As Russia continues its troop build-up along the border with Ukraine, China has markedly increased its military activity near Taiwan. The twin geopolitical flashpoints, separated by 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles), are raising concerns that Russia and China could coordinate or conduct concurrent military offensives that the United States and its allies may find difficult to stop.
A failure to deter Russia and China — deterrence, especially military pre-positioning near the area under threat, is the least costly way to avoid war — would deal a potentially crushing blow to the post-World War II liberal international order. That system — whose principles and norms, including adherence to the rule of law, respect for human rights and the promotion of liberal democracy, as well as preserving the sanctity of territorial sovereignty and existing boundaries — has regulated the conduct of international relations for nearly 80 years.
Analysts warn that the crisis in Ukraine, which China presumably is closely watching, may represent a turning point in world politics. An invasion of Ukraine would open the door for Russia to extend its military tentacles to countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. It could also embolden China to invade Taiwan, which would allow Beijing to set its sights on economic powerhouses Japan and South Korea, as well as on other regional allies of the United States.
Observers worry that Russia and China — so-called revisionist authoritarian powers seeking to establish a post-Western global order that extols autocracy over democracy — may leverage control over Ukraine and Taiwan to carve out exclusive spheres of influence in their respective parts of the globe.
If they succeed in dividing the world into zones of exclusive control, Russia and China would effectively collapse the Western global order and restore the unstable international system of great power rivalry that existed before — and ended with — the two world wars of the twentieth century.
Analysts are divided over the question of whether Russia and China ultimately will use military force to achieve their territorial ambitions, but nearly all agree that if they do, it will be because Moscow and Beijing feel emboldened by their perception that the West — led by the United States and Europe — is weaker and more divided than at any other point in recent memory.
A massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border has been fueling speculation of an imminent invasion. In recent months, Russia has deployed at least 100,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border, according to satellite images. An American intelligence document obtained by the Washington Post assessed that Russia is planning a multi-front offensive involving nearly 200,000 troops. The unclassified document, which included satellite photos, showed Russian forces amassing in four locations near Ukraine. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has warned that Russia will be ready to invade in late January 2022.
Analysts are divided on what is motivating Putin. Some believe that he is using the Ukraine issue to deflect from domestic problems, including runaway inflation and a divisive push for Covid vaccine passports. Others say that Putin is fixated on restoring Russian control over Ukraine and other former members of the former Soviet Union.
In July 2021, Putin penned a 7,000-word essay — "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" — in which he outlined the basis for his claims against Ukraine. He openly questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine's borders and argued that modern-day Ukraine occupies "the lands of historical Russia." He concluded: "I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia."
Putin's essay was variously characterized as "a final ultimatum," "a masterclass in disinformation," and "one step short of a declaration of war."
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, in a hard-hitting article, described Putin's arguments as "short on accuracy and long on contradictions." He added: "President Putin's article completely ignores the wishes of the citizens of Ukraine, while evoking that same type of ethnonationalism which played out across Europe for centuries and still has the potential to awaken the same destructive forces of ancient hatred.
Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko said: "Putin's article claims to be about history, but in reality it is about the future and not the past. Ukraine holds the key to Putin's dreams of restoring Russia's great power status. He is painfully aware that without Ukraine, this will be impossible.
"Putin's essay does not actually contain anything new. Indeed, we have already heard these same arguments many times before. However, his article does help clarify that the current conflict is not about control over Crimea or eastern Ukraine's Donbas region; it is a war for the whole of Ukraine. Putin makes it perfectly clear that his goal is to keep Ukraine firmly within the Russian sphere of influence and to prevent Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration."
Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, wrote: "Analysts say Putin's desire to rid Ukraine of Western influence is underpinned by a conviction that it is an inalienable part of the 'Russian world,' a Moscow-centric sphere of influence rooted in the Soviet Union and the Tsarist empire.
"Putin has described the collapse of the USSR ... as 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century' and has questioned the grounds on which Ukraine broke off from Russia.
"Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin likened the Ukrainian peninsula, where Vladimir the Great — the first Christian ruler of Rus, a medieval state ruled from Kyiv — was baptized in 988AD, as 'Russia's Temple Mount' — a notion that has no theological basis but cast Putin as the protector of Russians everywhere."
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's former foreign minister, added: "Putin has a sense of mission on reinstalling a new kind of empire. It's sitting very deep in his mind. Any separate path of Ukraine would be highly damaging to the Russian mythology."
Tinatin Khidasheli, former defense minister of Georgia, warned: "Putin's apparent indifference towards Western warnings is understandable. He has been hearing the same empty promises of decisive action, typically accompanied by expressions of grave concern, ever since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008....
"Firmly worded Western statements of condemnation did not deter Putin from seizing and annexing Crimea. Nor have they succeeded in facilitating the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine or Moldova....
"We are currently witnessing the logical continuation of this historical process, with Russia's ambitions now extending to all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.
