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[Hwang’s China and the World] What China learned from the Russia-Ukraine War

You Ji, a professor of international relations in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macao
You Ji, a professor of international relations in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macao


Right before the Russia-Ukraine War broke out, Russian President Vladimir Putin hurried to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. Putin’s visit was a show of his consideration to China, and many have analyzed that the Russia-Ukraine War would have broken out faster if it was not for the Winter Olympics. As shown, China was a critical factor to consider. All of international society, including the United States and Europe, looked to see whether China supported Russia -- both physically and emotionally. This was due to concurrent factors such as the uncertain prolonging of the Russia-Ukraine War; intensified competition between the democratic camp of the US and its Western allies standing at the center versus the authoritarian camp of China and Russia; the US and China’s strategic competition; and the possibility of additional “provocations” from countries confronting the US like North Korea. In this light, the strategic weight and portion China’s correspondence and response takes in the current international order are significant. How is China observing the Russia-Ukraine War? How is it interpreting the situation in terms of its national strategy? How does China see the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s military strategy and power in light of the conflict? How does China see its neighboring region’s security? To seek answers to these questions, I invited professor You Ji, who has researched this area for decades. He is currently a professor of international relations in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macao. Previously, he was a reader (professor) in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales.

Hwang: Despite Russia’s military superiority, what would be strategic military reasons for Russia’s failure to achieve its goal in the short term, as it heads into a long-term war?

You: An assessment of Russia’s war performance as a success or failure depends on one’s subjective judgment. First, we do not know Putin’s war objectives in the first place. He set limited goals for the war: no occupation, no regime change and no elimination of the Ukraine armed forces. As such, the war is not a traditional one, but a kind of special military operation. These “three noes” have in fact created an exit for Putin to end the war after claiming that he has taught Ukraine a lesson, like what the Chinese did to India in 1962 and to Vietnam in 1979. As this is a highly politicized war, failure or success cannot be judged by battlefield indicators. Putin may have achieved a positive outcome.

Hwang: What does a positive outcome for Russia mean specifically?

You: The very act of war is an indicator of Putin’s great zeal, who dared the entire West and stimulated Russian patriotism at home. NATO avoided direct combat engagement with Russia, not even attempting to set a no-fly zone. Ukraine announced its neutrality and non-NATO membership, although it is now hesitating under the West’s persuasion and military aid. Putin has forced a new fait accompli onto Ukraine on the independence of the two “people’s republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. With the decisive weakening of Ukraine’s defense and industrial capabilities, Russia has struck back at Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, driving it out of eastern Ukraine. Certainly judging by the standard of recent US wars, Russia has endured enormous casualties and equipment losses. Yet Russia has no such culture of body bags in comparison to that of the US. The drawn-out war demonstrates the Russian military’s deficiencies. Yet Russia still has the upper hand. To Russia, the physical cost may not apply to conventional criteria for a military victory -- only Putin’s immediate political objectives do. Of course, he may have misjudged the long-term implications of this war to Russia.

Hwang: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned that what the countries Russia has attacked --- including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova -- have in common is that they are not NATO members. He added that countries can avoid invasions from Russia if they belong to NATO, and that it is Ukraine’s basic right to decide its own future and fate. Do you see this as persuasive?

You: Envelope-pushing is always a dangerous act of confrontation, especially when it is leveraged against a nuclear power such as North Korea. This can be suicidal if the opponent is pushed to the point of pursuing mutually assured destruction (MAD). The lesson of the Russia-Ukraine War is that top powers must reserve a space of ambiguity in confrontation to avoid a showdown. Under this simple reasoning, the defense of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova may be enhanced if they join the NATO. But what about security for Russia, as John Mearsheimer asked? How will Russia respond to Blinken’s promise to recruit the three countries to NATO? Will Moscow swallow such a reality? And is NATO ready to confront Russia militarily, or just use Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Russia? After the Russia-Ukraine War, Russia will certainly be crippled. As a result, it may not be able to wage another war against, say, Georgia, for a long while. But if it gambles not to swallow this bitter fruit, the world will be insecure for a long period of time. Despite that, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova may feel more secure. The world community needs to reckon with the consequences of when the East-West rivalry becomes a zero-sum game. The sensitive and sensible approach of Northeast Asian countries towards North Korea is an example to follow. “Live and let live” is still a principle of peace for the world. Unfortunately, the age of MAD has returned in the advent of the Russia-Ukraine War.

Hwang: Can we say the world has entered into a New Cold War?

