Putin and Xi Jinping Flirt With the Attractions of a Wider European War

We have had to keep revising our interpretation of President Putin’s motives in Ukraine as each new threshold has been crossed in this crisis. And China’s Xi Jinping, always hard to second guess, is showing his hand more as events tumble over themselves. 

The two great dictators of the twenty-first century may each have come to see 2022 as their ‘moment in history’ to re-align global forces for their countries – one because it is on the way up; the other because it is on the way down. 

For the West, the challenge is now the critical test of our era. The invasion of Ukraine may only be the first phase. Michael Clarke outlines the issue.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, and the manner of Russian attacks on it, are despicable and, of course, completely illegal. But if Putin’s decision is the result of a delusionary personality, his ultimate strategic intentions are now probably much wider and almost certainly worse. 

First we thought that the cunning tactician – ruthless victor in incremental power-games in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, in Syria after 2015 and in Libya and Mali now – was just trying to frighten us with a big military build-up around Ukraine. He was pushing NATO to re-think the European security order after the Cold War, pretending he would use Ukraine as a hostage. 

Then we thought he showed such genuine obsession over Ukraine that he might be tempted to use some of his military hardware to consolidate Russia’s position in the self-declared republics of the Donbas – replacing Russian mercenaries with official troops to make his point. 

Could he, we wondered, be so brazen as to strike out westwards from the Donbas to create a full land-bridge to Crimea, which he had illegally annexed in 2014? That would be a huge move, and surely all the Russian forces surrounding Ukraine were part of a bluff to persuade Kyiv, and NATO, to settle for Russia’s next territorial bite? Maybe western leaders would feel they had got off lightly if that’s all he wanted this time.

But no. Putin is going for broke. He really does believe that Ukraine has no right to exist; that it is governed by a bunch of Nazis and criminals, and (for good measure) drug addicts. So he invaded Europe’s second biggest country – over 45 million people – who certainly don’t see Russian forces as ‘liberators’. In the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, where the fiercest resistance has been encountered so far, more than 50% of the population are ethnic Russian. But they are all Ukrainians now.

It’s a crazy scheme and it’s already gone wrong, both on the military front and in the dramatic economic isolation of Russia in the world. Putin has committed a strategic blunder that dwarfs the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and makes the West’s own failures in Afghanistan and Iraq look like mere inefficiency. 

Putin’s ambitions

Why has he done it? Putin is not a madman. But, as Angela Merkel always said, he has a 19th century view of 21st century issues. His delusional legacy to Russia is to restore its greatness as a European and Asiatic power – and in predominantly territorial terms. That’s how he thinks. He will, somehow, reverse all the humiliations of defeat in the Cold War. Above all, he is pitching to be included in an exclusive pantheon of Russian leaders across 350 years – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Vladimir Putin. Analysts are reassessing Putin’s long-term thinking in light of recent events and this theme emerges strongly. It is not that his historical legacy ambition was never recognised. It was heard often as part of his own political rhetoric. But few thought he was so delusional to fall for it himself. The West’s hapless performance in abandoning Afghanistan last year obviously made up his mind that this was the best time to go for it. So 2022 became his ‘moment in history’.

Putin may be shocked, but he won’t be deterred, by the way Ukrainian forces have frustrated the Russians and created his current strategic problem. The offensive will grind forward in the expectation that the Ukrainians will eventually crack in several places at once, while the steady brutalisation of Ukrainian cities continues. He may cross yet another threshold, as in Syria, using chemical weapons to clear those cities, provoking even greater international condemnation. He personally won’t care too much.

The new threat to Europe is that in going for broke, Putin might try to widen the conflict on the Hitlerian assumption that the best way to retrieve a massive strategic blunder is to make another one somewhere else; throwing all the cards in the air to see if a better hand is available when they land. This might include pushing his aggression to the Transnistria region in next door Moldova, or pressing hard on the three Baltic States to distract NATO and give it an Article 5 crisis to worry about. It might also extend to making not so veiled nuclear threats, or even – bizarrely – contemplating radioactive leakage from Ukraine’s reactors. Anything to frighten the world to the point where major nations demand that the Ukrainians stop fighting for their independent existence, leaving the Kremlin to make the next geopolitical move.

NATO can maintain its essential red line that defends the boundaries of its member states. But its wider mission to create deterrence against aggression in Europe has now signally failed. Putin is evidently in a mindset to take NATO on. He is not just prepared to risk a confrontation with the Alliance to pursue his war in Ukraine; he is threatening it and creating borderline Article 5 incidents to goad it into attacking Russia in some tangible way. It may be his next strategic blunder to defend his first. Of course, it might work for him, if NATO backs off a confrontation and appeases his political demands that were so unacceptable to western leaders last December. But given where we are now, that seems very unlikely. 

In essence, Putin seems to be flirting with the idea of a greater European war since he cannot see how to win the one he has already started. And his ambitions go beyond removing an independent Ukraine from the map.

Xi’s dilemma

With his decisive 20th Party Congress coming up in the autumn, Xi Jinping may have preferred not to be making any of the choices that this war confronts him with; but he will make them nonetheless.

China’s ‘alignment’ with Russia – certainly not an ‘alliance’ but something more temporary and conditional – encourages Beijing to offer general support for Putin’s actions in what might be called ‘sympathetic neutrality’. That support has not been as full as it was over the Crimea land-grab in 2014 or Russia’s Syrian war after 2015. China has been making more nuanced statements about this war even as it protects Russia at the United Nations and recycles absurd Russian claims about Ukraine’s ‘nuclear, chemical and biological’ threats to the world. China, however, sees the war as a welcome setback for the over-mighty West and might be prepared to help Moscow out with more of the weapons it now seems to be saying it needs. Putin’s attack pushes against longstanding NATO enlargement, which has always worried China in a distant sort of way. It distracts attention from Indo-Pacific affairs. It preoccupies the US and could well weaken it if Biden mishandles the whole thing. It may all work out rather well for China, if his long-term western adversary and his increasingly troublesome Moscow client really hurt each other in a protracted series of political and military confrontations.

Against all this, however, Xi Jinping must also see that the war is already affecting the global economy in ways that will be bad for China’s post-Covid growth. And if the war spins into a more general European conflict, as Putin seems to contemplate, the global economic effect could be catastrophic. China’s own dependence on imported energy is already a key economic weak spot in any such global disruption.

And the course of the  war may end up strengthening the US and its military allies if the West ‘rediscovers itself’ through this crisis. Already, the demonstrable power of purposeful western sanctions against Russia is an object lesson that may force Beijing to think again if it was contemplating a military move against Taiwan any time soon. So Xi Jinping is facing some momentous geopolitical choices while he pursues sympathetic neutrality. Beijing loves talking about the ‘correlation of global forces’ as an explanation of international policy. Now it’s facing them in hard reality, and soon; not just in the windy speeches of its leaders. 

Europe and the western world is reaching a very dangerous inflexion point in this war. As Russian forces become bogged down along their three main lines of advance (as we have analysed in previous briefings), western observers have tended to think that Putin is obviously losing in his madcap scheme. But he probably thinks he’s winning. He is not just going for broke in Ukraine. He’s going for broke to refashion European history. 

Meanwhile, it would be fairly easy for Xi Jinping to step in and effectively stop Putin’s war. But Xi seems tempted to see where it might go for a while yet before deciding whether to do so. 

Michael Clarke is former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute. His latest book, with Helen Ramscar, is Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I. B. Tauris /Bloomsbury, 2021. 

Photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021