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Did China Know Russia Would Invade Ukraine? Answer Will Affect Beijing’s Reputation

Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard in the Tiananmen area near the Great Hall of the People ahead of the annual parliamentary meetings on March 3, 2022, in Beijing.
Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard in the Tiananmen area near the Great Hall of the People ahead of the annual parliamentary meetings on March 3, 2022, in Beijing.

China has rejected a report that said its officials told their Russian counterparts to delay an invasion of Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics. Experts say the flap indicates Chinese leaders could have known an attack was coming and that such a discovery would taint China’s reputation in the West.

Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the March 3 New York Times report “pure fake news.” The newspaper cited a Western intelligence report saying senior Chinese officials told senior Russian officials in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Feb. 4-20 Games. The war began a week ago.

“Such practice of diverting attention and blame-shifting is despicable,” Wang told a regular news conference Thursday.

“The ins and outs of the developments of the Ukraine issue are very clear. The crux of the issue is known to all,” he said.

In Washington, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said the report’s “claims are speculation without any basis and are intended to blame-shift and smear China.”

National leaders seldom tell one another in advance about upcoming wars, so information between Russia and China would point to a special relationship, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“It is important, because it shows the nature and the depth of the China-Russia relations,” Sun said. “If China identifies with Russian invasions, then China is an accomplice. We cannot expect China to respond in a constructive way.”

In the United States, which has harshly criticized Russia’s invasion, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said Thursday that supporters of Moscow will land on the “wrong side of history” and that “the world has been watching to see which nations stand up for Ukraine.”

Sino-Russian ties have grown closer over the past year, but China positioned itself this week as a mediator between war-divided Russia and Ukraine rather than a backer of Moscow.

China’s ties with Russia still rank as an “extremely high priority,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow with the trans-Atlantic cooperation advocacy group German Marshall Fund. The two competed with Washington during the Cold War and have again realigned themselves against the West in recent years.

China probably expected Russia to win quickly in Ukraine, as it has in its past wars, Small said.

“I think the sense that China acted as an enabler for Russia in the runup to this is not something that's going to go away, and that's one of the areas where there will be a lot of collateral damage in different ways economically for China and in their relations with other countries in Europe in particular,” he said.

China probably had at least an inkling of Russia’s designs for Ukraine before the Olympics and urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the attack as not to distract from the Games, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii.

Leaders in Beijing could not easily have influenced Putin’s overall decision whether to invade Ukraine, Vuving added.

“What China could do was to persuade Putin to delay the attack [until] after the Olympics, which Putin did, so I think that was realistic and it indicated a very high level of cooperation between China and Russia,” he said.