Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order raising the alert status of Russia’s massive nuclear forces this week in the midst of an invasion of neighboring Ukraine is presenting a test of a 2013 agreement that calls on China to provide a nuclear deterrent umbrella for Kyiv.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed the agreement on Dec. 5, 2013, promising that China’s nuclear forces would protect Ukraine from nuclear threats. The bilateral treaty described the two states as “strategic partners.”
“China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion,” a joint statement on the pact said.
Headlines in the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated state media noted the accord, including a People’s Daily headline that stated, “China offers Ukraine nuclear umbrella protection.”
Censors have since removed the articles, a possible reflection of the growing alliance between Beijing and Moscow.
Three years after achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine voluntarily gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The arsenal would have been the third-largest held by any nation. Ukraine subsequently joined the global nuclear nonproliferation treaty as a non-weapons state.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu declined to say whether China would provide Ukraine with security assurances under the 2013 nuclear umbrella agreement.
“I reiterate China’s consistent belief: A nuclear war cannot be won and mustn’t be fought,” he stated in an email. “China is closely following the development of the Ukraine situation and supports all efforts that are conducive to easing the situation and seeking political settlement.”
China has seen the statements on the nuclear issue and noted that all sides should exercise restraint and avoid further escalation, he said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was not asked about the China-Ukraine nuclear agreements during a press conference. Mr. Wang, however, said China would continue to develop cooperative ties with Ukraine based on “mutual respect and noninterference.
Asked about Mr. Putin’s order to raise the nuclear forces alert status, Mr. Wang repeated official comments that Russia had “legitimate security concerns” regarding NATO expansion that should be addressed.
As Russian military forces became mired in efforts to pacify Ukraine rapidly using a three-pronged military offensive, Mr. Putin said Sunday that “aggressive statements” by NATO prompted his directive.
“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Mr. Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian television.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the Biden administration would not respond directly to Mr. Putin’s actions but cited concerns about escalating bellicose rhetoric from Russia.
“It is important to remember — even over the course of the last several months and years — when we had significant disagreements with Russia on several issues, the United States and Russia have long agreed that nuclear use will have devastating consequences,” she said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the announcement by Mr. Putin on nuclear forces is “as unnecessary as it is escalatory” and that officials are still reviewing and analyzing the order. A senior U.S. defense official said “nothing specific” had been detected that indicated an “appreciable or noticeable” higher alert by Russia’s nuclear forces.
“Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin is comfortable with the strategic deterrent posture of the United States and our ability to defend the homeland and our allies and partners,” Mr. Kirby said, confirming Ms. Psaki’s comments.
‘Escalate to deescalate’
Mr. Putin’s nuclear alert fits with a new Russian military doctrine called “escalate to deescalate,” reflecting Moscow’s weaker conventional forces and large nuclear firepower. U.S. defense officials have said the doctrine means Russia’s military could more rapidly resort to the use of nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear arms or possibly strategic weapons in the case of a regional conflict like the Ukraine invasion.
Russia has four levels of nuclear force alerts, and analysts said it was not clear what level Mr. Putin ordered.
Signs of increased nuclear readiness would include loading bombers with nuclear weapons and dispatching ballistic missile submarines. Land-based missiles stay at higher alert status for launch in case an incoming missile is detected.
Earlier, a defense official said the United States “had no reason to doubt” the ordering of a higher nuclear alert status and said it was unnecessary because Russia is not facing any nuclear dangers from NATO or the West.
“And escalatory because it is clearly potentially putting at play forces that if there’s a miscalculation could — could — make things much, much more dangerous,” the official said.
China has tacitly supported the Russian military operation against Ukraine by not condemning the military operation and repeatedly insisting that Moscow had “legitimate security concerns” with Ukraine and NATO that the U.S. and its allies failed to address. Beijing abstained on a U.N. Security Council measure last week condemning Russia’s actions, a measure that failed when Moscow used its veto.
The Biden administration also shared U.S. intelligence with Chinese officials in the run-up to the conflict in a failed bid to gain Beijing’s support for pressure on Mr. Putin not to invade Ukraine. Instead of helping the West, China’s government shared the intelligence on Russian troop deployments with Moscow, highlighting the growing alliance between the two countries.
Mr. Wang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, dismissed reports of sharing U.S. intelligence with Russia as “disinformation fabricated by the U.S. to smear China.”
The spokesman also called for all parties in the conflict to exercise restraint to prevent the war from “spiraling out of control.”
“We hope all parties will work with China to deescalate instead of fueling the tensions and promote diplomatic settlement rather than further escalation,” he said.
Ukraine developed a close arms relationship with China since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
China bought an unfinished aircraft carrier from Ukraine for $20 million in the 1990s and turned it into the People’s Liberation Army’s first aircraft carrier.
Ukraine also sold jets and aircraft engines to China and provided design information that was incorporated into Chinese Y-series military transport and surveillance aircraft.
Former State Department policy official Miles Yu, who first disclosed the China-Ukraine nuclear pact, said the nation most likely to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine is Russia, another strategic partner of Beijing.
“In the hypothetical scenario of a Russian nuclear threat against Moscow’s former satellite Ukraine, would China keep its pledge to confront Moscow with its nuclear weapons?” Mr. Yu stated.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.
Correction: The date of the nuclear security agreement between China and Ukraine was misreported in earlier editions. The agreement was signed on Dec. 5, 2013.