July 24, 2024

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a reception at the Kremlin on March 21. (Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin/Reuters)

China approved “provision of lethal aid” to Russia in its war in Ukraine earlier this year and planned to disguise military equipment as civilian items, according to a U.S. intercept of Russian intelligence revealed in leaked secret documents.

The intercept, apparently obtained through U.S. eavesdropping on Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), was included in a top-secret summary, dated Feb. 23, of recent Ukraine- and Russia-related “products” compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was among a number of previously unreported documents that The Washington Post obtained from a trove of images of classified files posted on a private server on the chat app Discord.

According to “signals intelligence,” the intelligence summary said, the SVR reported that China’s Central Military Commission had “approved the incremental provision” of weapons and wanted it kept secret. The report did not indicate the source of the SVR’s information.

The document, titled “The Watch Report,” and produced by the ODNI as “A Summary of Recent Reporting and Select items from [intelligence] Community,” is labeled top secret with highly restricted distribution. The China information is listed under a subhead, “BEIJING REPORTEDLY APPROVES COVERT SHIPMENTS OF LETHAL AID TO RUSSIA.”

The ODNI did not respond to a call asking for comment.

“We have not seen evidence that China has transferred weapons or provided lethal assistance to Russia. But we remain concerned and are continuing to monitor closely,” a senior administration official said. A senior defense official agreed with that assessment. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss information about the top-secret document.

The report provides the most detailed evidence to date of what led to a flurry of public and private Biden administration warnings to Beijing beginning in late February.

China, which maintains it is neutral on the war in Ukraine, denounced those U.S. statements and said it would never accept coercion or “the U.S. pointing fingers” when Washington is funneling massive amounts of arms into the war.

But the leaked document expands insight into Russia’s deepening relationship with China, which is now Moscow’s chief foreign friend as President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine leaves Russia increasingly isolated. Although Chinese leader Xi Jinping appeared to cement his relationship with Putin during a three-day visit to Moscow last month, China has held back from fully endorsing the Russian leader’s effort in Ukraine, instead positioning itself as a potential peacemaker.

The United States and NATO have responded skeptically to Beijing’s calls for a cease-fire and to its 12-point peace plan, saying no solution should allow Russia to “rest” and “rearm.” Ukraine, meanwhile, demands that any negotiated settlement respect its internationally recognized borders, which would require Russia to withdraw from Crimea and other occupied areas of Ukraine.

A separate U.S. intelligence assessment from the same period, part of a more widely circulated batch of Discord files, assessed that Beijing would view a “significant” Ukrainian attack within Russia using U.S. or NATO weapons “as indicative that Washington was directly responsible for escalating the conflict and possibly as further justification for China to provide Russia with lethal aid.”

Ukraine is believed to have sponsored or supported a number of attacks inside Russia, and U.S. officials say they have warned Kyiv not to use U.S. or NATO-supplied weapons for any operation outside Ukrainian territory.

The revelations come at a time of heightened U.S.-China tensions and strained communications between Beijing and Washington, particularly over Taiwan. A planned trip to Beijing in early February by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was canceled at the last minute after a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over military installations in the continental United States. The balloon was subsequently shot down over the Atlantic Ocean by a U.S. fighter jet, a response that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called “hysterical” and an “effort to divert attention away from domestic problems.”

On Feb. 19, the day after he met with Wang at a security conference in Munich, Blinken told CBS News that the administration’s long-standing concerns that China might provide support for the Russian war effort had recently increased. “We have seen them provide nonlethal support to Russia for use in Ukraine,” Blinken said. “The concern that we have now is based in information we have that they’re considering providing lethal support, and we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.”

Asked what “lethal” support meant, Blinken said, “Weapons. Weapons. … A whole gamut of things that fit in that category, everything from ammunition to the weapons themselves.” Senior administration officials, who were not authorized to address the matter publicly, later said the shipments under consideration included artillery ammunition that Russia desperately needs. Blinken said he had shared U.S. concerns with Wang.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that Washington “should reflect on its own actions. It is the United States and not China that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield.”

CIA Director William J. Burns, in a Feb. 26 CBS News interview, said the administration was “confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment.” He indicated that making that information public, if not its source, was intended to deter Beijing. Both Blinken and President Biden, Burns said, “have thought it important to make very clear what the consequences of that would be.”

U.S. could sanction Chinese firms if Beijing sends arms to Russia

After reports circulated last month that Xi was willing to have a telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States would welcome such a conversation.

“That would be a good thing, because it would potentially bring more balance and perspective to the way that [China] is approaching this,” Sullivan said. “And we hope it would continue to dissuade them from choosing to provide lethal assistance to Russia, which is obviously something that we have warned about.”

The call between Xi and Zelensky has not yet happened. But in Moscow, on March 21, Xi and Putin affirmed their countries’ “strategic alignment” and welcomed a “new era” of partnership.

“We think it would be a big mistake for China to do that,” Sullivan said, alluding to the possibility of Beijing’s providing lethal aid, “because Russia is using those weapons to kill civilians and commit war crimes. And China should want nothing to do with that.

On several recent occasions, Biden has said there is no evidence of lethal supplies from China going to Russia.

“I’ve been hearing now for the past three months about China’s going to provide significant weapons to Russia,” Biden said at a March 24 news conference in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “They haven’t yet — doesn’t mean they won’t — but they haven’t yet.”

Cate Caddell contributed to this report.