May 30, 2023

Semafor Security

Jay Solomon

Ukrainian officials confronted Beijing’s special envoy this month over the surge of Chinese electronics and semiconductors being shipped to Russia during the past year, many of which are ending in the Kremlin’s weapons systems, according to a key advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The issue came up when China’s special envoy on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, held two days of talks in Kyiv this month to try and advance a truce — part of a wider jag through Europe meant to position Beijing as a mediator in the conflict. Ukrainian officials at the meetings raised the large numbers of Chinese electronics found in captured and destroyed Russian weapons in recent months, according to Vladyslav Vlasiuk, Zelenskyy’s special advisor on sanctions, who took part in the discussions.

Exports of Chinese semiconductors to Russia, including from Hong Kong, have more than doubled since Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. And Ukraine’s military has concluded that at least 15% of the electronics found in Russian arms — including cruise missiles, helicopters, and Iranian-supplied drones — are from China and Hong Kong.

“Ukraine made its point about the importance of China not to allow Chinese components channeling down to Russia,” Vlasiuk told Semafor about the discussions with Li Hui. He added that it was “just the beginning of the dialogue” with Beijing.

The Ukrainian military has been forensically examining Russian weapons that it has either captured or destroyed on the battlefield; it has documented the prevalence of Chinese- and Hong Kong-made electronics in these arms in a report shared with Semafor.

Transistors made by the Chinese semiconductor company, VBsemi, were found in the onboard satellite navigation system of a Russian air-launched cruise missile, according to the study. A video-processing integrated chip produced by China’s Pulse Electronics helped power a Russian Orlan 10 drone. And VBsemi chips were also found in the navigational system of an Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone.

American-made chips have also found their way into Russian weapons — but their use is becoming rarer thanks to U.S. and European sanctions efforts, which have also aimed to cut off the flow of components from China. This month, the U.S. State Department sanctioned a range of firms in China, Hong Kong, and Macau for allegedly aiding the Russia-based technology company, SMT-iLOGIC, evade sanctions and procure technology for the Kremlin’s Orlan drone program.

China is walking a tightrope by trying to play global peacemaker while also strengthening its partnership with Moscow — and it’s not clear yet whether the country can pull it off.

After its recent surprise success brokering a deal to normalize relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the war in Ukraine has emerged as the next big test of China’s efforts to challenge the U.S. for global influence. Its recent diplomatic offensive is clearly aimed at splitting parts of Europe and the developing world away from Washington’s tough line on the conflict. Li, the special envoy, visited Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, and Belgium this month to promote Beijing’s own peace plan, and met with Russian officials last week.

But so far the results have been mixed. China’s 12-point plan for a truce that it unveiled in February was greeted with skepticism from NATO allies and Ukraine, in part, because it doesn’t call for Vladimir Putin to pull back from territories his forces have captured in the past 15 months. Beijing has also made some alienating missteps, such as when its ambassador to France questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine and other former Soviet states last month.

There have also been signs of success: France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, has publicly enlisted China’s support in initiating peace talks this summer, and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has talked about forming a “peace coalition” with Beijing.

The White House, which has been working to reduce tensions with China, has even expressed openness to working with Beijing to end the Ukraine war, especially if Kyiv’s counter-offensive succeeds. They noted China is the one country that has influence with both Russia and Ukraine.

“We would welcome that, and it’s certainly possible that China would have a role to play in that effort,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a Washington Post Live event on May 3. “And that could be very beneficial.”

Vlasiuk told Semafor that Ukraine also remains open to China playing a constructive role in ending the war — if it puts pressure on Putin and cuts off this flow of components to the Russian military. “I think that this is a little bit premature to make any kind of conclusions,” he told Semafor. “But again, the very fact that this dialogue started and all the parties agreed on the same principles — like territorial integrity, rule of law, international law – I think this is a good beginning.”

Chinese officials say Beijing remains committed to ending the war in Ukraine and preventing the conflict from widening or potentially going nuclear. They say their diplomatic efforts are squarely aimed at ending the suffering of Ukrainians and helping the country rebuild after the war.

The Chinese embassy’s spokesman in Washington, Liu Pengyu, told Semafor in a statement that China “does not sell weapons to parties involved in the Ukraine crisis and prudently handles the export of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations.” But he also stressed that exchanges between Chinese and Russian companies “should not be affected” by the war in Ukraine and that Beijing “resolutely opposes long-arm jurisdiction and unilateral sanctions against other countries.”