direct military support to Russia, but US officials have accused Chinese state-owned companies of providing non-lethal aid in recent weeks.
“We have indications that China may be considering supplying lethal capabilities to Russia,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday, without specifying the specific type. “We didn’t see them make that decision. We have not seen them move in that direction. We have been clear both privately and publicly about our concerns regarding that potential outcome. China would not want to become tangibly involved in that way.”
Asked about a report in German outlet Der Spiegel that China was negotiating the shipment of unmanned attack drones to Russia, Kirby said, “I have nothing for you on that.”
On Friday, Beijing called for a comprehensive ceasefire in tandem with a 12-point peace plan it proposed. Blinken and Stoltenberg both expressed skepticism about the proposal, saying that no solution should allow Russia to “rest” and “rearm”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted more positively, saying he saw it not as a concrete plan, but as a productive gesture.
“It is an important signal that they are preparing to participate in this theme,” he said at a press conference in Kiev.
However, he stressed that Ukraine’s main concern is that Beijing does not arm Moscow.
“I really want to believe that China will not supply arms to Russia, and this is very important to me,” he said. “This is point number one.”
A worldwide division over the war in Ukraine is growing
To date, the Biden administration has pledged more than $30 billion in military aid to Ukraine, announcing its latest package on Friday. US officials did not quantify the amount of aid China would consider, other than to say it was, in the words of one official, “substantial”.
One of the main constraints for Russia is the limited supply of artillery ammunition, experts say. The Russian military is “culturally an artillery army,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst with the Virginia-based research group CNA. “For the past year, Russian troops in Ukraine have used their artillery advantage to compensate for a lack of manpower. But they spent more than half a million shells a month.”
As a result, he said, the Russian military is likely to start rationing its supply of artillery shells now or soon. “And obviously over the course of the last year they’ve already run out of different types of calibers, like 122 millimeters.” The lack of ammunition, Kofman noted, “is one of the essential factors in the war and has been since the beginning.”
Even as it warned China, the government launched new charges against Iran, which has provided Russia with deadly unmanned aerial vehicles used to attack Ukrainian infrastructure.
“Today we have additional information that Iranian support for the war in Russia is expanding,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. In November he said: “Iran shipped artillery and tank shells to Russia for use in Ukraine.”
In return, he said, Russia has offered “unprecedented defense cooperation, including in missiles, electronics and air defense. We believe that Russia could provide Iran with fighter jets.” Iran, he said, is seeking “billions of dollars worth of military equipment from Russia,” including the purchase of attack helicopters and radars.
He declined to give details in response to questions, particularly about what he said were possible shipments of Russian fighter jets. “I can’t go on… that’s really as far as I’m allowed to go here. We are going to keep a close eye on this to see what actually happens.”
Iran has denied sending Russia drones for use in Ukraine. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani told Russia’s Sputnik media outlet on Friday that Moscow and Iran had a long history of military cooperation predating the Ukrainian conflict “and are not against any third country” .
The new US allegations came amid a further deterioration of moribund efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Bloomberg reported last week that Iran had enriched uranium to 84 percent purity, close to the level needed for bomb-making. Iran, which has denied any interest in making bombs, refuted the report, saying any enrichment to that level was a miniscule and short-lived side effect of continued enrichment to 60 percent purity.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s civilian nuclear program, told Iran’s PressTV that “if we really want to enrich 20 percent more, we will announce it very easily.” The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear activities, said it was “aware” of the reports and discussed them “as appropriate” with Tehran.