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Vassily Kashin

PhD in Political Science, Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies,HSE University, RIAC Member

Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and the subsequent collapse of the Russian-Western relations have had deep transformative effect on the Russian-Chinese relations. Even before the conflict the two sides enjoyed robust strategic relationship which was officially called comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in new era, a unique status within a wide China’s network of strategic partnerships. The conflict in Ukraine together with the ongoing deterioration of the Sino-American relations have transformed this partnership into a rather close interdependence. An important feature of this relationship is Russia’s emergence as an important partner of China both in security, political and in economic fields. In 2022 and especially in 2023, amid the decrease in the volume of China’s exports Russia became the fastest growing Chinese trade partner among the major economies. The two countries are reaching a new level of economic interdependence, with Russia getting the status of China’s main supplier of certain strategic commodities (grain, natural gas, oil) and at the same time becoming the key market for some of the Chinese industrial goods (automobiles).

Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and the subsequent collapse of the Russian-Western relations have had deep transformative effect on the Russian-Chinese relations. Even before the conflict the two sides enjoyed robust strategic relationship which was officially called comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in new era, a unique status within a wide China’s network of strategic partnerships. The conflict in Ukraine together with the ongoing deterioration of the Sino-American relations have transformed this partnership into a rather close interdependence.

An important feature of this relationship is Russia’s emergence as an important partner of China both in security, political and in economic fields. In 2022 and especially in 2023, amid the decrease in the volume of China’s exports Russia became the fastest growing Chinese trade partner among the major economies. The two countries are reaching a new level of economic interdependence, with Russia getting the status of China’s main supplier of certain strategic commodities (grain, natural gas, oil) and at the same time becoming the key market for some of the Chinese industrial goods (automobiles).

Politically, China still avoids expressing direct support of Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine but continues to underscore the special status of the relations established not just only between the two countries but between their leaders as well. Russia has at the same time supported the three global initiatives of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, thereby subscribing to the Chinese concept of the global governance which is supposed to provide an alternative to the rules-based world order dominated by the West.

Military cooperation between the states has continued to develop against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, which politically helped Russia to maintain its international status especially in the relations with the Global South. Still there are boundaries in the development of the Sino-Russian relations which both sides have so far refrained from overstepping them. The two countries continue to believe that they do not want to establish a military alliance although they acknowledge the expansion of military-to-military cooperation. While Russia did raise the level of its participation in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has not joined it yet. Russia continues to maintain that it has an independent domestic alternative to this major Chinese project – Great Eurasian Partnership. Even in situation of a full-scale war Russia avoids taking loans from foreign partners including China and keeps the budget relatively balanced.

In a new normal the two countries will work closer together for achieving greater degree of mutual dependence than before. At the same time, both sides, and especially Russia, will be managing the level of that interdependence by diversification of their international cooperation when possible.

China’s political position on the crisis: between Russia and the West

The role of China as a key economic partner of Russia proved to be the decisive factor of the military conflict in Ukraine. China’s decision to use the collapse of the Russian-Western relationships to quickly boost the economic cooperation with Russia has basically doomed to failure the American and European attempts to win the proxy war by destroying Russian economy.

China played an important role even at the stage of Russian preparations for a major conflict with the West. Less than three weeks before the start of the Special Military Operation, on February 4, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin had visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. It was the first meeting of the leaders of the two countries in more than two years, and it resulted in signing of several important joint documents.

Among them is the Declaration on International Relations Entering a New Era. The declaration adopted against the background of the escalation of the situation over Ukraine demonstrated the convergence of the positions of the two states on a number of important issues. In particular, it emphasizes the negative attitude towards NATO expansion and destabilizing activities of external forces in the regions of the common neighborhood[1]. Equally important were two important economic agreements signed at the same time. One of them envisioned the sale of 100 million tons of Russian oil to China through Kazakhstan’s infrastructure, the other was a  contract to build a natural gas pipeline which would increase the exports of Russian natural gas to China by 10 billion cubic meters per year[2].

