Chinese troops attend the opening ceremony of the 'Peace Mission 2021' joint counter-terrorism military exercise held in Russia in September 2021.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Chinese state-owned defense firms have maintained trade relationships with sanctioned Russian defense companies during the past year, even as many of the world’s leading economies cut ties with Moscow and the companies driving its continued assault on Ukraine.

Customs records reviewed by CNN show key companies within both countries’ vast military-industrial complexes have continued their years-long relationships, despite the horror Moscow has unleashed in Europe.

Records show that throughout 2022, through at least mid-November, Beijing-based defense contractor Poly Technologies sent at least a dozen shipments – including helicopter parts and air-to-ground radio equipment – to a state-backed Russian firm sanctioned by the US for its connection to leader Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Poly Technology’s long-term trade partner – Ulan Ude Aviation Plant, a purveyor of military-grade helicopters – also continued to send parts and several helicopters to the Beijing-based company last year, trade data show.

Most of the helicopter parts included in the shipments to Russia were labeled for use in the multipurpose Mi-171E helicopter, designed for transport and search and rescue. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China began importing this model of chopper from Russia more than 10 years ago.

Three shipments from Poly Technologies were labeled as including products for the operation or service of the Russian-made Mi-171SH, a military transport helicopter that can be equipped with weapons and has been used in Moscow’s operations in Ukraine.

There is no evidence that any of the goods exchanged are directly feeding Russia’s war.

The customs records came from two data sets. The first was provided by trade data firm Import Genius, whose information is collated by secondary sources from official Russian customs and shipment records.

Washington-based think tank C4ADS, which collates official customs records aggregated from multiple third-party providers, provided the second set.

CNN has not independently verified the data, which may provide a partial but not complete picture of the trade.

Military and security experts say the parts sent from the Chinese firm to Russia are fairly basic equipment for Russian-designed aircraft that could be part of existing contracts and standard business relationships between the companies.

But last year’s trade underscores enduring ties between key players in the state-backed defense sectors on both sides – relationships that had strengthened over the past decade as Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping developed their strategic alignment.

Experts say such well-established networks could be leveraged if Beijing were to provide direct, lethal aid for the Kremlin’s war effort.

Western leaders in recent weeks have warned China is considering that step. Beijing has denied this, derided the warning as a “smear,” and repeatedly defended its “normal” trade with Russia and rejected what it calls “unilateral” sanctions against Moscow.