The Russo-Ukrainian War is the most severe geopolitical conflict since World War II and will result in far greater global consequences than September 11 attacks. At this critical moment, China needs to accurately analyze and assess the direction of the war and its potential impact on the international landscape. At the same time, in order to strive for a relatively favorable external environment, China needs to respond flexibly and make strategic choices that conform to its long-term interests.
Russia’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine has caused great controvsery in China, with its supporters and opponents being divided into two implacably opposing sides. This article does not represent any party and, for the judgment and reference of the highest decision-making level in China, this article conducts an objective analysis on the possible war consequences along with their corresponding countermeasure options.
I. Predicting the Future of the Russo-Ukrainian War
1. Vladimir Putin may be unable to achieve his expected goals, which puts Russia in a tight spot. The purpose of Putin’s attack was to completely solve the Ukrainian problem and divert attention from Russia’s domestic crisis by defeating Ukraine with a blitzkrieg, replacing its leadership, and cultivating a pro-Russian government. However, the blitzkrieg failed, and Russia is unable to support a protracted war and its associated high costs. Launching a nuclear war would put Russia on the opposite side of the whole world and is therefore unwinnable. The situations both at home and abroad are also increasingly unfavorable. Even if the Russian army were to occupy Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and set up a puppet government at a high cost, this would not mean final victory. At this point, Putin’s best option is to end the war decently through peace talks, which requires Ukraine to make substantial concessions. However, what is not attainable on the battlefield is also difficult to obtain at the negotiating table. In any case, this military action constitutes an irreversible mistake.
2. The conflict may escalate further, and the West’s eventual involvement in the war cannot be ruled out. While the escalation of the war would be costly, there is a high probability that Putin will not give up easily given his character and power. The Russo-Ukrainian war may escalate beyond the scope and region of Ukraine, and may even include the possibility of a nuclear strike. Once this happens, the U.S. and Europe cannot stay aloof from the conflict, thus triggering a world war or even a nuclear war. The result would be a catastrophe for humanity and a showdown between the United States and Russia. This final confrontation, given that Russia’s military power is no match for NATO’s, would be even worse for Putin.
3. Even if Russia manages to seize Ukraine in a desperate gamble, it is still a political hot potato. Russia would thereafter carry a heavy burden and become overwhelmed. Under such circumstances, no matter whether Volodymyr Zelensky is alive or not, Ukraine will most likely set up a government-in-exile to confront Russia in the long term. Russia will be subject both to Western sanctions and rebellion within the territory of Ukraine. The battle lines will be drawn very long. The domestic economy will be unsustainable and will eventually be dragged down. This period will not exceed a few years.
4. The political situation in Russia may change or be disintegrated at the hands of the West. After Putin’s blitzkrieg failed, the hope of Russia’s victory is slim and Western sanctions have reached an unprecedented degree. As people’s livelihoods are severely affected and as anti-war and anti-Putin forces gather, the possibility of a political mutiny in Russia cannot be ruled out. With Russia’s economy on the verge of collapse, it would be difficult for Putin to prop up the perilous situation even without the loss of the Russo-Ukrainian war. If Putin were to be ousted from power due to civil strife, coup d’état, or another reason, Russia would be even less likely to confront the West. It would surely succumb to the West, or even be further dismembered, and Russia’s status as a great power would come to an end.
II. Analysis of the Impact of Russo-Ukrainian war On International Landscape
1. The United States would regain leadership in the Western world, and the West would become more united. At present, public opinion believes that the Ukrainian war signifies a complete collapse of U.S. hegemony, but the war would in fact bring France and Germany, both of which wanted to break away from the U.S., back into the NATO defense framework, destroying Europe’s dream to achieve independent diplomacy and self-defense. Germany would greatly increase its military budget; Switzerland, Sweden, and other countries would abandon their neutrality. With Nord Stream 2 put on hold indefinitely, Europe’s reliance on US natural gas will inevitably increase. The US and Europe would form a closer community of shared future, and American leadership in the Western world will rebound.