The declaration and the economic deals signed during the visit thereby contributing to Russia’s reorientation of economic ties from Europe towards China later led to the accusations against China that Beijing had been informed by Russians about the coming conflict, and China supported the Special Military Operation as a result. Another argument which was used to support the charges was a growing number of contracts to procure Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) concluded before the conflict began. Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry denied these allegations[3]. China was officially informed about the Russian approach to the military conflict in Ukraine on February 24, 2023, when foreign ministers of Russia and China – Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi – held a telephone conversation. During this conversation the Russian side informed China about its non-acceptance of violations of the commitments made by the United States and NATO not to expand NATO to the East and non-fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements, as well as about other reasons to start the operation[4].

Chinese position on the Ukrainian conflict was formed and articulated on the second day of war, on February 26, 2022, and consisted of five points[5].

  • China firmly stands for the respect and protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and strict compliance with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.
  • China stands for the concept of common, integrated, cooperative and sustainable security. At the same time, it is noted that “in the conditions of … NATO’s expansion to the East, legitimate demands of Russia to respect its security needs should be taken seriously and resolved properly”.
  • China is watching the Ukrainian crisis, and “the current situation is something that the Chinese side does not want to see. It is extremely important that all sides show the necessary restraint to prevent further escalation and getting the situation in Ukraine coming out of control”.
  • The Chinese side supports and encourages all diplomatic efforts that contribute to the peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. China welcomes an early holding of direct dialogue and negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
  • China believes that the UN Security Council will play a constructive role in resolving the Ukrainian crisis and that peace and stability in the region and the security of all countries should be priorities. The steps taken by the UN Security Council should mitigate tensions, not inflame them and contribute to a diplomatic settlement, not further escalation[6]

Chinese Position on the Situation in Ukraine
February 26, 2022
(Unofficial translation)

This basic approach has been maintained by China throughout the conflict and was expressed in the paper China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis which was published on the first anniversary of war on February 24, 2023[7]. The Chinese position basically boils down to the earliest possible ceasefire, resolution of humanitarian crisis, addressing nuclear and strategic risks and starting political negotiations. Neither side should use sanctions, and the West should not supply arms to Ukraine since that will just prolong the bloodshed. In practice, the application of the Chinese approach to the resolution of the conflict will lead to freezing the hostilities and the transformation of the existing frontlines into the lines of actual control. That will have to be followed by lifting of the sanctions and long, open- ended negotiations with low likelihood of conclusive results in the foreseeable future.

The Chinese proposal was immediately met with strong criticism by the US, with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Beijing of trying to “present itself publicly as neutral and seeking peace while at the same time talking up Russia’s false narrative about the war”[8]. Russian response on the China’s position was generally positive, with President Vladimir Putin stating that “the Chinese plan can be treated as the basis for the resolution of the conflict”[9].

Chinese policy towards the Ukraine war is supposed to allow China to stay above the conflict, preserve its relations with the European Union and at the same time strengthen the partnership with Russia. That is why the Chinese messaging clearly differs depending on the audience and the intended result. For example, Chinese Ambassador to the EU Fu Cun labeled the term unlimited partnership which was used in the Joint Russian-Chinese declaration signed during Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia in March 2023 as nothing but rhetoric.[10] 

At the same time, Chinese Ambassador to Moscow Zhang Hanhui reiterated that China was standing back-to-back with Russia and was intent to develop deeper strategic partnership [11]. While Chinese diplomats in Europe tend to talk about complex nature of the Ukrainian crisis and while speaking of the record they can even criticize Russia[12], their colleagues working in Russia directly blame NATO for the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis[13]. Such Chinese position allows China to continue playing the role of a potential mediator or peacemaker in the conflict and at the same time leads to repeated calls coming from some Western leaders to step up pressure on Russia[14].

The development of bilateral partnership during the Ukraine crisis

While in the diplomatic arena China was treading carefully and avoided taking sides, China’s real-world activities in relations with Russia have clearly shown that, first, China was not interested in Russia’s defeat in the Ukrainian conflict and, second, China saw the crisis as a major opportunity to boost its strategic relationship with Russia.

