A Western intelligence report indicates that Chinese officials requested their Russian counterparts wait until after the Beijing Olympics ended, if they decided to invade Ukraine, US officials said on Wednesday.
China-Russia likely communicated on Ukraine invasion timeline, US officials say
The report suggests senior Chinese officials had at least some level of prior direct knowledge about Russia’s war plans or intentions.
In the weeks prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western intelligence officials warily watched Putin’s buildup on the Ukrainian border, anticipating that he may delay military action until after the Olympics so to avoid angering China.
Even though the request was made around the time Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympics — where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping — it is not clear whether Putin addressed the matter with him directly.
With Putin and Xi’s meeting on the sidelines of the games, they issued a joint statement declaring that their partnership had “no limits,” with comments condemning NATO expansion — a key pillar of Putin’s justification for attacking Ukraine — included in their 5,000-word statement. And that statement has elevated Western concerns about a burgeoning alliance between China and Russia.
Open to interpretation
The intelligence was classified, collected by a Western intelligence service and considered credible by officials, according to The New York Times. Senior officials, including in the United States, passed the report around to allied governments as they speculated when Putin would attack Ukraine.
Different intelligence services’ varying interpretations, with questions as to how widely the information was shared, suggest the specifics are open to interpretation.
Given the close nature of the relationship between Putin and Xi, it is likely that the Russians briefed the Chinese on any important moves it was taking before the invasion, although they deny it.
China denies report
“The claims mentioned in the relevant reports are speculations without any basis, and are intended to blame-shift and smear China,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, in a statement to The Times.
China held the closing ceremony of the Olympics on February 20.
The following day, Putin ordered more Russian troops to enter eastern Ukraine, leading to a furious speech in which he said Ukraine should be a part of Russia. Then, on February 24, the Russian military began carrying out attacks on cities with ballistic missiles, artillery and tanks, leading to a de facto declaration of war.
Officials in both Europe and the US say it is hard to believe Putin’s invasion, which did not start until after the Olympics, was a mere coincidence. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, occurring as the Summer Olympics in Beijing took place, upset Chinese officials.
China-Russia strengthen ties
For decades, China and Russia have been strengthening their economic, diplomatic and military ties. The friendship between Putin and Xi is particularly noteworthy as both have met 37 times, as national leaders, before their latest meeting in Beijing.
The joint statement the two leaders issued alarmed Western officials because it was the first time China had explicitly sided with Russia on issues concerning NATO and European security.
The Times was the first news outlet to report on the existence of the report, with CNN, among others, confirming it thereafter.