2. The “Iron Curtain” would fall again not only from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but also to the final confrontation between the Western-dominated camp and its competitors. The West will draw the line between democracies and authoritarian states, defining the divide with Russia as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship. The new Iron Curtain will no longer be drawn between the two camps of socialism and capitalism, nor will it be confined to the Cold War. It will be a life-and-death battle between those for and against Western democracy. The unity of the Western world under the Iron Curtain will have a siphon effect on other countries: the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will be consolidated, and other countries like Japan will stick even closer to the U.S., which will form an unprecedentedly broad democratic united front.
3. The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase. After the Russo-Ukrainian War, no matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world. The scene after the 1991 Soviet and Eastern upheavals may repeat itself: theories on “the end of ideology” may reappear, the resurgence of the third wave of democratization will lose momentum, and more third world countries will embrace the West. The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.
4. China will become more isolated under the established framework. For the above reasons, if China does not take proactive measures to respond, it will encounter further containment from the US and the West. Once Putin falls, the U.S. will no longer face two strategic competitors but only have to lock China in strategic containment. Europe will further cut itself off from China; Japan will become the anti-China vanguard; South Korea will further fall to the U.S.; Taiwan will join the anti-China chorus, and the rest of the world will have to choose sides under herd mentality. China will not only be militarily encircled by the U.S., NATO, the QUAD, and AUKUS, but also be challenged by Western values and systems.
III. China’s Strategic Choice
1. China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible. In the sense that an escalation of conflict between Russia and the West helps divert U.S. attention from China, China should rejoice with and even support Putin, but only if Russia does not fall. Being in the same boat with Putin will impact China should he lose power. Unless Putin can secure victory with China’s backing, a prospect which looks bleak at the moment, China does not have the clout to back Russia. The law of international politics says that there are “no eternal allies nor perpetual enemies,” but “our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Under current international circumstances, China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils, and unloading the burden of Russia as soon as possible. At present, it is estimated that there is still a window period of one or two weeks before China loses its wiggle room. China must act decisively.
2. China should avoid playing both sides in the same boat, give up being neutral, and choose the mainstream position in the world. At present, China has tried not to offend either side and walked a middle ground in its international statements and choices, including abstaining from the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly votes. However, this position does not meet Russia’s needs, and it has infuriated Ukraine and its supporters as well as sympathizers, putting China on the wrong side of much of the world. In some cases, apparent neutrality is a sensible choice, but it does not apply to this war, where China has nothing to gain. Given that China has always advocated respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, it can avoid further isolation only by standing with the majority of the countries in the world. This position is also conducive to the settlement of the Taiwan issue.
3. China should achieve the greatest possible strategic breakthrough and not be further isolated by the West. Cutting off from Putin and giving up neutrality will help build China’s international image and ease its relations with the U.S. and the West. Though difficult and requiring great wisdom, it is the best option for the future. The view that a geopolitical tussle in Europe triggered by the war in Ukraine will significantly delay the U.S. strategic shift from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region cannot be treated with excessive optimism. There are already voices in the U.S. that Europe is important, but China is more so, and the primary goal of the U.S. is to contain China from becoming the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region. Under such circumstances, China’s top priority is to make appropriate strategic adjustments accordingly, to change the hostile American attitudes towards China, and to save itself from isolation. The bottom line is to prevent the U.S. and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China.
