Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
- Several Chinese officials tried to distance themselves from Putin and the Ukraine war, FT reported.
- One expert told Insider China may be trying to manage its relationships with the West.
- China has not officially endorsed the war but continues to buy Russian energy and other exports.
While much of the world condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and instituted crippling sanctions on the country, China has helped bankroll the Kremlin’s war effort.
This week, after several unnamed Chinese officials ripped into Putin in comments made to The Financial Times, some suggested that another of Putin’s allies was turning on him — but despite the criticism, China has stood by Russia.
“China may be trying to have it both ways,” Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider. He said the key was for China to “appear” to criticize Russia, “but what about their deeds?”
China may be trying to distance itself from the war in Ukraine — while not actually taking any meaningful steps to deter Putin’s efforts — in order to better manage its own relationships with the West, according to English.
“The war benefits Beijing because it distracts the West from confrontation with China and they also enjoy discounted energy imports from Russia, both of which they want to continue,” he explained. “But they don’t want trade ties with Europe to suffer, so they must appear to be criticizing Russia.”
Twenty days before the invasion in February, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared the relationship between the two countries had “no limits.” Since the invasion, China has served as a key trade partner for Russia, declining to institute any sanctions and continuing to buy up Russian energy. As Western nations cut ties with Russia, trade with China has been a lifeline to the Kremlin, helping to fund its war effort.
As of August, Chinese imports from Russia jumped by nearly 60% from the year prior, while exports to Russia increased by 26%, Reuters reported, citing customs data. The increase in imports was partly driven by a 22% rise in oil imports, just as European countries strategized to move away from Russian energy products.
China has also largely refrained from publicly condemning the war, even blaming NATO for pushing the Russia-Ukraine conflict to its “breaking point.” When the UN Security Council voted in September to condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories as illegal, China abstained. And in December, China’s foreign minister said the country would “deepen strategic mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation” with Russia.
But there have been some hints that Beijing is dissatisfied with the situation in Ukraine. During a meeting in September, Putin acknowledged that Xi had “questions and concerns” about the war. And in the FT report published this week, several Chinese officials tried to distance China from the Ukraine invasion, even expressing mistrust in Putin directly.
“Putin is crazy,” one unnamed Chinese official told FT. “The invasion decision was made by a very small group of people. China shouldn’t simply follow Russia.”
Still, English suspects the criticism could simply amount to China strategically protecting its own interests, without taking tangible action to bring an end to the fighting.
“Their economic support for Russia has not flagged, nor have they altered their official position blaming NATO for the conflict,” he said. “I’m afraid some analysts are thinking with their hearts, not their heads. We want to see Russia’s influence dramatically reduced, so we look for signs of weakness and sometimes exaggerate them.”
Though reports have suggested Putin could be losing the support of his allies, English was skeptical.
“Putin’s allies are not ‘turning on him,’ only expressing dissatisfaction at the difficulties his war in Ukraine is causing them,” he said. “There’s a big difference.”