You: We definitely can, although the specific definition of the New Cold War may not match the old one. The Russia-Ukraine War either creates or enhances new realities of Cold War power confrontation. The West’s ideological campaign will intensify, repeating the great East-West Schism of the 11th century. It is forging an ideological foundation for a New Cold War of the West vis-a-vis the rest. To many Chinese analysts, a new “end of history” crusade is in the making against the West’s rivals, especially China and Russia. The West will accelerate forming its bloc. Not only will NATO’s eastward expansion continue, but its Asian expansion will also become more conceivable. This will coalesce NATO and Indo-Pacific security more organically.

Hwang: How do you foresee the New Cold War to be?

You: The militarization of the New Cold War will deepen, raising it to the level of reinvigorating nuclear MAD threats in multiple regions. This includes especially the Korean Peninsula, where renewed confrontation will resume sooner than later. Central Asia may be thrown into new internal crisis following weakened Russian capacity to intervene. All the regional sovereignty disputes involving China would be structured into global geopolitical strife under the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. The West’s economic decoupling will double down in certain key high-tech and IT sectors in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine War. Eliminating China from the critical value chain will be stepped up. These may differ from the original Cold War specifics, but both Cold Wars will share one fundamental feature: containment against identified adversaries such as China and Russia.

Hwang: How do you envision future battlefields and what would be at the core of the wars?

You: Because this is the first scaled European war fought by a top military power in the post-Cold War era, a nuanced analysis of the Russia-Ukraine War could shed new light on future warfare. First, this war proves that traditional warfare is not yet out of date. Russia was overly optimistic about its precision strike capabilities at the beginning of the war, and hoped to achieve a quick victory on this point. Thus, it did not concentrate enough manpower and firepower to overwhelm Ukraine’s resistance. Combat-style special force operations worked for Russia in the past -- for example in Georgia -- but it could not be a general rule. Meaningful victory has to be won by battlefield engagement at the campaign level in scaled wars, based on at least 3-to-1 personnel and equipment superiority. Secondly, a war of attrition is still a basic way for victory, as elaborated by the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s theses of people’s war and protracted war. The US’ military power was depleted from recent wars, and Russia is bleeding in a similar fashion -- especially as it fights the entire West which is standing behind Ukraine.

Hwang: Is the Russia-Ukraine War a crisis or an opportunity for China?

You: Yes or no, depending on how long the war lasts. In the short term, despite all the war’s negative impacts on China, such as huge pressure on Beijing to condemn Russia and a sharp rise in energy prices, many Chinese commentators believe that the Russia-Ukraine War may have somewhat diverted America’s obsessive focus on China. This may impact the US’ Indo-Pacific initiative against China. If this is true, it is certainly a positive outcome for Beijing, no matter how temporary this diversion may be. With the entire Western world devoting a bulk of its leadership attention, material resources and military redeployment against Russia at the moment, Beijing may have somewhat obtained an enlarged breathing space for maneuvering in Asia. This would help it tackle more urgent challenges at home, such as the new COVID-19 outbreak in key Chinese cities and the unprecedented domestic pressure of economic slowdown. Even if the Russia-Ukraine War is not a replica of the US’ war on terror in the early 2000s, which allowed for China to rise in its aftermath, it could still be an opportunity that should not be missed.

Hwang: Aren’t there any threating aspects for China?

You: According to the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milly, Russia is the West’s primary target, but China is its “pacing challenge,” meaning that the US will not sideline China as a primary adversary. Chinese leaders are not really so naive that they believe the Russia-Ukraine War would substantially distract the US from the Indo-Pacific region. Washington has its own pace for implementing containment measures against China at each phase. When Russia is fundamentally crippled, the West will be better able to concentrate its power to deal with China in the next phase of East-West contention, which will make it harder for Beijing to manage its already adverse geopolitical environment.

Hwang: What are the implications of the Russia-Ukraine War for the PLA and its military strategy?

You: The implications of the war in Ukraine for the PLA are profound. Many new concept weapons and combat methods have been tried in this war with great effect. To the PLA, this may herald a new revolution of military affairs in conceptualizing future wars. For instance, future tank warfare may take a new form. Tank swarm combat may be partially replaced by contests between tanks and anti-tank missiles. The javelin is a very cost-effective weapon that was used to frustrate Russia’s army offensive, as well as sting anti-aircraft missiles. Furthermore, the wide use of drones opens a new horizon in future warfare. The Ukraine military has extensively employed AeroVironment Switchblades for a variety of battlefield objectives, such as decapitation operations. The PLA has seriously studied these new developments, and sees them as game changers to the rules of combat engagement in future warfare.