4. China should prevent the outbreak of world wars and nuclear wars and make irreplaceable contributions to world peace. As Putin has explicitly requested Russia’s strategic deterrent forces to enter a state of special combat readiness, the Russo-Ukrainian war may spiral out of control. A just cause attracts much support; an unjust one finds little. If Russia instigates a world war or even a nuclear war, it will surely risk the world’s turmoil. To demonstrate China’s role as a responsible major power, China not only cannot stand with Putin, but also should take concrete actions to prevent Putin’s possible adventures. China is the only country in the world with this capability, and it must give full play to this unique advantage. Putin’s departure from China’s support will most likely end the war, or at least not dare to escalate the war. As a result, China will surely win widespread international praise for maintaining world peace, which may help China prevent isolation but also find an opportunity to improve its relations with the United States and the West.
by US-China Perception Monitor
Hu Wei is the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, the chairman of Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, the chairman of the Academic Committee of the Chahar Institute, a professor, and a doctoral supervisor.
The events leading to Crimea’s secession from Ukraine are not a series of ad-hoc moves, but part of a calculated plan by Russia’s leaders that fits Alexander Dugin’s vision of ‘Eurasianism’.
Accordingly, Russia is determined to follow its own Eurasian path, while the real goal of Eurasianism is the formation of a new political integration bloc. The European Union (EU) and NATO response must set limits on Russia.
A Retrospective View
Following the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did not disappear as did the Warsaw Pact. On the contrary, NATO grew in size and depth, welcoming former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic states, as members. As a result, in 1999 NATO changed its strategic concept, and the scope of NATO interventions expanded to remote 65ºE and 70ºE meridians of Afghanistan. In 2002, the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council reinforced the relationship between NATO and Russia. Later, at the November 2010 Lisbon Summit, NATO’s new Strategic Concept was published in response to the changing international security environment. This “Active Engagement, Modern Defense” concept reaffirmed the importance of strategic cooperation with Russia, and it strengthened the political consultations and practical NATO-Russia cooperation. The world has undergone radical change since the Cold War. In the 1980s, who would have thought that NATO and Russia would be partners?
However, almost all of this happened in a period of Russian economic weakness and political disorientation. After President Boris Yeltsin’s 1999 resignation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, took over control of Russia. Putin’s presidency coincided with an outstanding economic recovery (1) and soon Russia re-emerged as an economic and energy superpower. Yet nostalgia proved irresistible in 2014, when Vladimir Putin demonstrated that he had been living in the Cold War era. Russia’s new economic capacity permitted an increase in military spending. The political posture of the Russian leadership changed as well, as evidenced by Putin’s Munich speech in February 2007 and the 2008 Georgia war. Thus, Russia’s agenda clashed anew with NATO enlargement, which from 1999 to 2004 grew to include Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Thus, Russian concerns over NATO resurfaced (2). Finally, the 2010 Russian Federation Military Doctrine expressed disapproval of NATO Eastern expansion and listed NATO as an external threat (3).
A Russian Spring?
Russia’s subsequent actions indicate that Moscow has devised a new strategy aimed at the restoration of Russia’s past glory. Some preparatory steps along this route, including Russia’s exit from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, should have been viewed as a tactical move rather than diplomatic protest (4). Such steps are consistent with a realization of a general assertive Russian strategy that paved the way to war with Georgia in 2008. In fact, Russian hawks were convinced after the intervention in Georgia
that they had found a way to prevent further NATO enlargement (5). President Dmitry Medvedev’s statements in November 2011 echo that conviction (6). The naval base in Gudauta, Abkhazia, and Russia’s “Sevastopol agreements” with Ukraine, which extended the Black Sea Fleet lease until 2042, advanced Russia’s military doctrine and also contained NATO.
NATO cannot grant membership to a country hosting a non-member military base on its territory. So far, Russia’s strategy has worked: neither Ukraine nor Georgia has joined NATO since Russia invaded them.
Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and inclusion into the Russian Federation may be seen as a continuation of the same strategy. Earlier this year, when Putin realized that Viktor Yanukovych was going to be impeached by the Ukrainian Parliament and that Ukraine would not join the Eurasian Customs Union, Putin responded according to the script he used with Georgia in 2008, the only difference being that Crimea requested formal inclusion in the Russian Federation. On March 18 the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation was signed (7).
