WASHINGTON – Initial U.S. intelligence suggesting that China is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia for its war in Ukraine was gleaned from Russian government officials, according to one current and one former U.S. official familiar with the intelligence.
U.S. officials then spent weeks corroborating the information from other sources of intelligence, the current and former officials said, and with allies who also brought additional streams of information.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
The multiple threads of intelligence suggesting that China is considering giving lethal aid to Russia, including ammunition and artillery, raised alarm among Biden administration officials, particularly given how such a move by Beijing could shift the dynamic of the war in Moscow’s favor.
“A Russian military that’s fueled by or aided by a Chinese infusion of weapons and platforms is more lethal militarily and more capable,” a senior administration official said. “That’s not going to be good for the people of Ukraine.”
Top administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Williams Burns, have publicly expressed confidence in the intelligence and warned China against providing Russia with lethal military aid.
China has denied it is considering sending lethal aid to Russia, calling the U.S. accusation “disinformation.”
U.S. officials note that they have not seen any evidence of movement or a decision from China to take that step.
At a White House press briefing Thursday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was asked how serious the administration thinks China is about possibly sending weapons to Russia.
“We actually don’t know,” Kirby said.
Kirby added that the U.S. believes China has not taken it off the table but also has not seen any evidence that Beijing is moving toward sending lethal aid to Moscow.
The NSC declined to comment when contacted for this story.
The initial intelligence was vague about what specific systems or equipment China was considering providing to Russia, including whether they could provide drones beyond what are already available commercially, officials familiar with the intelligence said.
“There are varying levels of confidence about how serious China is about this,” a second senior U.S. official said.
In an interview Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation," Burns acknowledged that the decision to release the information publicly was intended to deter China from deciding to provide Russia with lethal aid.
"We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment," Burns said.
He added: "Secretary Blinken and the President have thought it important to make very clear what the consequences of that would be."
There was some discussion within the administration over declassifying and publicly releasing some of the intelligence, but officials decided against doing so, at least for now, because of the sensitivity of the sources used to collect the information and because the administration’s goal of sending a message to China not to supply Russia with lethal aid, for now, appears to have worked.
The U.S. accusations that China is considering supplying Russia with lethal military aid come as Beijing put forward a proposed peace plan for ending the war in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden and other top U.S. officials have said the proposal is one-sided and only benefits Russia. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said China’s engagement on a potential peace plan “is not bad.”
Some Biden administration officials see China’s recent signals that it could come off the sidelines on the war in Ukraine, and get involved in one way or another, as an attempted power move aimed at undermining the U.S. after recent moves to enhance its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Other officials caution that China hasn’t made any decision yet on whether to get more involved and is still effectively taking the same position it has since the start of the war a year ago.
“There are issues where we just know we’re not going to be able to see things eye to eye,” a senior U.S. official said of the Biden administration’s relationship with China. “What we want to do, particularly when it comes to Ukraine, is we want that to be one of those areas where we do see eye to eye.”
In other words, the official said, one of the Biden administration’s goals is for China to recognize that “it’s not OK for Russia to kill innocent Ukrainian people, and nobody should be helping them do that.”