The War in Ukraine China Reportedly Negotiating with Russia To Supply Kamikaze Drones
At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dispensed with the usual diplomatic niceties when he reported on his meeting with top Chinese foreign policy official Wang Yi, delivering a rebuke instead.
"We are very concerned that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine," Blinken told U.S. broadcaster NBC. "And I made clear that that would have serious consequences in our relationship as well."
China reacted quickly, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson accusing Blinken of spreading disinformation. But information obtained by DER SPIEGEL indicates that the planned cooperation between Beijing and Moscow goes even further than Blinken makes it sound.
A Warhead up to 50 Kilograms in Weight
According to that information, the Russian military is engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi'an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia. The revelations create a new urgency in the debate over possible Chinese military support for Russia.
Bingo has reportedly agreed to manufacture and test 100 ZT-180 prototype drones before delivering them to the Russian Defense Ministry by April 2023. Military experts believe the ZT-180 is capable of carrying a 35- to 50 kilogram warhead.
Sources believe that the design of the unmanned aerial vehicle could be similar to that of Iran's Shaheed 136 kamikaze drone. The Russian army has deployed hundreds of them in its attacks on Ukraine, where they used the Iranian drones to target residential buildings, power plants and district heating facilities, often resulting in civilian casualties.
Plans for Falsified Shipping Papers
In a further step, Bingo reportedly plans to deliver components and know-how to Russia so that the country can produce around 100 drones a month on its own.
RussianSU-27 fighter jetsFoto: Konstantin Kalishko / ddp
China apparently already had plans last year to provide the Russian military with much more substantial support than previously known. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, companies under the control of China's People's Liberation Army had planned to deliver replacement parts for Russia's SU-27 fighter jets and other models.
DER SPIEGEL has learned in its reporting that plans had apparently already been made to falsify shipping documents to make the parts for military aircraft appear to be replacement parts for civilian aviation.
Microchips Made in the Netherlands
In January, Dutch public broadcaster NOS reported that Dutch microchips had been delivered to the Russian defense industry via Chinese companies. According to the report, an analysis by the Ukrainian forces of seized Russian offensive weapons like rockets, helicopters and drones or their remains showed that microchips from the Netherlands had apparently been installed in 10 of 27 Russian weapons inspected.
For months, reports have been circulating among security officials in a handful of countries that Chinese companies have been providing satellite images of combat zones in Ukraine to the Russian side. In response, the U.S. government recently placed the Chinese satellite company Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Institute on its sanctions list. Washington claims the company's images have been obtained by the Wagner Group – the Russian private mercenary unit notorious for its brutality – to enable "combat operations in Ukraine."
Civilian Drones Reportedly Used for War Reconnaissance
The government in Berlin also has information suggesting that China is also delivering commercially available drones to Russian customers that can also be used for reconnaissance purposes as part of the war in Ukraine. Military officials refer to these devices as dual-use because they are of utility in both civilian and military applications.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Chinese counterpart Wang at the Munich Security Conference: a cool responseFoto: Sven Hoppe / dpa
According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, the drones are delivered to Russian forces by Chinese-controlled import-export companies via the United Arab Emirates. People familiar with the analyses of these deals say that evidence exists indicating that Russian forces have in fact deployed such drones to conduct reconnaissance along the front in Ukraine.
This could be one reason that both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addressed the issue of possible military support from Beijing for Moscow in conversations with Wang at the Munich Security Conference. "I said clearly in my last conversation with representatives of China that this cannot be accepted," the chancellor said on the political talk show "Maybrit Illner" on public broadcaster ZDF.
Sources told DER SPIEGEL that Wang reacted coolly when confronted by the Germans. He reportedly said that China is playing by the rules.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also denied weapons deliveries to Russia, without addressing the specific allegations. "It is a known fact that NATO countries, including the U.S., are the biggest source of weaponry for the battlefield in Ukraine, yet they keep claiming that China may be supplying weapons to Russia," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement to DER SPIEGEL issued through the Chinese Embassy in Berlin. "This is a familiar trick used and exposed soon after the Ukraine crisis broke out. … We urge NATO to quit groundless speculation and smears against China on the Ukraine issue."
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Wang Yi as foreign minister of China. His current title is director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party. We have corrected the error.