Seen from this perspective, Viktor Yanukovych’s call for a referendum towards a ‘federalization’ of Ukraine is just an act in Vladimir Putin’s screenplay. The fact that the city of Donetsk (8) and Eastern Ukraine (9) are already being targeted confirms that Russia likely is not going to stop. Furthermore, Odessa may follow the same path (10). Observing these events, one must assume that the most likely scenario is the creation of a new Eastern bloc of satellite states headed by Moscow. Having in mind both the psychological profile of the current Russian leaders, particularly Vladimir Putin, and the sequence in the evolution of Russia with the West, tiny regions like Transnístria (11) or Gagaúzia (12) are going to be disputed, as well.
Friends or Foes?
Russia does not have a high opinion of the European Union on defense and security issues, not only due to the EU’s lack of competence in this area but also because the EU is no match to Russia in military terms. Moreover, aware of its energy predominance over Europe, Russia favors bilateral negotiations with the EU member states. In addition, Russia not only challenged but also rejected EU’s most fundamental feature, its normative power or “Model Power Europe” (13). In fact, Russia was able to promote Europeanization from the East by reversing the political conditionality and asymmetry within the EU-Russia relation (14). Concerning Ukraine, EU actions were disappointing, to say the least. However, this is not surprising: EU action parallels what happened during and after the 2008 Georgia war. Back then, the Extraordinary European Council suspended negotiations with Russia until Russian troops’ withdrawal from Georgia. Talks resumed, notwithstanding the fact that the Russian troops had not withdrawn. Given the fact that the EU did not ponder political alternatives to these actions, the inevitable question arises about what the EU cherishes most, its energy or its values (15).
For its part, NATO decided to suspend cooperation with Russia, but Russia’s leadership does not seem too offended. Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman, recalled that this is not the first time such a gesture was assumed by the West and that after Russia’s war with Georgia NATO-Russia militar cooperation resumed (16). But while Russia is not worried about the interruption of a dialogue with NATO, Moscow does fear the integration of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Thus far, Western sanctions do not seem to have had an effect on the Kremlin strategy (17). Quite the contrary (18). Hence, if “freezing assets” is not an issue for Russians, what is? The Kremlin propaganda at the same time does its best to discredit any proactive policy by the West towards Crimea. According to the notorious Director General of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, Dmitry Kiselev, even the present response of the West, restrained though it is, deserves the following label: “Western behavior borders on schizophrenia” (19).
Boldness: Unexpected and Necessary
None of the three countries that are victims of Russia’s actual or potential separatist policy – Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – can join NATO or the EU with a ‘pending’ territorial conflict with a neighbor. Therefore, the cost of their accession may well be giving up a part of their country. If these states are willing to pay such high price, NATO must welcome them as members as soon as possible. Speeding up Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan accession to NATO would be the bold move. Membership Action Plan would not be sufficient (20). Moscow, which has always claimed that NATO enlargement was a broken promise, may be surprised by a swift, unified response, as those in the Kremlin have come to expect feeble behavior and sluggish responses from the EU and even from NATO. A bold move by NATO would finally set limits on Russia’s assertiveness. New Russian interventions in Georgia and Moldova are possible (21). Alexander Grushko, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, reaffirmed Russia’s warning about Ukraine and Georgia membership. But will Russia really intervene if these countries became NATO members? After all, if we are before a novum frigus bellum we know it will not be the same as the previous Cold War. The division lines are already different, perhaps to a higher degree than is commonly thought. Any move that checks Russia’s influence is welcome (22).
