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How China Could Help Russia’s Military Fight in Ukraine

Ukraine Su-57 Russia
Russian Su-57 stealth fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As Russia’s offensive remains bogged down in the Ukrainian mud, the Biden administration is claiming that Moscow has sought military assistance from Beijing. US intelligence reports that China is considering whether to give assistance and if so, how much. This represents a profound reversal of the traditional arms relationship between Russia and China, which has long involved the transfer of arms in the opposite direction.

What can China offer Russia?  For our purposes, we will exclude the three most important contributions that China can make to Russia’s war effort, namely financial, economic, and diplomatic support, and concentrate specifically on military capabilities.

Food for the Russian Military in Ukraine? 

An army, it is said, marches on its stomach. Modern mechanized armies tend to march (or drive, as the case may be) on some variant of the “Meal Ready to Eat,” or MRE. These meals are almost universally designed to provide high caloric content in a small, transportable, low-weight package that soldiers can use without excessive equipment or outside supplies. In Ukraine, reports suggest that one of the most critical Russia needs at the moment involves the delivery of rations to troops in the field. This seems like an exceedingly simple problem to solve, but apparently, corruption and poor maintenance of stocks have led to a shortage in usable MREs, as well as difficulties in getting MREs to units at the front.

March is not a great month to run short of food in the northern hemisphere, and the war itself has disrupted both Russian and Ukrainian food supplies. Thus, some reports indicate that one of the first and biggest asks for Russia is food; the People’s Liberation Army MREs that can be transported to the front and distributed to Russian soldiers. This is an ask that China can undoubtedly meet, as it likely has significant stocks and no immediate need for their use. That said, the quality of Chinese MREs is altogether uncertain. Chinese rations may also not meet Russian dietary needs. Hungry soldiers will eventually eat almost anything if they can’t get what they want, but stomachs and digestive systems accustomed to one kind of food may not react well to a completely foreign diet.

Munitions

At one point in history, China and Russia used broadly compatible equipment, but after 1961 the Chinese defense industrial base needed to become self-sufficient. The blooming of the Russia-China relationship in the 1990s again led to a period of broad compatibility, but rapid increases in Chinese technological capabilities have led to a significant divergence between the two militaries. This means that while in the past Russia probably could have counted on Chinese equipment to be interchangeable with its own, that is no longer the case.

Still, with Russia reportedly running short on various stocks of munitions, China can supply some but not all of Russia’s needs. Light ammunition, infantry weapons, and possibly ammunition for some larger guns are all likely manageable. Chinese anti-tank-guided munitions could easily be adapted for Russian purposes, although it’s unclear whether Russia has a shortage of such weapons. China could also supply basic equipment such as communications devices and other items needed to support vehicles and soldiers in the field.

Land Vehicles

Russia’s losses in land vehicles in the Russia-Ukraine War have been exorbitant, in some part because of the ineptitude of Russia’s mechanized offensive, and in some part because of the tremendous amount of anti-tank guided missiles that NATO has transferred to Ukraine. At points in its history, the idea of Russia running short of land vehicles would be utterly absurd, given the stockpiles left over from the USSR. But Russian production of mechanized vehicles nosedived around the collapse of the Soviet Union and has remained low (relatively to loss rates) in the decades since. Russia continues to have large stocks of mechanized vehicles in reserve, but most are in unmodernized condition and the viability of returning them to service in any kind of significant number is unclear. Finally, Russia curtailed production of some legacy vehicles in anticipation of the availability of the Armata family of armored vehicles, and unfortunately, the Armata project has been slow to bear fruit.

China's Tanks Ukraine

Type 99 Tank. Image: Creative Commons.

Thus, Russia has found itself in the uncomfortable position of potentially being in the market for Chinese mechanized vehicles. China exports a number of mechanized vehicles, including infantry fighting vehicles and tanks, and produces vehicles in sufficient numbers to replace Russian losses. Integrating these vehicles would take some time (perhaps longer than it would take to rehabilitate some of the vehicles in Russian storage), but if the war runs long it might make sense for Russia to acquire Chinese armor.