Chinese government has taken efforts to quickly address the difficulties and obstacles for the bilateral trade caused by the Western financial sanctions, and the Chinese Ambassador Zhang Hanhui in March 2022 called on the Chinese businessmen to fill the void left by the Western companies which stopped working in Russia.

Chinese investments in Russia began to increase the same year. In November 2022 Russian Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov stated the growth of Chinese accumulated direct investments in the Russian economy by 75 percent. To determine the amount of Chinese direct investments in Russia resorting to the standard instruments used by the Russian Central Bank is difficult since Chinese money usually move through the offshore accounts, and recently the whole process has become even more secretive because of the threat of secondary sanctions. However, the evaluations provided by Mr. Belousov are indicative of the launch of new major projects. Apparently, a considerable part of them is connected with the reorientation of a number of industries that previously depended on the cooperation with the Western countries to Chinese partners, especially in the automotive industry.

China has clearly contributed to the reorientation of Russian exports in order to help Russia to replace the lost European markets. In 2022, Russian exports to China increased by 43.4 percent, up to one billion dollars. Despite the falling of consumer demand in Russia, Chinese exports to our country grew by 12.8 percent, the trade turnover exceeded 190 billion dollars. A significant trade surplus with China had a positive impact on the stability of the Russian economy in the first year of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine[15].

In the situation of falling Russian demand for consumer electronics, home appliances and other articles which used to dominate the Chinese exports to Russia, there has been an increase in imports of investment goods from China. The import of equipment from China is critical for the growth of military production and import substitution.

China has become a key exporter of trucks and construction equipment to Russia. China’s share in the supply of metalworking machines to Russia increased from 10.93 percent in 2021 to 43.25 percent in 2022[16]. The export of Chinese microchips to Russia, according to Western estimates, increased by almost 2.5 times in 2022 – up to 179 million dollars[17]. Taking into account that one of Russia’s key goals was to gradually increase its own military production, such supplies play an important role.

It is impossible not to mention the importance of Chinese dual-use products, as well as non-lethal military equipment used in the Special Operation zone. These are light unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), communications equipment, body armor, protective helmets, uniforms. The list is expanding, and perhaps in the future we may witness a transition to full-fledged military-technical cooperation with the supply of Chinese lethal weapons to the conflict zone. In June, the media reported on the use of Chinese armored vehicles by Russian special forces Akhmat operating in the Special Military Operation zone.

In the first half of 2023, trade growth accelerated to 40.6 percent (year-on-year), while Russian exports to China increased by 19.4 percent to 62.263 billion dollars, and Chinese exports to Russia increased by 78.1 percent to 52.284 billion dollars. The Russian direction turned out to be the fastest growing for China against the background of general negative trends in Chinese foreign trade.

By the middle of the year, the two countries had practically abandoned the use of Western financial infrastructure, according to the statements of the Russian President, more than 80 percent of transactions by that time had already been carried out in national currencies. For certain areas of the Russian economy China is becoming an uncontested partner. For example, the share of China in Russian car imports in the first half of the year exceeded 70 percent[18].

In turn, Russia’s importance as the largest supplier of oil to China was growing. It had not only increased Russia’s resilience against the Western sanctions, but also provided value-for-money deals for Chinese consumers. The Chinese statistics of 2022 showed 8.2 percent increase of oil imports from Russia, as well as the doubling of import volumes from Malaysia which is considered to be an important transit hub for the Russian oil in order to circumvent sanctions.

The share of Russin oil in Chinese oil had increased from the pre-war less than 16 percent in 2021 to 18.2 percent in the first six months of 2023, surpassing the share of Saudi Arabia
 (16.5 percent). With the sharp increase of the Malaysian exports to China attributed to Russia, the real Russian share in the Chinese imports may be even bigger, closer to 23 percent. According to the Banque de France data, the discount for China in first half 2023 was on average 10 percent for oil imported from Russia and some 17.6 percent for Malaysian oil[19].