"Putin's recent list of security demands makes clear that he seeks to reassert Russian domination throughout the post-Soviet space. This will enhance Russia's claims to superpower status while exposing the inability of the Western powers to keep their promises. Crucially, it will also allow Putin to safeguard his own political future....
"None of this was inevitable. Like all bullies, Putin retreats when confronted by genuine strength and advances only when he senses weakness.... In order to cut Putin back down to size, all that is necessary is for Western actions to finally match Western words."
Swedish scholar Anders Åslund concluded: "Make no mistake: by denying Ukraine's right to independence, Putin is setting the stage for war. The West must quickly decide what it is willing to do to prevent it."
While Russia has been threatening Ukraine, China has significantly increased its military and diplomatic intimidation of Taiwan, an island that, since 1949, has been governed independently of mainland China.
Taiwan considers itself to be a sovereign state, but China says it is a breakaway province that will be taken by force if necessary. In an October 2021 speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed that Taiwan would be "reunified" with China: "No one should underestimate the Chinese people's staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled — and will definitely be fulfilled."
In July 2021, in a speech marking the 100th birthday of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Xi promised to "smash" any Taiwanese attempts at formal independence:
"Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party and the common aspiration of all Chinese people. All sons and daughters of China, including compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, must work together and move forward in solidarity, resolutely smashing any 'Taiwan independence' plots."
Previously, Xi said that Taiwan "must and will be" reunited with China. He also warned that China reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan to heel.
Beijing has reinforced its hostile rhetoric by sending record numbers of fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ). An ADIZ, which extends 12 nautical miles from a country's coast, serves as a buffer between international airspace and a country's territorial airspace. An ADIZ allows countries to monitor and respond to aircraft before they actually enter their airspace.
The number of large-scale incursions — so-called gray-zone warfare, which entails using irregular tactics to exhaust a foe without actually resorting to open combat — notably increased after U.S. President Joe Biden took office. Thomas J. Shattuck, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted: "After President Joseph Biden took office, the incursions became more provocative in nature, and the use of fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers increased significantly throughout 2021. During Biden's first days in office, the PLA conducted two consecutive days of exercises in Taiwan's southwestern ADIZ, which simulated an attack against the nearby USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group. This two-day exercise, which included 28 aircraft, marked the highest number of aircraft to enter Taiwan's ADIZ since September 2020. During Biden's first month in office, fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers were used in ten incursions — a significant bump in usage from 2020."
Analysts are divided over the question of whether China will invade Taiwan. Some argue China does not yet possess the naval and logistics capability successfully to launch an all-out invasion across the choppy waters of the Taiwan Strait, which create a natural moat. Others note that an invasion would be a highly risky gambit; a failure would damage the prestige of the Chinese Communist Party and possibly lead to its downfall.
In an extensive Reuters report — "The Battle for Taiwan" — analysts David Lague and Maryanne Murray interviewed two dozen military planners from China, Taiwan, the United States, Japan and Australia on their views of how China may try to seize Taiwan, and how the United States might stop it.
"Chinese control of Taiwan would dramatically reinforce the Communist Party's prestige at home and eliminate the island as a viable model of a democratic alternative to authoritarian Party rule. It would also give China a foothold in the so-called first island chain, the line which runs through the string of islands from the Japanese archipelago to Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo, which enclose China's coastal seas.
"For Beijing, success would translate into a commanding strategic position in Asia, undermining the security of Japan and South Korea, and allowing China to project power into the Western Pacific. But Beijing also has an incentive to be cautious: If America and its allies intervened against a takeover attempt, they could inflict heavy losses on an untested Chinese military that has not fired a shot in anger for decades. Defeat could weaken the Party's hold on power....
"For the American alliance, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would be a devastating blow. At a stroke, the United States would lose its status as the pre-eminent power in Asia, according to most U.S. and regional military experts. If America were unwilling or unable to defend Taiwan, its network of allies in the Asia-Pacific — including Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra — would overnight be far more vulnerable to military and economic coercion from China. Some might switch allegiance to Beijing, analysts say. Some might seek nuclear weapons to boost their own security."
Many observers agree that China is closely watching the U.S. response to Russia's activities in Ukraine, and that the challenges posed by Russia and China are a test of American credibility.
In an interview with the New York Times, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander at NATO, noted: "Vladimir Putin has invaded two democratic neighbors in just over a decade. Letting him do it a third time would set the global system back decades. Appeasement does not work any better now than it worked for Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s. China will be watching U.S. support to Ukraine, and it will inform their calculus regarding Taiwan."
In a statement, U.S. Representative Mike McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "I strongly urge President Biden not to make concessions at the expense of our strategic partner Ukraine in response to the Putin regime's provocative military buildup. This would not only fail to de-escalate tensions, it would also embolden Vladimir Putin and his fellow autocrats by demonstrating the United States will surrender in the face of saber-rattling. Particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Nord Stream 2 capitulation, U.S. credibility from Kyiv to Taipei cannot withstand another blow of this nature."
