The United States has seen evidence that the People's Republic of China is considering sending lethal weapons to Russia for its use in the war in Ukraine, and has directly warned China of consequences, according to a senior State Department official.
"We obviously have a reason to be concerned," Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told VOA in an interview on Thursday. She stopped short of elaborating on details when asked if there is evidence that Beijing is considering sending lethal aid to Moscow.
Sherman sat down with VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching on Thursday as Russia's war on Ukraine neared its one-year mark.
The State Department's second most senior official said the U.S. has warned China directly of consequences.
"If the People's Republic of China provides lethal support to Russia, then it becomes a co-belligerent in many ways, and … there would be consequences," Sherman told VOA.
Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would suspend its participation in the new START nuclear arms control treaty, Washington said Moscow appears to be posturing, and condemned such a move as "irresponsible."
"We do not expect President Putin to use nuclear weapons," Sherman said.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Russia would deploy Sarmat nuclear missiles, boosting its nuclear forces. This came after Putin said Russia would suspend its participation in the New START Treaty. What is the U.S. read of these moves?
DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE WENDY SHERMAN: I think it is useful to pay attention to what Russia does. They have said they've suspended, not terminated, their participation in New START. We will see what actions they take. And that will tell us a lot about where we're heading. President Biden also said, however, that right now, we do not expect President Putin to use nuclear weapons — something that the entire world is concerned about. And everyone should be ensuring and saying to President Putin: Do not take such action. It would change the world.
VOA: So, you think Putin is posturing and not serious about using nuclear weapons?
SHERMAN: I think we will watch his actions, not just his words. And I think suspending the New START treaty does not mean he's about to use nuclear weapons. He's just taking a step to suspend our ability to inspect each other's stockpiles. He has said, however, that he will maintain the numbers that are agreed to and some of the other provisions. So, let's see what happens.
VOA: Would President Biden's administration provide Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles? Some congressional members are advocating for Ukraine to get these items.
SHERMAN: We understand why many are advocating for them, and certainly understand why President Zelenskyy wants every weapon system that he can imagine is necessary.
And yet, I think President Biden has made very thoughtful decisions, ensuring that the weapons we supply match the needs on the battlefield. We are in constant communications with Ukrainians about their needs. Fifty nations around the world have supplied some support to Ukraine, whether that's economic assistance, humanitarian assistance or weapons.
VOA: Does the U.S. believe F-16s and long-range missiles are imperative for Ukraine's success on the battlefield?
SHERMAN: The president is looking at these decisions step by step. He has said F-16s are not these kinds of weapons that are ready for us to send for a whole number of reasons.
VOA: Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi's visit to Moscow this week is seen as paving the way for Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit in coming months. Can you talk about People's Republic of China's role in Russia's war on Ukraine?
SHERMAN: Well, we're quite concerned about this. As we heard Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken say at the Munich Security Conference after his meeting with Wang Yi, that he had said quite directly to Director Wang Yi, that if the People's Republic of China provides lethal support to Russia, then it becomes a co-belligerent in many ways, and that there would be consequences. And so, this is a very concerning moment and a very big choice for Xi Jinping if he decides, in fact, to take this step.
VOA: Does the U.S. believe China is considering sending lethal weapons to Russia? Do you see any evidence?
SHERMAN: Well, Secretary Blinken raised that concern because we do have that concern. We have said so directly to the People's Republic of China. We've shared our concern with many countries around the world and urge them to urge Xi Jinping to make the right choice here.
VOA: So, are you saying that there is indeed an indication that China is considering sending lethal weapons to Russia?
SHERMAN: What I'm saying is that Secretary Blinken raised the issue because we obviously have reason to be concerned.
VOA: What is the endgame here? Does the U.S. see any way to facilitate an end to this conflict? How long will the U.S. continue to send money, weapons for this war that Russia seems to have no inclination of ending?
SHERMAN: I think Americans see that Ukrainians are fighting for themselves. They're courageous. They're resilient. They have been without electricity, without power, without water. Parents, moms and dads have had their children abducted by Russia, taken to Russia, separated from their families, to 're-educate them to be Russians.' That has terrible echoes in history. And there's not a mother and father in this world that doesn't understand how horrifying that is.
The kinds of actions that Vladimir Putin is taking are, as Secretary Blinken has defined, as Vice President Kamala Harris has said at the Munich Security Conference this past week, are indeed crimes against humanity.
VOA: Then why hasn't the State Department designated Russia as a state that sponsors terrorism?
SHERMAN: We are looking at all of the appropriate legal channels. There is no question there has to be accountability here. And there are many ways to achieve accountability. And we are open to considering all of them.