Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have developed close ties. Photo: AFP / Getty

China’s censored media is being allowed to take a surprising critical line on Russia’s recently announced mobilization of as many as 300,000 reservist troops and latest threats to use nuclear weapons, marking a distinct shift in editorial tone from earlier cheerleading in support of Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

Chinese political commentators, quoted in usually tightly censored state outlets, said even if Moscow could recruit substantially more soldiers it would only gain a marginal advantage over the Ukrainians on the battlefield in the coming winter season.

They claimed Russian troops were suffering from poor food supplies, outdated weapons and low morale – echoing much of the Western media reporting on the war that is often slanted in favor of the Ukrainians over the Russians.

Significantly, perhaps, the change of Chinese media tone came after President Xi Jinping raised questions and concerns about Russia’s military operations in Ukraine during a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan on September 15.

Moreover, at a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the first few weeks after Russian troops launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Chinese media reported only positive news about Russia’s military operations and predicted that Russia would quickly and handily win the war.

But after widespread reports of rising casualties suffered by the Russian army, Chinese media gradually started to change its tone to report both positive and negative news about the war beginning in late March.

To avoid Western sanctions, China has, at least officially, stayed neutral on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and called on all parties to resolve the conflict through negotiations.

After Xi and Putin met on September 15, the Chinese government’s official statement did not mention that the two leaders had even discussed Ukraine during the meeting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin don’t completely see eye-to-eye on the Ukraine war. AFP via Getty / Dominique Jacovides

According to Russian state news agency TASS, Putin said he highly appreciated “the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis.” Putin even said the Russian side understood China’s questions and concerns on the matter.

On September 21, in another threatening volley, Putin said he was prepared to use nuclear weapons as the West had threatened to do so against Moscow. He stressed this time that “I’m not bluffing.”

Last Friday, Russia initiated referendums in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson on whether they should join Russia. Western commentators have said if the four regions officially become a part of Russia, the Kremlin would have a legitimate reason to escalate the war or even use nuclear weapons if they were attacked.

Most Chinese commentators in recent state media articles expressed doubts that Putin will really use nuclear weapons.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief and party secretary of the Communist Party-run Global Times, said while Russia would definitely gain an advantage in Ukraine by detonating tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, their use would also jeopardize the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and world peace generally.

The influential, nationalistic commentator wrote that “if Putin believes that without the use of tactical nuclear weapons, Russia will lose the war in Ukraine, his government will fall and Russia will face disintegration, then the likelihood that he will order the use of nuclear weapons increases dramatically.”

Hu wrote: “No matter whose fault it is, the US, the West, and Russia should not push the situation to such a life-and-death limit. Humanity is at peace, and peace always needs some room for maneuver and compromise.”

Jin Canrong, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in China, said Putin would need to think deeply about whether he should use nuclear weapons, which he opined would be a disaster for the wider world.

He wrote in a critical assessment that even if Russia could mobilize and deploy 300,000 reservists to Ukraine, it would only improve the defense in Russia’s occupied areas but would not likely change the situation further.

Zhou Ming, a military columnist at Phoenix TV, wrote in an article that Putin would not likely use nuclear weapons unless he faced an extreme situation.

Zhou said it could not be justified for Russia to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine, which had completely fulfilled its promise to turn over thousands of atomic weapons in 2001, especially when Moscow was among those who agreed to provide security guarantees to the country.

Russian President Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Image: Facebook

He opined that the US and NATO would have cause to attack Russia directly, rather than through proxy in Ukraine, if Putin used nuclear weapons. Zhou said once Putin pressed the nuclear button, he would no longer have deterrence vis-a-vis the West.

In the same critical vein, a Chinese website published a translated version of a US-based NBC News report, which cited several Western academics who said they don’t believe Putin will use nuclear weapons. The article was headlined “Putin talks about using nuclear weapons again but academics say he is bluffing.”

Other articles noted many young Russian men had fled the country as they did not want to join the army and fight in Ukraine. The Chinese state media articles said it was understandable that they wanted to escape from the troop call-up as the Russian army might not give them enough food or sufficient weapons when deployed to Ukraine.

Under China’s strict online censorship, it is rare for articles with anti-Russia angles and messages to be circulated online.

On September 20, a Chinese article with the title “The war lets people know that Russia has only two real friends in the world” was widely circulated by mainstream news websites.

In it, Grigory Karasin, chair of Russia’s Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying in the Pravda newspaper that Russians now know that Russia only has two real friends: Iran and North Korea. Karasin said only Iran was willing to sell military drones to Russia while North Korea had offered to send workers to help rebuild the Donbas region.

This Chinese article also said it was good that Russia had not referred to China as a “true friend.” But the article had been completely removed by state censors from China’s internet as of Monday.

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Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3