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China’s Links to Russia Begin to Unravel

Recent reports are revealing that Chinese body armor components are appearing all across the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine. This new information shows that Russia is becoming increasingly close to China amidst its standoff against the West. Multiple Chinese companies, one of which has direct links to Beijing, are sending components to Russian body armor manufacturer Klass, despite Western warnings to China to loosen its ties to Moscow. According to the White House, the Biden administration is focused on keeping China out of the war in Ukraine. However, the more Chinese material that finds its way into Russia, the better the odds are that Ukrainian forces could soon be staring down the barrels of Chinese weapons. 

POLITICO: China-linked Russian body armor is landing on the battlefield in Ukraine

By Erin Banco & Steven Overly

A Russian body armor manufacturer is importing Chinese components for its vests — some of which are being used on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to trade data, photographs and Ukrainians who say they’ve recovered the vests from the front lines.

In 2022, multiple Chinese companies, including one linked to the government in Beijing, sent parts for body armor manufacturing to Klass, a Russian manufacturer of body armor with ties to the country’s national guard and law enforcement, according to customs and trade data obtained by POLITICO from Import Genius, a customs data aggregator.

Armored vests produced by the company are being used by Russian troops in Ukraine, according to photos and videos posted online, and Ukrainians who are selling the vests on eBay say they took them from the battlefield.

While it’s unclear if the Russian military’s use of the Klass vests is widespread, it is the first confirmation that Chinese-made protective equipment is being used by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

The new information highlights how Russia continues to rely on China for help propping up its war effort in Ukraine despite western pressure on Beijing to scale back its support for Moscow.

The revelation also raises questions about how the U.S. plans to address with Beijing the issue of “dual-use items” — commercial equipment that can also be used for military purposes.

“The administration has likely seen a lot of things in the record that are discomforting. But they could say ‘well, it is not a surface-air missile system so maybe we’ll just kind of look the other way on this,’” said Ivan Kanapathy, the former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council. “The line is fuzzy by design. And the assessment is being influenced by the U.S.-China relationship, perhaps naively hoping that China isn’t already in the Russia camp,” Kanapathy said.

The Biden administration has so far been hyper-focused on preventing Beijing from sending large amounts of weapons to Moscow — weapons that could significantly alter the course of the fighting on the ground.

But a pattern may be emerging that suggests the administration needs to look more closely at dual-use items. This month, POLITICO reported that Chinese companies linked to the Beijing government were sending commercial assault rifles, drone parts and body armor to Russian entities. The drones have for months been seen on the battlefield.

The Treasury Department declined to comment. NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. has imposed “extensive” sanctions and export controls against companies that have enabled Russia’s war in Ukraine. “We will continue to take action against companies that provide support to Russia’s war effort,” Watson said.

POLITICO reviewed dozens of photos on social media sites and Google as well as several videos published on the Russian site VKontakte of Klass body armor parts. The videos, including one published in November 2022, specifically provide a glimpse into the manufacturing process of the Klass body armor.

Antifragmentation suits, bulletproof vests and textiles and stacks of specialized fibers appear in the clips. The photos, some of which were published on eBay, show the fully constructed Klass vests being sold by Ukrainians who say they captured them on the battlefield in the last year.

It was not clear when those Klass vests were manufactured, or if they included Chinese components, but the import data shows that it’s likely they did.

Klass, based in Moscow, imported parts for the manufacturing of its armored vests from China multiple times in 2022, including in November and December from several Chinese companies, according to the trade and customs data. Those parts included aramid fibers — the same kind of fibers found in Kevlar vests.

The Russian distributor has a long-standing business relationship with Russia’s national guard, the ministry of internal affairs, the federal penitentiary services and other state military units, the data shows. In a press release posted on its website, Klass said it presented its body armor products to the leaders of the ministry of internal affairs in November 2022.

The Chinese companies that shipped the products include Yantai Tayho Advanced Materials Ltd, a producer of specialized fiber, and Beijing Tongyizhong New Material Technology Corp, a seller of polyethylene fiber products, a subsidiary of one of Beijing’s state-owned investment holding corporations.

Neither Klass nor the two Chinese companies responded to a request to comment.