On December 15, Putin and Xi, in a video call, vowed to defend each other's interests against the United States and its allies. Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, said that the Russian president had told his "old friend" Xi about the "mounting threats to Russia's national interests from the US and the NATO bloc, which consistently move their military infrastructure close to the Russian borders." Xi reportedly replied that he sympathized with Putin and "especially stated his support."
Ushakov added that Xi said China and Russia now had a relationship that was stronger than an alliance. "At present, certain international forces are arbitrarily interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia under the guise of democracy and human rights, and brutally trampling on international law and the norms of international relations," Xi said, according to Chinese state television.
In a report — "Will Russia Invade Ukraine? Moscow's Threat to European Security" — published by the UK-based Henry Jackson Society, Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio warned:
"A weak Western response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would send the wrong signal to China. After all, 'Putin speaks of Moscow's eternal bond with Kyiv in nearly the same way that Chinese leaders demand reunification with Taiwan.' With Russians and the Chinese viewing Ukraine and Taiwan respectively as part of their homelands, whatever the West does — or does not do — in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine will be eagerly watched in Beijing. China supports Russia's ultimatums. A 'potential nightmare scenario' in 2022 would be 'Russia invading Ukraine and China launching a military campaign to take back Taiwan.'"
Michael Schuman, a China scholar at the US-based Atlantic Council, in an essay — "China is Watching Ukraine With a Lot of Interest" — wrote that the Ukraine crisis is a crucial test of American global power, and that the United States is facing the "stiffest challenge" to its global primacy since the fall of the Soviet Union: "How Xi interprets (or worse, misinterprets) the outcome of the Ukraine standoff could influence whether and how China tries to reunify with Taiwan, and thus has implications for the security and stability of East Asia....
"The fate of Ukraine has become intimately entangled in this renewed big-power competition.... At stake is the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe. The outcome, though, could reverberate well beyond the region, and well into the future, affecting whether American power will remain strong enough to maintain peace and advance democracy — or whether the world's autocracies will claw back clout that they lost decades ago.
"Leaders such as Putin and Xi may see an opportunity. 'The problem for Biden is that their view is that they should test him at all times, and they are. And he has so far not really passed those tests with any distinction,' Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. 'This is a very important period.'
"Xi may believe that Taiwan is drifting in a direction harmful to China's national interests, just as Ukraine has strayed ever further from Moscow's orbit. Taiwan's independent-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen, has tried to reduce the economy's reliance on China and strengthen ties to the U.S. and other countries. Washington, too, has sought closer links. Officially, the U.S. still upholds a 'one China" policy and does not formally recognize the Taipei government. But it's not hard to discern why Xi might think otherwise....
"In light of all this, Xi will be scrutinizing the situation in Ukraine for useful intelligence about which tools Biden can and ultimately will employ to pressure Russia to back off, how much he is willing to give up in a potential compromise with Putin, and how effectively the U.S. president works with allies and even his own diplomats. China's leader, in other words, will be looking to measure the level of American resolve....
"Ukraine and Taiwan both show how easily U.S. weakness — or even the mere perception of weakness — could unravel the strained networks and alliances that support the American world order and usher in a new era of global conflict and instability.... The Putins and Xis of the world are probing for those weaknesses, watching the results, and calculating their next move."
Analyst Seth Cropsey, in commentary titled "The Two-Headed Fight for Ukraine and Taiwan," wrote that Russia and China are working together to upend the existing world order: "Although separated by geography, Ukraine and Taiwan occupy similar positions in the Russian and Chinese strategic experience and historical imagination. Capturing each is essential to all other strategic objectives. For Russia, taking Ukraine would secure its hold on the Black Sea and open other pressure points against vulnerable NATO members Romania and Bulgaria. For the Chinese Communist Party, seizing Taiwan would allow the country to break out of the First Island Chain and conduct offensive operations against Japan, the Philippines and even U.S. territories in the Central Pacific.
"Historically, post-Soviet Russia's ruling oligarchy has cultivated intense grievances against independent Ukraine. It is a living reminder that Slavic peoples need not live under one flag. Taiwan is proof that Chinese-speaking peoples are fully capable of governing themselves. The modern Communist Party stems from a brutal revolutionary regime that savaged the Chinese people, murdering millions through its messianic ambitions and sheer incompetence. Only by consuming Taiwan can China confirm its superiority. Given the political capital the Communist Party has invested in subduing Taiwan, it may no longer have a way to de-escalate even if it wanted to.
"The clearest obstacle to Russian and Chinese escalation is Ukraine's and Taiwan's affiliations with the U.S. and its allies....
"Roughly concurrent offensive operations in two hemispheres would overstress American and allied resources.... The U.S. must begin thinking about its strategic challenges globally, not in regional segments. This is a contest for Eurasia — and thus for the world."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.