The two countries sought to further increase trade in strategic commodities and during Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in October 2023 they signed a 12 year-long and 27.5 billion worth contract for the export of 70 million tons of Russian grain to China[20]. Current Russian strategy of diversification of exports to China is primarily focused on non-energy commodities such as grain, wood products and chemical products since Russian capacity to compete on more high-tech markets remains limited.

Against the background of the restrictions on scientific and technical ties with China imposed by the West, China pays more attention to scientific contacts with Russia, including the engagement of Russian scientists into its projects. During Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia in March 2023, the two sides agreed to prepare an ambitious plan on bilateral economic cooperation which included, among other things, the harmonization of industrial standards, the shaping of coordinated industrial policies and the creation of joint industrial production chains, logistical and energy networks[21].

The document was expected to be finalized by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) prime ministers meeting in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) in October 2023. During the meeting the Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin stated that “we implemented the decisions by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of China Xi Jinping on defining the parameters of the Russian-Chinese cooperation until 2030”[22]. But up to date the plan has not yet been published. That could mean that some finalizing work on it is still going on. The implementation of the plan may give strong impetus to the Russian-Chinese economic integration.

By the end of 2023 the two states had increased the level of interdependence although it continued to be asymmetrical – Russia accounted for approximately 4 percent of China’s external trade (it was 2 percent before the war in Ukraine), while China accounted for more than 30 percent of the Russian trade (some 18 percent before the war)[23]. Russia has become the major supplier of energy to China and has prospects of becoming an important supplier of food products as well. China has emerged as an indispensable industrial partner for Russia, the source of equipment, technology, and advanced components.

Greater political engagement

Just before the beginning of the Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine the two countries started to move towards greater alignment of their approaches to the issues of the global governance, to the future of the international order and to the most important regional issues.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to China on February 4, 2022, resulted in signing of the Declaration On international relations entering the new era and on global sustainable development[24].  The document was focused on providing a common view and a shared definition of the main principles of international relations. The document stated, for example, that the right to judge if a state is democratic, belongs solely to its people[25]. At the same time, democratic principles are supposed to be upheld on the international arena as well, with the respect for the diversity of various cultures and civilizations. These principles are in full conformity with the Chinese rhetoric associated with the concept of the Community of the Shared Destiny for Mankind, an important Chinese ideological concept which was first set forth by the Chinese president Hu Jintao at the end of his rule and articulated in his report to the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in November 2012[26].   The concept reached greater prominence during Xi Jinping’s rule, and in the February 4 statement Russia for the first time had directly supported this important Chinese ideological construct, noting its “positive meaning for enhancing the solidarity of the international community and joining efforts in addressing the common challenges”[27].

A year later, during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March 2023, Russia endorsed his Global Development Initiative and expressed the desire to participate in the work of the Group of the Friends of that initiative. Russia has also expressed readiness to work within the framework of another important initiative – Global Security Initiative. As for the third Chinese global initiative, Global Civilization Initiative which was first unveiled by Xi Jinping in his keynote speech at the forum attended by Chinese Communist Party and foreign political parties’ leaders[28], Russia stated that it “attaches great importance to the initiative and will examine it with greatinterest”[29].

Such ideological alignment represents an important shift in the Russian foreign policy. Before Russia used to be more cautious while dealing with Chinese ideological concepts, never criticizing them but at the same time avoiding direct support. That was regarded as an important element of the strategic autonomy. For the same reason Russian has never hurried to become a full member of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Moscow has expressed support to the BRI, the Russian President participated the Belt and Road forums as a special guest, but Russia hasn’t gone beyond that. During his visit to Beijing to participate in the Belt and Road forum in October 2023 the Russian leader avoided making statements about Russia joining BRI but at the same time expressed interest in deepening the cooperation within the BRI framework[30].