Klass body armor products have previously been recovered from the battlefield in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion in 2022, said Lynn Hughes, an analyst on the research team at Import Genius who first identified the body armor components being shipped from China. The Ukrainian army picked up a Russian ballistic vest manufactured by Klass in 2019, according to a report from Conflict Armament Research published that same year.

Ukrainians who captured the Klass body armor on the battlefield in 2022 are now trying to sell them for money. POLITICO contacted several sellers on eBay — all of whom said they had either served in Ukraine or knew someone who did and that they had taken the Russian vests directly from the battlefield.

“This bulletproof vest was used in the Russian army and was obtained by the Ukrainian military during the counter offensive in the Kharkiv region,” said one of the sellers, who was granted anonymity for security reasons. “During the liberation of the city of Izyum in one of the houses where the [Russians] temporarily lived, they ran away so quickly that they abandoned their things.”

U.S. officials have said they aren’t overly concerned about these “dual-use” items showing up on the battlefield, as Russia has long imported this kind of technology from China.

In response to a question about POLITICO’s initial report March 16 about Chinese companies sending assault rifles, drone parts and body armor to Russia, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the relationship between the Chinese and Russian entities as “long standing.” He said the U.S. had not seen evidence that suggested the items had ended up on the battlefield.

“We don’t want anyone to do anything that will help them kill more Ukrainians, period,” Kirby added.

But some of the dual-use items are being used in fighting in Ukraine — and not all of the contracts are longstanding, according to the data.

The 1,000 assault rifles the Chinese state-backed defense contractor sent Russia in the summer of 2022 marked the first time China’s North Industries Group Corporation sent the distributor a large shipment of weapons. The last time it sent the Russian distributor Tekhkrim rifles was in 2018, and it sent only two of them, according to an analysis of historical trade data by C4ADS, a research organization based in Washington.

C4ADS has also studied the use of Chinese drones by Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine. The drones have been widely reported and photographed as being deployed by Moscow during the war. The U.S. sanctioned one of the main Chinese suppliers of those drones last year.

“The administration continues to downplay it because they’ve drawn a red line. Declaring that China has crossed that line is irreversible and necessitates a strong U.S. response. But not declaring it gives China wiggle room,” Kanapathy said. “Xi Jinping is getting that sense, having pushed it little by little. And if the U.S. continues to say, ‘no, we haven’t seen a violation,’ then what is China’s takeaway?”

The Chinese embassy declined to comment.

The Biden administration must decide which exports pose the biggest risk and then whether to penalize individual sellers or take broader action against the Chinese government, a move that would carry broader economic consequences and almost certainly invite retaliation from Beijing.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Commerce Department has imposed export restrictions on hundreds of products that contain American-made components or technology and could be used to support the Russian military. It has also added a long list of companies, including several based in China, to a trade blacklist as punishment for shipping controlled goods to Russia.

And the Biden administration has sought to expand its crackdown on Russia’s access to technologies with U.S. components that can be used for military and commercial purposes since the war entered its second year. In February, the Commerce Department issued new restrictions on a range of products, including toasters and coffee makers, in a bid to further strangle the Kremlin’s supply of semiconductors.

But the products listed in the Import Genius data likely do not contain U.S. materials, making it difficult for the administration to directly stop their shipment to Moscow. The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on some Chinese companies that have supported Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, but it is not clear they are eyeing the businesses included in this report.

The Commerce Department declined to say whether its officials were aware that Chinese-made body armor has been used in Ukraine or have any immediate plans to target the companies involved in their sale.

“We continually review reports of Russian military equipment used in Ukraine to assess whether there are actions we and our allies can take to impair Russia’s ability to produce or acquire such equipment,” said Commerce Department spokesperson Jessica Stallone. “We will not hesitate to use all the tools at our disposal to obstruct the efforts of those who seek to support Putin’s war machine.”

William Reinsch, a former undersecretary of Commerce for export administration during the Clinton administration, argues it’s impossible for the U.S. to completely cut Moscow off from many exports. Not only are some foreign-made products beyond the government’s reach, but the sale of illicit goods will always be lucrative enough to attract bad actors, said Reinsch, who is now at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If your policy is zero leakage,” he said, “then you’re doomed and you’re going to fail and you’re going to spend a lot of money trying to stop things that you won’t be able to stop.”

Photo: AP

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