Air Vehicles

Russian air losses have been significant but not catastrophic thus far. Given the rapid expansion of Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems (supported by NATO), Russia’s air forces could at some point suffer an unsustainable degree of attrition. Russia and China already have a relationship in the aerospace sector, although largely it has involved the transfer of Russian equipment to China. In the extreme, China could help recapitalize Russia’s air force if the latter suffers serious losses.

What could the Chinese sell Russia? In some ways, China’s aerospace sector has exceeded that of Russia, although it still lags in some areas such as engines. China’s J-20 stealth fighter, for example, is far more mature in terms of technology and production than Russia’s Su-57. However, if Russia needs fighter aircraft it would probably rely more on established systems such as the J-10 or J-11.  In the short term, the most important contribution that China could make would be its extensive drone fleet. Although Chinese UAVs have been known to suffer from quality control issues, they are cheap and relatively easy to integrate into Russia’s military structure.

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter

Image of Chinese J-20 fighters: Creative Commons.

J-20

Image of Chinese J-20s: Creative Commons.

J-20

Image of J-20 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Sea Vehicles

Russia’s seapower has played an understated role in the Ukraine war, with Russian vessels supplying some shore bombardment, blockading Ukrainian ports, and offering an amphibious “fleet in being” to tie down Ukrainian forces in Odessa.  Given massive Russian superiority in the Black Sea, it is unlikely that buying warships from China represent any kind of priority for Moscow.

However, in the long run, the sclerotic nature of Russia’s shipbuilding sector makes it a natural target for Chinese exports. China already exports a variety of small and medium-sized surface warships, and conceivably could make the jump to larger ships vessels such as amphibious assault ships or even aircraft carriers.  The Russians could potentially pay for surface warships at least in part with expertise and technology in the sub-surface sector, the only area in which Russia still has a lead over China.

Will China Really Help Russia in Ukraine?

Chinese military support for Russia could undoubtedly be significant although probably not decisive in this conflict. Much of course depends on how long the war continues; if Russia decides to continue the war after being bogged down during the spring, it could require a substantial recapitalization for summer and autumn offensive actions. But let there be no doubt; the fact that Russia needs Chinese help is catastrophic in the long run for Russia’s defense industry.  Russia and China already compete for the same customers (apart from India), and Beijing often enjoys a cost if not quality advantage over Moscow. If Russia shows the world that it cannot resupply its own armed forces, it risks allowing China to eclipse it nearly completely on the international arms export market.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Alex

    March 22, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    Russia has no need for China in Ukraine. Assistance may be needed only in a war with NATO if there is a war without nuclear weapons, which is unlikely.

  2. Slack

    March 22, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    World now fully knows US very fond of sticking fake labels (& fake accusations) on adversaries or rivals.

    Still, xi jinping is fully guilty of throwing people of wuhan under the bus, just as biden did for people of ukraine for sake of hubris and poltical or personal expediency.

    China needs to get rid of bloody dengists who think regular threats and face slaps from US a-okay as long as dollars keep flooding in.

    They have no moral scruples JUST like biden and family.

    Having said that, there’s no need for china to help russia militarily. Cuz, in the big picture, US & NATO are eyeing beijing as their next target (after putin).

    Thus, lenovo, geely, zte, and others will soon face similar fate as roman abramovich, and US military will repeat the NATO push right up to china’s coasts and scs islands.

    So, no time to lose. Get the damned FOBS gliders ready, the spaceplanes ready, the s’sonic drones ready and df-17s ready.

    Otherwise, death is certain.

  3. Warspite

    March 22, 2022 at 12:51 pm

    Every arms exporter wants to make money and/or see how well it’s equipment actually works on the battlefield. Just as the West is eyeballing how well it’s goods perform why wouldn’t China want the same?

