I did not imagine that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would unfold the way it has. In fact, I was not sure that there would be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at all. Russia has a recent track-record of invasions. In 2007, it invaded Georgia but largely limited its military ambitions to Abkhazia and South Ossetia — regions that had long been de facto autonomous from the rest of Georgia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it largely limited its ambitions to Crimea. Unofficially, it has been an active participant in Luhansk and Donetsk. An invasion of sorts had long been expected. NATO and Ukraine had tacitly accepted it as unwanted, but seemingly inevitable. China had signed off on it with a few provisos. One was that Russia would wait until after the Beijing Scamlympics. The second was that Russia would act with restraint and limit its ambitions as it had in the past.
The extent of Russia’s invasion took everyone by surprise. It has also put China in an awkward position. China had intended to use this as a test case. If a surgical Russian occupation of two de facto independent Ukrainian oblasts went off smoothly and international responses were tepid, China would ramp up pressure on Taiwan with an all-out invasion on the cards. A test-invasion of Kinmen would be a near-certainty. Kinmen is a region comprising a few small islands administered by Taiwan in Xiamen Harbour, about six miles from the Fujian coast — or 116 miles from the Taiwanese coast. By breaking with its precedents, Russia confirmed another: the decadent, degenerate and divided West is still capable of uniting and causing serious damage. The United States might no longer be the undisputed global leader it was in 1992, the United States might have a president whose reign of error puts him into the same disastrous category as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, but the United States is still able to cobble together a coherent and cohesive coalition. In this way, Putin and Xi underestimated the West in the same way that Hitler and Mussolini underestimated the West, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm II underestimated the United Kingdom and France.
In keeping with another precedent, Russia and China misread the situation in Ukraine entirely. Zalenskyy was a deeply unpopular president. He made Bonkers the Clown, ScoMo and Kamala Harris look universally loved. There was widespread disenchantment in Ukraine. When Ukraine became independent in 1992, its GDP and level of development was about the same as neighbouring Poland. In the following thirty years, Poland has charged ahead of it. Poland has matured into a highly-developed country with a quality of life roughly on part with Western Europe and North America. Ukraine has, if anything, declined. When Ukraine became independent, it had a population of well over 52 million people. By the end of 2021, it had a population of just over 41 million. Ukraine’s health system has been crumbling for years. Ukraine’s economy has been stagnant in the cities and effectively collapsed in many rural areas. Corruption and political repression are by some measures worse than in Russia. Much has been made of Leonid Kuchma, his corruption and his heavy-handed tactics. Zalenskyy was no better. If Kuchma put pressure on the media, Zalenskyy simply shut down critical media outlets. If Kuchma was happy to knock off a few troublesome opponents, Zalenskyy (constrained by growing dependence on European and American largesse) was more than happy to gaol troublesome opponents. There was a sense that Ukraine had given up on itself, on its pro-Western experiment.
It’s strange that of all countries, it was China that most misread the Ukrainian situation. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, it had assumed that China would be an easy target. For all its vastness, it lacked a coherent national government and much of the country was lawless. The parts that were not lawless were little better than lawless. The KMT were corrupt and inept and the Chinese had been chaffing under an abusive West for generations. The Japanese had their share of supporters/sympathisers in China who looked to Japan as a model for development and liberation from Western quasi-colonialism. Likewise, the Japanese assumed that the Indochinese, Dutch East Indians, Indians, Filipinos and Malaysians would see the Japanese as Asian brothers and liberators. The Chinese might have been chaffing, but they wanted peace and development on their terms as a sovereign people. They no more wanted the Japanese to rule them than they wanted the French, British or Americans. If anything, the wanton brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army turned China against Japan and made it look less unfavourably at the West — at least comparatively. If the Netherlands East Indies were sick of the Dutch, if Indochina as sick of the French, if India and the various British colonies that eventually became Malaysia and Singapore were sick of the British, they were even less receptive to the Japanese. The Philippines was sui generis as their independence, slated for 1936, was postponed by ten years at the request of their government. Ukraine, rather than looking at Russia as a liberator and a chance to get out from underneath the often repressive and inept rule of the Poroshenko-Zalenskyy factions, saw them as invaders and interlopers who had no place in Ukraine. Most shocking was when the Russians entered Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine only to find that they were meeting not fellow Russians under a different flag, but Ukrainians who happened to speak the same language. Whatever Ukraine’s failures, the Ukrainian people wanted to live in their own country and on their own terms.
We are in a situation now in which there are two great losers: the Ukrainian and the Russian peoples. Ukraine is being town apart, life for ordinary Russians is incredibly difficult and severe shortages of even the most basic things is once again a fact of life. If anything, Ukraine is more committed than ever to its own place in the world. Russia has, in a matter of weeks, lost all the progress it has made in thirty years. China is stuck in an awkward, even precarious, position. It partially owns the Russian invasion as it signed off on it and underwrote it. If it abandons its Russian ally, it loses face and loses the better part of a strategic partnership that is vital to its own ambitions. If it backs its Russian ally too actively, it risks Western sanctions. Whereas Russia has been quasi-detached from the West since 2015, China is heavily integrated into the global economy and is very, very sensitive to the threat of economic decoupling. Only through the connivance of Western media and bought-and-paid-for Western politicians and institutions did China escape extreme censure for their cynical mishandling of the pandemic. There is precious little goodwill or naivety left. China cannot afford to alienate its major economic powers over Ukraine. It is also having to re-evaluate its approach to Taiwan. For domestic purposes, it cannot drop the threat of forced reunification and military sorties entirely. At the same time, a full-scale of invasion of Taiwan would force a response at least on par with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if not even harsher as Taiwan’s strategic importance for the global economy and the regional balance of power is far, far greater than Ukraine’s. Its best hope is that in 2024, with Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-en leaving office due to term limits, will be replaced by someone like Hou Yu-ih who, though not supportive of unification, would not be as hostile to China as Tsai.