China-Russia Interactions Leading up to the Invasion of Ukraine

04/20/2022
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Timeline of key events leading up to the invasion, including points of Russia-China communication and engagement

(March 2021 to February 20, 2022)

[March, 2021: Russia forward deploys forces and equipment to areas near Ukrainian border and to Crimea as part of Russia’s annual strategic exercise, ZAPAD-2021, which in 2021 focused on Russia’s western front. No statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense was found regarding this exercise.]

[April, 2021: Four Russian Combined Arms Armies (CAA) and airborne units position near Ukraine to supplement two already stationed there. No statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense was found regarding this deployment.]

July 11, 2021:

  • [Statement] General Secretary of the CCP Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin commemorate 20th Anniversary of Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout for the reception states Russia and China will “continuously raise the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, which is ‘not an ally but better than an ally’ to new highs.” 

[July 2021: Russia conducts Russian National Guard exercise for units that can be tasked as rear-guard security or as third-echelon force to control occupied territories. No statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense was found regarding this exercise.]

July 13, 2021:  

  • General Secretary Xi and Ukrainian President Zelensky speak on the phone. They discuss COVID-19, the Belt and Road Initiative, and a closer Ukraine-China strategic partnership. The readout from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not mention Russian force posture or Russian activity in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Russia seized in 2014. 

August 9-13, 2021:

  • [Action] Russian and Chinese military forces participate in a joint exercise called ZAPAD/INTERACTION-2021 in China’s Western Theater Command (WTC). This is the first Russia-China exercise in China, and the fourth consecutive year China has participated in Russia’s annual strategic level exercise. 

August 23- September 4, 2021:

  • [Action] The PLA attends and competes in Russian-hosted events for the International Army Games. China also hosts three competitions in Xinjiang as part of the Games. Ukraine did not attend any events for the Games. 

[September 10-16, 2021: Russia conducts ZAPAD-2021 Strategic Command Staff Exercise, which is the culmination of its annual exercise and takes place across training ranges in Russia’s Western Military District, in Belarus, and with the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. Russia claims 200,000 troops participating from seven nations, including Belarus and nations in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); past ZAPAD iterations number 50,000 to 75,000 troops.]

September 11-25, 2021:

  • [Action] Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) holds Peace Mission 2021 Drills in Orenburg, Russia, near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. China sends units and equipment from its Northern Theater Command (NTC). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s comments about the drills primarily relate to Afghanistan and not to specific cooperation with the Russian military or to NATO.

November 25, 2022:

  • [Statement, Action] Senior Colonel Wu Qian hosts press conference on China-Russia military cooperation. Wu states “There is no limit to the mil-to-mil relationship between China and Russia, and there is no end to the China-Russia military cooperation.” Wu notes that the two militaries have first, “maintained close strategic communication” second, “intensified pragmatic cooperation on military exercise and training” and third, “improved their military cooperation mechanism” through multilateral frameworks such as SCO. 

[November 28, 2021: Ukraine warns that 92,000 Russian troops are deployed on its border.]

[December 17, 2021: President Putin makes security demands of NATO, including guaranteed limits on NATO and NATO activity, and a commitment that Ukraine will not join NATO.]

January 4, 2022:

  • General Secretary Xi and President Zelensky exchange congratulations on 30th Anniversary of diplomatic relations. The readout from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs includes no new commitments or mentions of Russia.

[January 7, 2022: Russian troops arrive in Belarus for drills to “thwart external aggression.” No statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense was found regarding this deployment.]

January 10, 2022:

  • Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak on the phone, primarily to discuss events in Kazakhstan. 

[January 25, 2022: Russian exercises begin with 6,000 troops in southern Russia and Crimea. No statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense was found regarding this exercise.]

[January 26, 2022: NATO formally rejected President Putin’s demands that NATO retreat from Eastern Europe in a written statement that upholds NATO’s “open-door” policy, and suggests discussion of arms control and confidence-building measures. NATO and President Biden both issued written responses.] 

January 27, 2022:

  • Wang Yi and Secretary Antony Blinken speak on the phone at Sec. Blinken’s request. Wang Yi states that it is necessary to return to the new Minsk agreements, to stop expanding military blocs, and to address Russia’s legitimate security concerns. 

[January 28, 2022: Putin announces that the West has ignored his security concerns.]

February 3, 2022:

  • [Action] Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov meet. They hold “in-depth discussions” and compare “notes as well as coordinated positions” on issues including BRICS, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

February 4, 2022:

  • [Statement] General Secretary Xi meets with President Putin during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The leaders release a joint statement on a “new era” of international relations, pledging to “oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States.” The statement does not explicitly mention Ukraine.
  • [Statement, Action] Following a meeting between General Secretary Xi and President Putin, China announces it will relax restrictions on imports of Russian wheat. China's General Administration of Customs formally relaxed the restrictions on February 24. 
  • [Action] President Putin announces oil and gas deals with China worth an estimated $117.5 billion USD. Russian gas firm Gazprom’s contract to supply 10 billion cubic meters could generate $37.5 billion USD over 25 years, and Russian oil firm Rosneft’s contract to supply 100 million tons of oil over 10 years is worth $80 billion USD.

February 14, 2022:

  • Russian oil company Gazprom Neft’s jet fuel subsidiary Gazpromneft-Aero announced it switched to using the RMB to settle refueling flights of Russian airlines in China.

February 16, 2022:

  • [Statement] General Secretary Xi holds a call with French President Emmanual Macron, stressing that related parties should stick to the general direction of political settlement of the Ukraine issue.”

February 19, 2022:

  • [Statement] Wang Yi speaks at the Munich Security Conference, stating “all parties need to work together for peace, not create panic or hype up war.” Wang Yi notes that NATO is a product of the Cold War and must adapt to changing circumstances, that the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity should be respected, including Ukraine, and that Russia’s reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously. China states returning to the Minsk II agreement as soon as possible is the only way out.

(For a Timeline of key events and statements summarizing China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from February 21, 2022 onward, visit https://www.uscc.gov/research/key-events-and-statements-summarizing-chinas-position-russias-invasion-ukraine)