  4. Jacky

    March 22, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    Hmm, china supposedly sending arms to russia, a bit like ya shipping coal to newcastle.

    Recently, US F-35s had a ‘close encounter’ with j-20s in east china sea, and now the command and control vessel, USS Miguel Keith, has just entered south china sea.

    Seems that putin has much greater resolve than them weak-chinned chinns.

  5. Holodomor the great

    March 22, 2022 at 2:24 pm

    What Russia actually needs (other than competent tactics, and basic logistics) is volume in cheap guided free fall bombs. And perhaps armed fixed wing UAVs for attritable strikes, and to soak up stingers.

    Manpad IR SAM systems are pushing high Ruble Russian air assets to altitudes (15k+) at which they cannot expectably hit targets with unguided munitions, and still do so at risk of radar guided systems. Air assets and SAM systems are also keeping heavy bombers in standoff range, expending their long range guided systems.

    If aircraft cannot actually hit targets, they are nearly useless militarily. Almost as useless as Russian EW and SEAD has proven to be.

  6. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 22, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    This is very interesting information. Throwing light into an unknown helps greatly. While not wanting to paraphrase and cast that light differently by a selective quote, this resonates:

    Chinese military support for Russia could undoubtedly be significant although probably not decisive in this conflict.

    From this article, it would appear that Russian leadership is pretty much on its own. An area also in considering the above is what ‘China’ (as ever, referring to leadership, not the goodfolk citizenry going about their daily lives) is seen to do in helping the Russian invasion. That is, how ‘China’ appears on the world stage.

    I have a serious concern about the world stage at this moment when it comes to China, and it’s not about China. My concern is that the US leadership could overstep and be unnecessarily provocative towards China. The concern is the excellent temperance shown elsewhere doesn’t carry into US leadership responses to China.

    I’d like to posit something that may be highly controversial in some quarters. As leaders present themselves on the world stage, there are the run-of-the-mill type which blend into the mix, and there are some standouts who excel.

    I think one of those leaders of excellence is vastly under-acknowledged.

    In fact, when putting oneself into this leader’s position, this leader may possibly be regarded as the most excellent of them all.

    That’s President Xi Jinping.

    This commendation does not apply to the leadership suite of China, as some in there as they present on the world stage don’t have what he has, nor provide what he provides.

    Time and again I have watched events develop, then unfold, on the world stage, events that have some heat in them, and China’s involvement is seriously anticipated – and time and again its president provides a thoughtful, calm, sensible and measured response.

    It really does I think bear respect. None of this is to say China’s response is weak nor carrying respect for its own position – it does. But look at how well it does it.

    For a nation that size, with that capacity, we are I think extremely fortunate to have the personage of President Xi Jinping at the helm.

    Imagine perhaps being in his position. He has his own form of government, a form government directly in the ‘firing line’, if it could be so called, of those in the West. He is under a constant threat or sense-of-threat that emanates from Western leaderships if not a directly expressed threat.

    And what do we, in the world, get from him? That continual, measured calmness and carefully placed response. Under this constant circumstance, it is really quite remarkable.

    At times it is the US leadership which gets on the front foot, is aggressive and, I think, unnecessarily aggressive, in its warnings and statements to ‘China’ and on these occasions I look at it and think how the hell is China going to respond to that? Then the response comes, and it is, again, measured and sensible and calm, while looking after its own interests.

    I feel a sense of genuine wisdom in how President Xi Jinping responds, and stands, on the world stage.

    This is not to say the Chinese form of government is the better, nor even desirable, yet from the Chinese perspective, being different and in their own developed form of government, and ever in the spotlight for its difference, its leadership in manner and style I think could teach many Western leaderships a lesson.

    It is this sensible and measured, careful, disposition of China as it responds to world events towards which hope is given, regarding this invasion.

    I actually have significant trust that Chinese leadership will not make a mistake, when others on the world stage may.

