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Ukraine's offensive is bearing down on Russian forces, but Chinese artillery could still bail Moscow out

Michael Peck   

Ukraine's offensive is bearing down on Russian forces, but Chinese artillery could still bail Moscow out
  • The Russian military relies on artillery to compensate for other battlefield shortcomings.
  • But its heavy use of artillery in Ukraine could outstrip its ability to make new shells and cannons.

Russia's way of war relies on quantity rather than quality to overwhelm the enemy, and with hopes for a quick victory in Ukraine gone, the Kremlin is aiming to wear Kyiv down.

But to win a war of attrition, Russia will have to be more capable of replacing equipment and ammunition than Ukraine is. Yet it is Ukraine that has secured military aid, ranging from boots and helmets to tanks and artillery, from 50 countries. Russia has only managed to buy arms from a few pariahs like Iran and North Korea.

There is one country that could make a major difference to Russia's war machine. If China uses its military stockpiles and industrial base to support Russia's war in Ukraine, the consequences could be as significant as Mao Zedong's decision to send 3 million Chinese "volunteers" to fight in the Korean War.

Artillery and other long-range fires, such as multiple-launch rockets, remain the "critical capability underpinning the Russian military," according to a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Yet Moscow has used its "massive stockpile of ammunition" inefficiently, burning through shells and cannons faster than it can build them, the RUSI report said.

The flaws in that approach are evident on the ground. The commander of Russia's 58th Army in Ukraine was recently relieved after complaining about the state of Russian artillery, including "the lack of counter-battery fire" and "lack of artillery reconnaissance stations."

According to the RUSI report, the Russian military has used firepower "as a crutch to compensate" for other tactical shortcomings and if it is unable to bring as much firepower to bear, it could struggle to hold ground.

"Perhaps the greatest danger for Ukraine, therefore, as regards the longer term trajectory of Russian forces, is if another country provides tooling and workers to establish additional production capacity in Russia for munitions and barrels," the report warned.

China has pledged neutrality in Ukraine — though its leaders have made expressions of support for Russia — but artillery represents a historical link between the two countries.

China's army — known as the People's Liberation Army — used Soviet-supplied or Soviet-designed howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems throughout the Cold War. While China now designs its own artillery, many of its weapons still come in calibers used by Russian army — including 152 mm, 130 mm and 122 mm — meaning China's munitions factories could churn out shells that would have some compatibility with Russian ordnance.

Since Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, the US has been concerned about the possibility of China supplying military hardware to Russia. China's vow not to sell arms to either side is hardly reassuring.

Trade data shows Chinese firms shipping items that could have military use, including "hunting rifles," as well as massive amounts of gunpowder to Russia.

In recent months, Ukrainian officials have said they are finding more Chinese-made components in Russian weapons and US officials have said China's government is considering sending artillery shells to Russia. (Asked about those US comments in February, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said "the US is not qualified to issue any orders to China.")

At first glance, it would seem natural for China to support Russia against Ukraine.

After nearly coming to blows during the Cold War, Moscow and Beijing are close partners. Their relations have warmed considerably under Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, allowing both to focus on their respective rivals.

Russian and Chinese leaders would both like to replace the current global political and economic system dominated by Western liberal democracies with a more authoritarian-friendly world order. China selling arms to Russia — a reversal of the historical trend — would also bring cash into China's Covid-damaged economy and help pay for its massive military buildup aimed at Taiwan and the US.

Yet while Beijing hasn't condemned Russia's invasion, it does have compelling reasons not to actively take Moscow's side. Massive military support for Russia would antagonize not just the US but also Europe, which has had more cordial relations with China but is now taking a harder line over Chinese imports and other issues.

More cynically, Beijing may prefer that Russia be just strong enough to divert US and European resources from the Pacific but weak enough to remain dependent on China and less able to counter Chinese expansion in Central Asia and in the global arms market. That may also appeal to Chinese nationalists still smarting over historical disputes with Russia.

Chinese support could mean the difference between victory and defeat for Russia, but salvation from Beijing may be a long time coming.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.