At the same time China, while avoiding expressing direct support to the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, is clearly expressing its general support to the Russian leadership much stronger than before. Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia in March 2023 was a clear example: Xi highly praised Vladimir Putin’s successful leadership and expressed hope that he would be reelected for another term at 2024 Russia’s presidential elections.[31] Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China General Zhang Youxia who visited Russia in November 2023 reiterated, that the bilateral relations stood at the  highest level but the two countries did not plan to establish a formal military alliance[32].

Military cooperation between the two countries has not visibly affected by the Ukrainian conflict and the Western attempts to isolate Russia. Before the conflict in Ukraine Russia and China used to hold several large-scale military exercises every year or every second year. That included Peace Mission Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises, maritime cooperation naval exercises, joint strategic command exercises, internal security troop exercises, joint bomber and naval patrols, internal security troops exercises, etc. For example, joint bomber patrols were held in both 2022 and 2023[33]. The same way the two sides continued their naval exercises and even expanded them[34]. Strategic exercises were also held, although their scale was affected by the engagement of the large part of the Russian army into the Ukraine war[35].

While the two states continue to deny any plans to establish a military alliance, the scale of their military-to-military cooperation is very significant and growing. That cooperation is seen by both sides as a way to influence the global situation.

Prospects for cooperation development

Over two years of the Special Military Operation Russian-Chinese partnership has underwent considerable evolution. While denying any intentions to build a military alliance the two countries are de facto treating each other as allies. They have moved from cooperation on specific international issues on to the deep alignment of their views on international order, in some cases sharing the same ideological constructs.

Starting from the expansion of bilateral trade the states are now moving towards closer economic interdependence. They try to restructure their cooperation in a way that will increase both sides ability to counter Western economic warfare. Russia and China are planning to closer coordinate their policies in the fields of industry, logistics, energy, technologies, and innovations, etc.

The key challenge for both countries, and especially for Russia as an economically smaller player, is to find the right balance between the dependence on each other and the diversification of ties. Russia is trying to pursue its diversification policy by relying on the relations with India, Middle East countries and, to lesser extent, African and Latin American countries. However, none of them is capable of competing with China in the foreseeable future because of a huge size of Chinese economy and China’s strong industrial and technological potential. Overdependence on China is already causing certain concerns in the Russian industrial circles. For example, Russian producers of the road construction equipment started to complain about Chinese competition as early as October 2022[36].

Russia’s plans to increase commodities exports to China in order to fully replace the European market will claim much time and investment. Currently logistical infrastructure capacity, both railroad and pipelines, is the key bottleneck limiting potential volumes of Russian exports to China. Even with the three planned Power of Siberia pipelines commissioned and reaching full capacity, they will be able to annually transport some 100 billion cubic meters of gas to China against 145 cubic meters exported to Europe in 2021[37].

Still, the two governments apparently intend to overcome these difficulties. While avoiding any official statements about creating a formal military-political alliance, they already have established such an alliance in practice. With Russia’s relations with the West being already destroyed, each round of Sino-American relations deterioration is only pushing the two countries closer together.

[1] Совместное заявление Российской Федерации и Китайской Народной Республики о международных отношениях, вступающих в новую эпоху, и глобальном устойчивом развитии // Официальный сайт Президента России, 4 февраля 2022 г. URL:

[2] В ходе визита Путина в Китай подписаны контракты по газу и нефти. Главное // Российская газета, 4 февраля 2022 г. URL:

[3] Steven M., Gabriel C.  China’s Big Gas Bet Raises Questions about Complicity with Russia // The Foreign Policy, July 12, 2023. URL: 

[4] Chinese, Russian FMs Hold Phone Conversation // Xinhua, February 24, 2022. URL:

[5] Ван И изложил пять пунктов принципиальной позиции Китая по украинскому вопросу // СИНЬХУА Новости, 26 февраля 2022 г. URL:

[6] Ibid.