Already some positive signs that could be the necessary precondition for such actions are appearing. NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has stated that “Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine is in blatant breach of its international commitments and it is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (23). In Athens on April 5, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated that the EU “should be very firm on international law and the rules that must apply”. Referring to the banner “Crimea is in my heart” placed behind Vladimir Putin during a rally last month, Bildt went further noting that we should wonder what else Putin cares about (24). Indeed, one must ask what is going to be the cost of the resurgence of Russian greatness, and how far Russia’s leadership might go. However, we know one thing already: any sign of hesitation from the West will be interpreted by Moscow as a license to proceed with Russia’s previous course. Presently, Russia is well ahead in the triggering of events. Should the EU and especially NATO conform? Now is the time for decision. Deciding according to convenience means a loss of credibility. It also shows a marked lack of values. EU countries must show cohesion and speak with a single voice. NATO must act according to its essential purpose. A refocusing and ‘returning’ to Europe on the part of NATO, rather than a stubborn maintenance of the “Asian pivot”, is wise. And taking a stand against Russia confirms NATO’s raison d’être.
1 International Monetary Fund, “Russia – Gross Domestic Product, constant prices” (IMF, World Economic Outlook, October 2013).
2 Vladimir Putin, “Press Statement and Answers to Journalists’ Questions Following a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council” (President of Russia, 4 April 2008).
3 Dmitry Medvedev, “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation” (President of Russia, 5 February 2010).
4 Yuri Zarakhovich, “Why Putin Pulled Out of a Key Treaty” (Time, 14 July 2007).
5 Denis Dyomkin, “Russia says Georgia war stopped NATO expansion” (Reuters, 21 November 2008).
6 Dmitry Astahov, “Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia prevented NATO growth – Medvedev” (Ria Novosti, 21 November 2011).
7 Bridget Kendall, “Crimea crisis: Russian President Putin’s speech annotated” (BBC News, 19 March 2014).
8 Maria Finoshina, “Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk rallies in favor of independence referendum” (RT, 5 April 2014).
9 “Ukraine crisis: What is happening where?” (BBC News, 14 April 2014).
10 Anastasia Vlasova and Oksana Grytsenko, “Ukrainian nationalists, pro-Russian separatists stage rival rallies in Odessa” (KyivPost, 6 April 2014).
11 Christian Oliver, “Tiny Transnistria becomes the frontline in east-west struggle” (Financial Times, 4 April 2014).
12 Tiago Ferreira Lopes, “Post-soviet Unfrozen Dilemmas: Profiling Gagauzia” (State Building and Fragility Monitor, No. 7, March 2014).
13 Laura Ferreira-Pereira, “The European Union as a ‘Model Power’: Spreading Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in the Wider World”, in Federiga Bindi (ed.), The European Union Foreign Policy: Assessing Europe’s Role in the World (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).
14 Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira, “The many patterns of Europeanization: European Union Relations with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”, in Teresa Cierco (ed.), The European Union Neighborhood. Challenges and Opportunities (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).
15 Council of the European Union, “Council conclusions on Ukraine” (European Union, 20/21 March 2014).
16 Timothy Heritage, “Russia says NATO reverts to Cold War-era mindset” (Reuters, 2 April 2014).
17 “Russian Deputy PM Plays Down Western Sanctions” (Ria Novosti, 15 March 2014).
18 Igor Ivanov, “Western Sanctions Are a Sign of Weakness” (The Moscow Times, 27 March 2014).
19 “Western behavior borders on schizophrenia” (Ria Novosti, 5 April 2014).
20 Joshua Kucera, “Ivanishvili: We Will Get NATO MAP in 2014” (Eurasianet.org, 2 May 2013).
21 Nicu Popescu, “After Crimea: Putin’s Balance Sheet” (EUISS, Issue Alert No. 24, 4 April 2014); Giorgi Menabde, “Kremlin’s Followers in Georgia Become Active” (The Jamestown Foundation, 3 April 2014).
22 “Eurasian Economic Union Treaty Could Be Signed by May” (Ria Novosti, 3 April 2014).
23 Fred Dews, “NATO Secretary-General: Russia’s Annexation of Crimea Is Illegal and Illegitimate” (Brookings Now, 19 March 2014).
24 Demetris Nellas, “EU Working With Russia, Ukraine to Defuse Crisis” (Associated Press, 5 April 2014).
Read more here: IPRIS Viewpoint 144