Those Declining and Those Watching

We have all been eagerly watching events unfold in Ukraine for the last number of weeks. But do you know who else is watching? China. Make no mistake. The People’s Republic of China is watching what happens in Ukraine and making its own plans well beyond it. You may just watch the 6 o’clock news for an update, but China’s taking notes. Does this surprise you? Probably less so today than if I’d asked at the start of February.

China has been advertised as an up-and-comer for decades now, but the point is approaching at which they’ll feel it opportune to fully flex their military muscle beyond their borders. While anything they concoct may not be the same as what’s happening in Ukraine, it’ll be in parallel. Instead of tanks and infantry dominating brinksmanship and any battlefield, naval prowess will be involved.

But back to Europe: what should be most striking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the West’s genuine surprise that such a thing could even happen. Up to the moment when Russia officially hit, no one outside of the US was really taking the intelligence warnings seriously. Germany blocked a shipment of ordered weapons to Ukraine and offered helmets instead. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was still on the table. The majority of geopolitical experts out there were predicting some political posturing or an invasion of the Donbas region at most.

But why did their imaginations and vast knowledge not foresee what ended up occurring? We always attribute Vladimir Putin to tactics of escalation. Well, he was already warning us about the Donbas region, so it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if he limited himself to that. With a full-blown invasion, Vladimir Putin got the shock factor on his side in hopes of showing the West how powerless it can be when push comes to shove. In Russia’s eyes, Ukraine belongs in its sphere of influence and like an abusive spouse, over its dead body will it let go. But a quick exercise it was not.

I ask again: why are you surprised? Vladimir Putin has been all too willing to share his grievances with NATO expansion for years. When a revolution had Ukraine’s compromised president fleeing to Mother Russia in 2014, Putin retaliated by taking Crimea and fueling a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine. A press conference can still be recalled that had Vladimir Putin lambasting international media outlets for not seriously conveying Russia’s concerns to their home countries, thus perpetuating a false sense of security. I guess the guy had a point there.

Western media’s fixation on blaming Russia for President Trump winning the 2016 US election ultimately showed their bias. Tens of millions of people could not have possibly voted for the guy. And it’s not President Trump who started sending weapons to Ukraine. Oh wait, yes it was. Before him, President Obama was reluctant to, against the suggestion of the CIA and Pentagon. But I get it. Some people weren’t happy with President Trump’s victory, but Democrats saw a cause to parade and dragged us into their insecurities for years. It is they who falsely undermined our own faith in government by questioning and investigating the results of the 2016 election (to no avail), and taking our eyes off the ball.

Furthermore in regards to Ukraine, perhaps experts and political leaders got hung up on a hip contemporary mindset instead of a historical lens in plotting Vladimir Putin’s next move. If this was the Cold War, not a single person would be shocked about a Soviet reaction if a country like Poland declared an ambition to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and join NATO.

The complacency of the West brought on by a lack of a second great power after the fall of the Soviet Union had liberals mistaking Russia and Vladimir Putin’s reorganization of it for a toothless tiger of a bygone era instead of a cornered animal with nothing to lose. And indeed, what does Russia have to lose at this point from their vantage point? When Poland and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, I’m sure the top Russian brass weren’t happy, but they were in no position to do anything about it and still had plenty of room to insert influence elsewhere. 2004 brought further NATO expansion, and the only thing left was Ukraine: right on the Russian border.

Granted, the Cold War ended. We won. Flags changed. But it’s still the Russians. Those who dedicated their lives to the Soviet Union didn’t all just change their way of thinking with the fall of the Berlin Wall. They got drowned out for a bit, but one of them made his way into power. And so many in the West got swept up with the idea of liberal ideas and falsely deduced that no one in their right mind could possibly challenge the new status quo of political freedom and democracy. That ship had sailed after all. What they failed to appreciate was that freedom only existed as the widespread norm because the United States was the dominant power. It’s like imaging how the world would be different if Nazi-Germany and Imperial Japan had won WWII.

But we should stop just calling Vladimir Putin mentally ill; maybe he is (I’m no doctor), but as far as he’s concerned and for all practical purposes, Putin just has different strategic priorities than you do. Unlike Ukraine, Russia didn’t get rid of its stockpile of nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Frankly, it’s now their single saving grace. As seen by their lackluster military performance recently, Russia is a declining power. Despite economic hardships, a decreasing population and political scandals over the last 30+ years, Russia has continued to maintain the image of military might. That image has now turned into a bit of a mirage at the hands of an inexperienced (albeit determined) Ukrainian citizenry equipped with American “defensive” weapons actually putting up a fight.

And with that, 2022 marks the start of Cold War II. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be anything like the Cold War. Yes, Belarus (a Russian stooge) recently passed a proposal to renounce its non-nuclear status, but I’m of the opinion Vladimir Putin has no interest in actually annexing or occupying Ukraine long-term. Sure, I’m sure he’d love to if he could, but not with such an unwilling population and resources stretched so thin. Russia within two weeks of invading lost more soldiers’ lives than the US did over the entire course of Iraq and Afghanistan operations combined. Russia will just continue to be a thorn in Europe’s side. Whatever resolution comes out of supposed peace talks, it’s hard to imagine political and economic ties normalizing fully anytime soon. Russia will need a change of leadership for that, and even then, who knows? I mean, the Soviet Union’s resolve didn’t exactly end with the passing of Stalin.