[7] China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis // Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. URL:

[8] US Dismisses China’s Ukraine Peace Proposal as an Attempt to Distract // Politico, February 23, 20223. URL:

[9] Путин: план КНР по Украине может быть взят за основу разрешения конфликта // РИА Новости, 21 марта 2023 г. URL:

[10] China’s Ambassador to the EU Tries to Distance Beijing from Moscow // The New York Times, April 5, 2023. URL:

[11] Посол Китая пообещал сотрудничество с Россией «спиной к спине» // РБК, 17 марта 2023 г. URL:

[12]Xi Jinping’s Plan to Reset China’s Economy and Win back Friends // The Financial Times, January 10, 2023. URL:

[13] Посол КНР в РФ Чжан Ханьхуэй дал интервью по действиям НАТО в Азии // Посольство Китайской Народной Республики в Российской Федерации, 3 августа 2023 г. URL:

[14] Olaf Scholz Calls on China to Step Up Pressure on Russia // The Financial Times, June 10, 2023.

[15] Торговля России с Китаем достигла рекорда // РБК, 13 января 2023 г. URL:

[16] Россия замещает западные станки китайскими // Mashnews, 24 мая 2023 г. URL:

[17] Taplin N. How Microchips Migrate from China to Russia // The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2023. URL:

[18] Поставки китайских легковых автомобилей в Россию подскочили на 543% // РБК, 26 июля 2023 г. URL:

[19] Ishii K., Macaire C., Stalla-Bourdillon A. China Has Reduced its Energy Bill Thanks to Russian Oil Discounts // Banque de France, September 27, 2023. URL:

[20] РФ и КНР подписали крупнейший контракт на поставку зерновых // ТАСС, 17 октября 2023 г. URL:

[21] Совместное заявление Президента Российской Федерации и Председателя Китайской Народной Республики о плане развития ключевых направлений российско-китайского экономического сотрудничества до 2030 года // Официальный сайт Президента России, 21 марта 2023 г. URL:

[22] Встреча Михаила Мишустина с Премьером Государственного совета Китайской Народной Республики Ли Цяном // Правительство России, 25 октября 2023 г. URL:

[23] За 10 месяцев года торговля между РФ и Китаем выросла на 27,7% // Интерфакс, 7 ноября 2023 г. URL:

[24] Совместное заявление Российской Федерации и Китайской Народной Республики о международных отношениях, вступающих в новую эпоху, и глобальном устойчивом развитии // Официальный сайт Президента России, 4 февраля 2022 г. URL:

[25] Ibid.

[26] 胡锦涛在中国共产党第十八次全国代表大会上的报告. URL:

[27] Ibid.

[28] Global Times: The Global Civilization Initiative Full of Chinese Wisdom, Injects Fresh Momentum into Bright Shared Future // Cision PR Newswire, April 17, 2023. URL:

[29] Совместное заявление Российской Федерации и Китайской Народной Республики об углублении отношений всеобъемлющего партнёрства и стратегического взаимодействия, вступающих в новую эпоху // Официальный сайт Президента России, 21 марта 2023 г. URL:

[30] Путин заявил о стремлении России и Китая к равноправному сотрудничеству в мире // ТАСС, 18 октября 2023 г. URL:

[31] Си Цзиньпин выразил уверенность, что россияне поддержат Путина на выборах // РБК, 20 марта 2023 г. URL:

[32] В Китае заявили о выходе отношений с Россией на самый высокий уровень // РИА Новости, 8 ноября 2023 г. URL:

[33] Бомбардировщики России и КНР провели совместное патрулирование двух морей //  РИА Новости, 7 июня 2023 г. URL:;  Россия и Китай провели совместное воздушное патрулирование // РБК, 30 ноября 2022 г. URL:

[34] В Японском море стартовали учения России и Китая «Север. Взаимодействие-2023» // ТАСС, 23 июля 2023 г. URL:

[35] Дальневосточные учения 14 армий мира // Независимое военное обозрение, 8 сентября 2023 г. URL:

[36] Погрузчики косятся на восток // ИД Коммерсантъ, 21 октября 2022 г. URL:

[37] Экспорт «Газпрома» прирастает Китаем // ИД Коммерсантъ, 12 декабря 2021 г. URL:


Source: PIR Center

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