Russian Embarrassment in Ukraine – Lessons for China and Next Steps

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is slowly unravelling due to strategic and logistical incompetence, low morale, and fierce Ukrainian resistance. It is an embarrassing mess for a country with such purported military strength, assumed economic and managerial competency (Russia is a G20 member and the 11th largest global economy), and for Putin’s reputation as a wily strategist. It demonstrates an incompetence and lack of capability at the heart of Russian state affairs, and portends a ruinous economic and social future as a pariah on the world stage. In particular, it is an embarrassment for China given their recent acknowledgement of a ‘no-limits relationship’ with Russia. The timing of their affirmed partnership could not be worse – what was a purported event between two stable constructive autocratic powers looks more like a coming together of a global power and a tin point dictatorship. With recent events suggesting Russia is refocusing on taking eastern Ukraine, Putin perhaps recognises this and is pivoting towards a negotiated truce. However if he continues in the now quixotic quest to take the whole country he surely risks further embarrassment, which could see him descend into a paranoid rage with further civilian suffering and potential for chemical or nuclear escalation. Joe Biden’s recent crooning he ‘cannot remain in power’ will not help his mental state. For the sake of global security the world wants Putin gone, and for China the pressure increases on whether to back Putin or not. There can be no doubt Beijing is reassessing its relationship with Russia in line with its own strategic interests and to manage its reputation as events continue to unfold. While global security should feature — nuclear escalation surely cannot be in rational Chinese interests – it will arguably be personal: the events cast a long shadow over the Chinese given their close relationship and joint espousing of the autocratic model of governance, which in underpinning such an egregious miscalculation and faltering war effort has been woefully exposed.

Russia’s access to commodities, nuclear capabilities, geographic proximity and autocratic stance means Beijing will always have close ties. Russia however does not mean Putin, and China will have great motive for wanting him gone. Xi will certainly feel personal grievances, primarily for such a strategic error – whether Putin’s sentiment of NATO/EU expansion as an invasion pretext is accepted, it is immaterial in the face of such disastrous consequences. Internal blame shifting will not convince — in Putin’s despotic model of governance, the buck stops with him. Xi may also feel misled — it is inconceivable China was unaware of Putin’s plans given their closeness, but what did they know? Did Putin sell them a quick and simple liberation exercise to gain acquiescence? Whether they relied on Putin’s assessment, or whether they independently weighed up the pros and cons (it is impossible to think that with breadth of China’s state and intelligence apparatus an independent assessment was not made) we will never know. Of primary importance for Xi however will be containing the damage done to autocracies as a viable alternative to Western liberal democracy. While China and Russia are (we hope) vastly different forms of autocracy, they operate under the same brand – the damage as a result of Russian misadventure will be significant. If Russia can make such a bumbling mess of a war effort, one wonders how flaky the pillars of the rest of Russia’s governmental and societal affairs are. States are like any large complex organisation of peoples; they rely on transparency, trust, laws, truth and facts, shared ideas and a wealth of logistical and managerial considerations to deliver efficient functioning. The war effort has shone a light on the rot and malaise at the heart of modern Russia, and no amount of Western finger pointing can shift the blame – the lack of state functioning is Putin’s work alone. China will not want others assuming this is par for the autocracy course. 

It’s clearly in Chinese interests to orchestrate Putin’s offramp; in the slow steady long game of geopolitics, he is a risk and his judgment cannot be trusted. While China will outwardly sit on the fence and not call him out, behind the scenes one would expect things are less cosy. While the West’s communicative ties with Russia are all but broken, we have to assume ongoing formal and informal diplomacy at all levels between China and Russia; might they be looking to his internal replacement — an heir who would continue the autocratic slant, but without the rash revanchist tendencies? Which parts of Putin’s inner circle or oligarchs might they be talking too? One wonders how Beijing might engineer things to serve their interests. One can expect they will want Russia to continue as an autocracy, extract itself from Ukraine in a diplomatic settlement without being seen to give the West a victory, and that somebodies head rolls, preferably Putins. At the very least they must be telling him to get his shit together. While for the rest of the world the humanitarian and economic effects might necessitate a quick resolution, for China these will play second fiddle. The priority will be helping Russia navigate a face-saving exit plan from Ukraine and reduce further embarrassment, and avoid the risk of Russian societal collapse from sanctions and growing social malaise. For an autocracy such as Russia to explode would be unthinkable for the Chinese, and God forbid it emerges from the ashes a liberal democracy! Putin’s days may well be numbered as the body bags come home, the economic sanctions pile up, and members of his inner circle conspire against him. China will surely have no problem with this and indeed help foster it, and look to engineer an agreeable post invasion future for Russia. While there is no doubt this would all happen privately and against the grain of any public communications, it’s just important that it happens.

Aside from the immediate task of resolving Russia’s misadventures, the war has also forced China to reckon with itself, what it is or wants to be, and the limits of acceptable autocratic behaviour at the main table of world affairs. Perhaps China knows this limit; perhaps it is still figuring it out. The totality of this essay is predicated on the basis China is a rational actor under the collective management of the Politburo, acting in its peoples’ best interests, maintaining some moralistic cause in preserving global stability and avoiding conflict, and aware of the importance of its economic relationship with other major powers upon which maintaining a constructive autocratic model is predicated. To that end, any rational actor would recognise the futility of such modes of warfare demonstrated in Ukraine in the 21st century, and the inherent limitations in managing a country’s affair under such a dictatorial governance model. We have to hope China has this front and centre, and its actions are not guided by the personal convictions and compulsions of Xi as an autocratic ruler and the preservation of his future power. That he avoids wanton paranoia, and doesn’t privately give unlimited backing to Putin regardless of whatever internal machinations may be in play within Russia to oust him. To do so in the face of such rampant propaganda and incompetence from the Russian state would mean China is also prepared and indeed part way down the rabbit hole. Xi can be assured that Ukraine is a unique situation, and (mental decline of old age not withstanding) a stain on his leadership from such a major miss-step is unlikely to occur.

Which way China goes will be of great significance – regardless of the noise around current Sino-Western relations, the world relies on China as a constructive autocratic economic and social partner, and not sliding into a more destructive version. One can hope Xi is clear eyed and recognises the importance of maintaining some semblance of moral and societal virtue, and sees Putin’s regime as a kleptocratic failure that offers no value as a partner and model of governance in its current form, and privately cannot be condoned or endorsed. Russia is not a small country, it is not a North Korea or other fringe dictatorship, it is still a major economic and nuclear power and China is in bed with them – the world cannot afford it to exist in its current state. It may be difficult to see though the fog of propaganda what is actually happening, but in the economic rubble of whatever post war Russia emerges it is expected Putin will spin a victory and China will play along. In the real politick space we have to hope China is looking to correct things, and lead Russia towards a better version of its autocratic self for everyone’s benefit.

[Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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