The current situation in Ukraine is of the worst kind, not one of all-or-nothing but one of just-enough that in your everyday life would be annoying. A Russian invasion geared towards annexing the entire country might have forced the US and Europe into war with Russia. Nobody wants that. Not even Russia. There’s a reason Russian military operations have been limited in Western Ukraine. On the other hand, Russia still needs a prize to tout. Maybe it’ll settle up to the Dnipro River, giving it more than it originally advertised with the Donbas region. That would be enough territory to flow nicely all the way from the border of their puppet ally Belarus to the Crimean Penninsula that they annexed in 2014, creating a Western and Eastern divide in Ukraine similar to East and West Germany during the Cold War.

It’d be a move straight out of the Cold War handbook. Let’s not forget that Vladimir Putin is a product of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: a former KGB officer who was actually stationed in East Germany. And looking at a map today, a East-West Ukraine makes all the sense in the world if you’re Russia. This way Russia could still pretend to be important on the world stage and we’d get to keep Kyiv. Or at least half of it like West Berlin. Yay? As for all those sanctions being imposed by the West, Putin doesn’t care. Russia’s had sanctions imposed on it for years. So has Cuba and Iran. The success of sanctions assumes Putin cares about the Russian population and its prosperity. He doesn’t; not above the pride, dignity and glory of Russia as a nation. And he’ll sacrifice as many Russians to that end.

How does all this translate over to China? It’s not difficult to draw Sino-themed parallels from Russian aggression in places like Georgia and now Ukraine, not to mention global actions like cyber attacks. China has had Hong Kong, Tibet, skirmishes on the Indian border and the controversial handling of ethnic minorities. China has pursued intellectual theft to strengthen its abilities against only one country that it considers its counterpart: the United States. Anything less than the US is an insult. And just as Russia has an ancestral fascination with Ukraine, China considers Taiwan and the South China Sea theirs by right. And let’s be real: the international community still calls Taiwan Chinese-Taipei at the Olympics just to not aggravate China, so we’ve kind of gone along with their narrative.

Russia planned for their invasion of Ukraine partly by building up their foreign reserves over the last number of years to the value of about $600 billion. China’s foreign reserves to date amount to about $3.5 trillion. That should give you pause. While China has nowhere near the number of nukes as Russia, it is a nuclear power nonetheless. While China doesn’t have the battle-hardened ability of the US military, I’m sure it could at least cause some damage in the region. But Ukraine is also a bit of foreshadowing for what China could expect if it had ever attempted to invade Taiwan: an unwillingness of young people not too keen on becoming another Hong Kong.

What I’d be more concerned about are trigger-happy reactions amidst rising tensions in murky waters. The New Cold War will put the US Navy on the frontlines against China. Russia in Ukraine is a land battle, but anything to do with China will be at sea. The thing about the Cold War was that there were clearly defined borders to take a stand on, push yet ultimately avoid crossing. We had checkpoints and a wall that divided Germany, and an Iron Curtain that separated East and West Europe. There were buffer states between the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. In that sense, the concept of buffer states has done its job today for better or worse: the conflict in Ukraine is contained within that country.

But where are the buffers between China and the island nation of Taiwan? Open waters are a little tricky. Theoretically, how deep could China’s military float without firing a bullet and still be within its legal allowances. Within Taiwan’s exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles off of the coast)? How about just outside of 12 nautical miles off the coast of Taiwan (i.e. just outside its territorial waters); thus still being in the contiguous zone. “Hostile,” we’d say. “Non-combative,” China would say.

An additional concern is China today getting the false impression that the United States won’t react to Chinese aggression based solely on America’s limited response in Ukraine (i.e. everything short of direct military involvement). For that reason, I wish President Biden had stopped continuously repeating his reluctance to put troops on the ground, especially when no one even asks. Will China plan accordingly for deep economic sanctions if they think that’s all they’ll have to deal with? There’s always been this sense of mystery when it comes to Taiwan and America’s true dedication to actually defending it. It’s been something China has not wanted to test and, frankly, not had the ability to face if it escalated without embarrassing itself. China most likely still doesn’t have that ability, but it’s getting there. Its military’s size continues to expand.

Consequently, China has been watching and learning for years, but it’s mostly been theoretical. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a practical test study in countering America’s sphere of influence in the 21st century. But maybe Western nations have also had their own wakeup call with Ukraine. Perhaps they will now actually consider concerns legitimate when warnings about China are given like they were given with Russia.

[Photo by Frankie FouganthinCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

David Kobylanski is a writer by day, reader by night and lover throughout. His love for the United States, the Constitution and the military branches is cemented by his passion for history and the history that has yet to be written. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Can Pakistan Be Another Sri Lanka?

The political mayhem in Sri Lanka continues to unfold; Pakistan reels with the recent regime change. While Sri Lanka faces near term bankruptcy, would...

The Complexities of the Iran-China-Russia Triangle

Most strategic commentators view Iran as an integral component of the Russia-China grouping. As a result of the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear...

Renewed Alliances: A Trans-Caspian “Middle Corridor” Brings Kazakhstan Closer to Turkey

Due to the global preoccupation with Russia's war against Ukraine, the May 10 meeting in Ankara between Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Turkey's President...