In a revelation that casts doubts on China’s purported non-participation in Russia’s war against Ukraine, it has been discovered that a state-owned Chinese company, Poly Technologies, sent significant shipments of gunpowder to a Russian munitions factory last year. These previously undisclosed shipments have raised concerns about China’s role in supporting Russia and its efforts to capture Ukrainian territory. While Chinese officials deny providing lethal assistance to Russia, the transactions by private companies like Poly Technologies warrant further scrutiny.
The shipments in question occurred on two occasions and involved railroad cars carrying tens of thousands of kilograms of smokeless powder, enough to produce approximately 80 million rounds of ammunition. Poly Technologies, which had previously faced sanctions from the United States for its sales of missile technology and support to Iran, shipped the gunpowder to Barnaul Cartridge Plant, a Russian factory known for supplying ammunition to the Russian government.
Import Genius, a trade data aggregator, identified these shipments, sparking inquiries into China’s potential involvement in Russia’s war efforts. While U.S. officials have not explicitly accused China of sending lethal aid, they have expressed concerns that such assistance could be channeled through private companies. Chinese Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, speaking from Beijing, stated that China had assured the United States it was not providing lethal assistance to Russia, a claim that has yet to be contradicted by evidence.
Some experts argue that the shipments made by Poly Technologies, which amounted to nearly $2 million, could be considered lethal assistance. Customs records indicate that the intended use of the shipments was for ammunition compatible with Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles and sniper rifles. While China aims to stay within the boundaries set by Western sanctions, these transactions could be seen as crossing the line, according to William George, the director of research at Import Genius.
The director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, Alexander Gabuev, acknowledges China’s cautious approach but questions the scale and impact of their involvement. China, which has generally adhered to the red lines established by the United States at the beginning of the war, may view these shipments as part of regular trade flows due to their pre-war history with the Barnaul plant.
Poly Technologies is a subsidiary of China Poly Group Corporation, owned by the Chinese government. Previous reports have detailed shipments from Poly Technologies to Russian state-backed firms, including navigation equipment and helicopter parts. While Barnaul Cartridge Plant is privately owned, Russian procurement records suggest significant dealings with the Russian government and military, including the Ministry of Defense. The European Union has already sanctioned the plant, and it is suspected to have connections to the Wagner Group, a private Russian military force associated with President Vladimir V. Putin.
It is important to note that there is no direct evidence linking the smokeless powder shipments to the Ukrainian battlefield. Customs documents describe the powder as being for the assembly of foreign-style hunting cartridges. However, Brian Carlson, a China-Russia expert, argues that these cartridges are primarily military in nature.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has escalated in recent weeks, and the ability of both sides to obtain munitions and equipment has become critical. Western countries have restricted trade with Russia to weaken its military capabilities and limit its economic resources. However, other countries like China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey have stepped in to provide Russia with various goods, including ammunition.
China maintains an official stance of neutrality in the war, presenting itself as a peacemaker. Nevertheless, its growing partnership with Russia has raised concerns. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned China about the severe consequences of providing material support or assisting in sanctions evasion. U.S. officials have also engaged with Chinese financial institutions privately to discuss the risks associated with facilitating such activities.
Poly Technologies, one of China’s leading arms exporters, produces equipment for police and military forces. It has faced criticism in the past for shipping small arms to Zimbabwe and has recently sent weapon shipments to countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. Barnaul products, including ammunition for various firearms, have been present in the United States through importers such as MKS Supply, LLC.
While there are no comments from Poly Technologies or Barnaul Cartridge Plant regarding these shipments, their significance in the context of the war cannot be ignored. As investigations continue, the extent of China’s involvement and its impact on the conflict remain subjects of scrutiny.
Reporting by Ana Swanson and John Ismay, Washington Bureau, The New York Times. Ana Swanson covers trade and international economics, while John Ismay is a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer and Pentagon correspondent.