Russian entities also received 12 shipments of drone parts by Chinese companies and over 12 tons of Chinese body armor, routed via Turkey, in late 2022, according to the data.
Although the customs data does not show that Beijing is selling a large amount of weapons to Moscow specifically to aid its war effort, it reveals that China is supplying Russian companies with previously unreported “dual-use” equipment — commercial items that could also be used on the battlefield in Ukraine.
It is the first confirmation that China is sending rifles and body armor to Russian companies, and shows that drones and drone parts are still being sent despite promises from at least one company that said it would suspend business in Russia and Ukraine to ensure its products did not aid the war effort.
The confirmation of these shipments comes as leaders in the U.S. and Europe warn Beijing against supporting Russia’s efforts in Ukraine. Western officials have said in recent weeks that China is considering sending weapons to Russia’s military, a move that could alter the nature of the fighting on the ground in Ukraine, tipping it in Russia’s favor. Officials are also concerned that some of the dual-use material could also be used by Russia to equip reinforcements being deployed to Ukraine at a time when Moscow is in desperate need of supplies.
Da-Jiang Innovations Science & Technology Co., also known as DJI, sent drone parts — like batteries and cameras — via the United Arab Emirates to a small Russian distributor in November and December 2022. DJI is a Chinese company that has been under U.S. Treasury sanctions since 2021 for providing the Chinese state with drones to surveil the Uyghur minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
In addition to drones, Russia has for months relied on other countries, including China, for navigation equipment, satellite imagery, vehicle components and other raw materials to help prop up President Vladimir Putin’s year-old war on Ukraine.
It’s currently unclear if Russia is using any of the rifles included in the shipment data on the battlefield — Tekhkrim, the Russian company, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But the DJI drones have been spotted on the battlefield for months. DJI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The National Security Council did not comment on the record for this story. The Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement that Beijing is “committed to promoting talks for peace” in Ukraine.
“China did not create the crisis. It is not a party to the crisis, and has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict,” said embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu.
Asked about the findings in the data obtained by POLITICO, Poland’s Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś said that “due to the potential very serious consequences, such information should be verified immediately.”
Although Western sanctions have hampered Moscow’s ability to import everything from microchips to tear gas, Russia’s still able to buy supplies that support its war effort from “friendly” countries that aren’t following the West’s new rules, like China or the Gulf countries.
“Some commercial products, like drones or even microchips, could be adapted. They can transform from a simple benign civilian product to a lethal and military product,” said Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center of Naval Analyses Russia Studies in Washington, noting that dual-use items could help Russia advance on the battlefield.
Experts say it is difficult to track whether dual-use items shipped from China are being sold to buyers who intend to use the technology for civilian purposes or for military means.
“The challenge with dual-use items is that the export control system we have has to consider both the commercial sales possibilities as well as the military use of certain items,” said Zach Cooper, former assistant to the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism at the National Security Council.
In cases where the Kremlin craves specific technology only produced in say the U.S., EU or Japan, there are wily ways for Moscow to evade sanctions, which include buying equipment from middlemen located in countries with cordial trade relations with both the West and Russia.
Russia managed to import more than 800 tons of body armor worth around $10 million in December last year, according to the customs data from ImportGenius. Those bulletproof vests were manufactured by Turkish company Ariteks and most were imported straight from Turkey, although some of the shipments arrived to Russia via the United Arab Emirates. Russia also imported some body armor from Chinese company Xinxing Guangzhou Import & Export Co.
Trade data also shows that Russian state defense company Rosoboronexport has imported microchips, thermal vision devices and spare parts like a gas turbine engine from a variety of countries ranging from China to Serbia and Myanmar since 2022.
Dual-use items could also be a way for China to quietly increase its assistance to Moscow while avoiding reprisals officials in Washington and Europe have been threatening in recent weeks if China goes ahead with sending weapons to the Russian military.
Most recently, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters last week that there would be “consequences” if China sent weapons to Russia, although he also said that he’s seen “no evidence” that Beijing is considering delivering arms to Moscow.
“We are now in a stage where we are making clear that this should not happen, and I’m relatively optimistic that we will be successful with our request in this case,” he said.
Among the military items China has been considering shipping to Russia are drones, ammunition and other small arms, according to a list that has circulated inside the administration and on Capitol Hill for months, according to a person who read that document. And intelligence briefed to officials in Washington, on Capitol Hill and to U.S. allies across the world in the last month, suggests Beijing could take the step to ship weapons to Russia.
“We do see [China] providing assistance to Russia in the context of the conflict. And we see them in a situation in which they’ve become increasingly uncomfortable about the level of assistance and not looking to do it as publicly as might otherwise occur and given the reputational costs associated with it,” Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said in a congressional hearing March 8. “That is a very real concern and the degree of how close they get and how much assistance they’re providing is something we watch very carefully.”
As data about dual-use item shipments to Russia becomes available, Western countries are expected to ramp up efforts to quell these flows.
“We’ve already started to see sanctions against people [moving] military material to Russia. I’m sure we’re going to be seeing the EU and other countries target those people that are helping a lot of this material to get to Russia,” said James Byrne from the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based defense think tank.
Beijing continues to deny that it is ramping up support for Russia in Ukraine. However, several of its top officials have recently traveled to Moscow. President Xi Jinping is expected to make an appearance there in the coming weeks. China recently presented a 12-point peace proposal for the war in Ukraine, though it was criticized by western leaders for its ambiguity and for its lack of details about the need for the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Leonie Kijewski contributed reporting from Brussels.