    Over the years, President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have developed a relationship, and formed their friendship as evidently expressed. If anyone from outside of Russia is to have a good handle on Putin’s state of mind, it is Xi Jinping. Without doubt the changes in Putin would be in the centre of the equasion for China.

    Underneath the show, underneath the facade, Vladimir Putin is an angry individual. Anger has long simmered within him, growing to become severe, like a sort of venon or acid in his being. Putin has spoken himself of how to behave (believe it or not) on the world stage, using terms such as “mature” and “reserved”. Yet underneath it he is anything but.

    The anger in Vladimir Putin is palpable. Even in times of Russian peace, if it could be called that, when Putin is interviewed and his views had the occasion, the moment, to be delivered with what would be in another person a form of welcome persuasion, Putin delivers anger. It’s in his walk, which, not incidentally, beneath the attempts at bravado and swagger, is the walk of a man not in full control of his thoughts – not centred.

    Putin’s recent remarks, after the initial near-proof of his failure to achieve what is widely regarded as his goal, about spitting out gnats, about designing the Russian citizenry, exhibited a man in the grips of uncontrolled anger. So much for “mature” and “reserved”.

    I think President Xi Jinping would have got that, along with anything of a personal communication between them. It would be surprising if President Xi Jinping escalates involvement at this point due if only to that. His ‘partner’ is loose.

    We are currently witnessing in Vladimir Putin the expression of intense anger. That smashing of buildings is not just a military tactic as others have well documented, it’s anger unleashed.

    Knowledgeable and highly experienced military seniors speak informatively of “supply lines”. The human mind also needs supply lines. Putin has few of them, diminished over a long period and diminishing severely now. He would have had to sell his invasion intention to those around him. Then, when not achieved, had to sell a new version. For anyone, that results in a place of having to defend oneself. It results in cynicism growing around him. That means less personal support: the losing of supply lines that inform, refresh, stabilize, nourish, mentally.

    Putin still has the controls, and with them he’s presenting to the world that intense anger unleashed. But without emotional or pschological supply lines that anger mutates into fear and doubt. That’s why I think Vladimir Putin is in trouble.

    We’re not there yet. And of course anything could change it. But as it looks at present, more anger (apart from the military aspects of this) results in more severe weapons sent, and that’s where world leaderships have to hold their minds. Withstand that, I think the world of Vladimir Putin then begins the stage of slowly imploding.

    It looks like then, at a guess, three weeks of intensity. But he can’t keep bombing buildings and killing civilians as a means of proving to those around him that he knows what he’s doing.

    Just a view. The point here for what it’s worth, considering the information in the article above, is that it’s not ‘China’ to worry about, it’s Western response remaining calm and measured in the face of what is likely to immediately come.

  7. Alex

    March 23, 2022 at 2:35 am

    -Evil Putin destroys buildings.
    -Do you have reliable sources of information?
    – Yes, our media is the most truthful in the world.
    -But other journalists showed that the Ukrainian nationalists themselves are firing at peaceful Ukrainians in order to set Russia up.
    -These are Russian journalists.
    -There are videos from journalists in Germany, France, China.
    -These are pro-Russian journalists.
    (Dialogue with those who hate Russia and hide behind the fact that they hate not Russia, but Putin.)

  8. John Mason

    March 23, 2022 at 7:38 am

    Such a shame. This is a great site with lots of indepth information and detailed analysis thats hard to find elsewhere, but the comments are full to the brim with infiltrated Russian-Chinese bots and misinformation. Regrettable.

  9. Alex

    March 23, 2022 at 8:01 am

    It’s a shame to be a stupid, uneducated chauvinist. I advise Americans to listen to their compatriot – Scott Ritter. And do not write here your fantasies and lies, from which it is simply ridiculous.

  10. Ian spiller

    April 6, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    John mason, I agree. The trolls on here aren’t even thought provoking, the dreary crib sheet propaganda has become more boring than shocking. ‘hail to the glorious leader as he leads us onwards to victory ( without harming a single civilian)’ pull the other one Alex. )’

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