China asked Russia to delay Ukraine war until after Olympics, US officials say

A Western intelligence report said senior Chinese officials told senior Russian officials in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to senior Biden administration officials and a European official.

Edward Wong and Julian E BarnesThe New York Times
Published : 3 March 2022, 03:06 AM
Updated : 3 March 2022, 03:37 AM

The report indicates that senior Chinese officials had some level of knowledge about Russia’s war plans or intentions before the invasion started last week. President Vladimir Putin of Russia met with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing on Feb 4 before the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Moscow and Beijing issued a 5,000-word statement at the time declaring that their partnership had “no limits,” denouncing NATO enlargement and asserting that they would establish a new global order with true “democracy.”

The intelligence on the exchange between the Chinese and Russian officials was classified. It was collected by a Western intelligence service and considered credible by officials. Senior officials in the United States and allied governments passed it around as they discussed when Putin might attack Ukraine.

However, different intelligence services had varying interpretations, and it is not clear how widely the information was shared.

One official familiar with the intelligence said the material did not necessarily indicate the conversations about an invasion took place at the level of Xi and Putin. Other officials briefed on the intelligence declined to give further details. The officials spoke about the report on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence.

When asked by email Wednesday whether Chinese officials had urged Russian officials to delay an invasion of Ukraine until after the Olympics, Liu Pengyu, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, said, “These claims are speculation without any basis, and are intended to blame-shift and smear China.”

China held the closing ceremony of the Olympics on Feb 20. The next day, Putin ordered more Russian troops to enter an insurgent-controlled area of eastern Ukraine after state television broadcast a meeting between him and his National Security Council and, separately, a furious speech in which he said Ukraine should be a part of Russia. Early Feb 24, Russian military began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including carrying out attacks on cities with ballistic missiles, artillery and tanks.

US and European officials have said they find it hard to believe it is mere coincidence that Putin’s invasion did not start until right after the end of the Olympics. In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia during the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which upset some Chinese officials.

Over the winter, Russia moved military units from its border with China and other parts of the east to the border with Ukraine and to Belarus to prepare for the invasion. The movements indicated a high level of trust between Russian and Chinese officials.

China and Russia have been strengthening their economic, diplomatic and military ties for years. Xi and Putin met 37 times as national leaders before their discussions in Beijing before the Olympics. The ambitious joint statement that the two nations issued during that meeting alarmed US and European officials, especially because it was the first time that China had explicitly sided with Russia on issues concerning NATO and European security. European leaders have denounced China and Russia in recent weeks.

Rep Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was not familiar with the intelligence on discussions between Russia and China over Ukraine, but Beijing’s support of Moscow was clear.

“The Chinese support all of Putin’s narrative to blame the West for provoking Russia,” Gallagher said. “I see no change in the Chinese views on Russia. They remain in a de facto alliance against the West at this point.”

For months, some US officials tried to recruit China in efforts to avert war in Ukraine.

Days after President Joe Biden spoke to Xi in a video summit Nov 15, senior US officials decided to present intelligence on the Russian troop buildup around Ukraine to senior Chinese officials to try to get them to persuade Putin to stand down. The Americans spoke to Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador in Washington, and to Wang Yi, the foreign minister, among others. In a half-dozen meetings, including one in Washington between US officials and the Chinese ambassador just hours before the Russian invasion, Chinese officials expressed skepticism that Putin would invade Ukraine, US officials said.

After one diplomatic exchange in December, US officials received intelligence showing that Beijing had shared the information with Moscow, telling the Russians that the United States was trying to sow discord and that China would not try to impede Russian plans, US officials said.

US intelligence findings and assessments of Russian plans for an invasion of Ukraine have generally been accurate. The Americans began a campaign last fall to share intelligence with mainly ally and partner nations and to present declassified material to the public to build pressure on Russia to halt any planned invasion. William Burns, the CIA director, flew to Moscow on Nov 2 to confront the Russians with the information, and on Nov 17, US intelligence officials shared their findings with NATO.

British officials had assessed that an attack by Putin before the Olympics was possible but unlikely, according to multiple officials briefed on London’s intelligence. That was partly based on the Western intelligence report, but mostly on an analytic assessment that Russia’s plan to overcome Western sanctions was highly dependent on China’s support and the notion that Putin would not risk angering Xi.

British officials also assessed that the joint statement issued by Putin and Xi was a clear sign of China’s support, something that Beijing would have been reluctant to give if Putin was willing to overshadow the Olympics by beginning his assault before the end of the Games, according to people familiar with the British thinking.

US intelligence officials observed Moscow making final preparations around Feb 10, the kinds of movements that immediately precede an attack.

Allied intelligence services learned from intercepted communications that senior Russian commanders were being brought together for a meeting, which some Western governments believed was the key decision point for military commanders to begin the attack. This intelligence was part of what led Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, to warn Feb 11 that a Russian attack could come before the end of the Olympics. Multiple officials also said at the time that US officials had picked up intelligence that Russia was considering Feb 16 as the possible date for the start of military action. That prediction turned out to be wrong, though only by a few days.

In assessing that Russia could ignore China’s widely understood desire that peace be maintained through the Olympics, intelligence agencies took into account multiple considerations. While US officials acknowledged that Putin’s relationship with Xi was important, they believed Russia wanted to quickly begin, and complete, an attack before the readiness of its troops declined. Putin, US officials assessed, also did not want to be seen as overly deferential to another leader.

Both US and British intelligence officials also wrongly assessed that supply problems that had plagued Russian forces in Belarus during military exercises had been fixed, allowing an invasion to proceed, according to a person briefed on the assessment. In reality, the supply problems continued to hamper Russian forces as they moved into Ukraine.

Since the war began, Chinese officials have consistently sided with Russia. They have expressed support for Russia’s concerns about NATO and spoken of “sovereignty” in ambiguous terms. A Chinese government readout of a telephone conversation Friday between Xi and Putin reiterated those points. Spokespeople for the Chinese Foreign Ministry have refused to call Russia’s actions an “invasion” and blamed the US for inflaming tensions around Ukraine.

Chinese officials have also criticised the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and European nations.

On Wednesday, Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at a news conference in Beijing that Russia and Ukraine should “seek a political solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of both sides.”

China is trying to evacuate thousands of its citizens, including diplomats, from Ukraine. About 6,000 citizens were in Ukraine before those efforts began. At least one Chinese citizen was injured by gunfire Tuesday while trying to leave Ukraine, Wang said. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, spoke with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on Tuesday about the Chinese citizens in the country, according to an official Chinese readout of the conversation.

It is not clear what assurances, if any, Russian officials gave Chinese officials about the invasion. On Feb 24, the day the full-scale invasion began, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, “We noted that today Russia announced its launch of a special military operation in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s defence ministry said that its armed forces will not conduct missile, air or artillery strikes on cities.”

US and European officials are watching China to see whether it will help Russia evade sanctions or salvage the Russian economy. Before the invasion, Beijing and Moscow announced a 30-year contract for China to buy gas through a new pipeline. China has also lifted restrictions on the import of Russian wheat. But US officials expect Chinese state-owned banks to avoid openly violating the sanctions for fear of jeopardizing their global commerce.

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