Hwang: Among several points, what do you expect the PLA to learn from the Russia-Ukraine War?

You: Russia’s employment of battalion-sized battle clusters is also what the PLA has emphasized in its army restructuring in the latest round of military reforms. Russia’s defects in pursuing such tactics sounds an alarm to the PLA, which will likely reassess its combat methods in campaign warfare. After all, the use of battle clusters is different in an all-out war versus that in special force operations. Last but not least, battlefield transparency on the basis of advanced command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance and human intelligence are still the keys to final campaign success. The Russian military paid a heavy price in confronting the superior NATO chain of soft-kill capabilities, which is a profound lesson to the PLA.

Hwang: It seems quite difficult to conclude the Russia-Ukraine War with any one side’s complete victory. Some say the divided Korean Peninsula model is a solution. What do you think about this idea?

You: “Complete victory” is out of the question for either side, as neither can achieve their desired political and military objectives. Also, they have endured devastating damage. But interestingly, both sides could claim victory on their own terms. As mentioned earlier, Putin could find a quick exit from the battlefield like what former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping did in 1962 and 1979, respectively. That is, if Putin is sensible enough not to allow US tactics of slowly but fatally crippling Russia to materialize. And then Ukraine could announce victory over the Russian invasion. Barring these two ends in the victory-defeat spectrum, there are other scenarios, some of which resemble the Korean reality of division. For instance, an armistice could be negotiated based on the map of current combat lines. Russia could claim the lands where it has expanded its presence, in the two “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and in some of Ukraine’s richest areas with Russian-speaking populations. If this cease-fire could not be achieved, it is likely that Ukraine would sustain military pushback against Russian occupation. NATO will be firmly behind Kyiv. In such a case, the war will be long lasting. Then not only Russia but also Ukraine will bleed. Europe and the US will encourage Ukraine to fight on, and the whole world feel the consequences.

Hwang: Then what are the military and strategic implications of the Russia-Ukraine War for the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea?

You: From China’s standpoint, the Kim Jong-un regime shares many dilemmas that Beijing faces in observing the Russia-Ukraine War. North Korea maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, although Russia is more helpful to Pyongyang. North Korea would have stayed neutral if the US were not in the equation. The nature of the issue is different when Russia is fighting the West alone for states identified by the US as “others,” which is what Ukraine represents to the West. It is not too difficult to imagine that Kim Jong-un’s heart is more with Putin. Like China, North Korea would not want to see Russia fall, even though it cannot do much to help.

Hwang: Logically speaking, what military lesson can Kim Jong-un learn?

You: Probably it must be the practical value of nuclear weapons, with which Russia withstands the more powerful West. This is especially the case since Russia’s conventional weapons are qualitatively inferior to those of NATO. Putin’s threats of using nuclear weapons in “critical moments” have worked, as seen from the US’ determination to not directly engage Russian troops. This guarantees the Russian military an edge against Ukraine on a one-to-one basis. Now Kim Jong-un may conclude, watching the unfolding of the Russia-Ukraine War, that if North and South Korea engaged in any military clash, he would face an integrated offensive by all US allies, including NATO member states. Denuclearization will therefore be further off his agenda, under the New Cold War order of irreversible two-camp confrontation.

Hwang: What do you think are the implications of the Russia-Ukraine War that the new South Korean government should take into account for its foreign and defense policies?

You: Beijing would be wary if South Korea’s new government draws implications of the Russia-Ukraine War in a way that worsens China’s security concerns. For instance, Seoul may become more vigorous in leveraging the blocs’ confrontation, either propelled by the US or out of its own willingness. There is a logic for the new administration to do so in the sense that, as reflected by the Russia-Ukraine War, a powerful coalition is the best guarantee for deterring and defeating any foreign invasion. A sensible guess on Seoul’s new foreign and strategic policies encompasses, among other things, practical entry into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus’ activities; a shift towards improving relations with Japan; siding with US efforts against China more willingly; and so on.

Hwang: In light of the Russia-Ukraine War, South Korea is expected to strengthen cooperation with its allies when it comes to policies toward North Korea. What are your thoughts?

You: China will likely worry about Seoul’s toughened North Korea policy, which would squeeze North Korea’s strategic space through increased sanctions and joint war drills, while diminishing North-South contacts. What Russia has experienced is a step-by-step escalation of tension. The lesson of the Russia-Ukraine War is that although Russia has been severely sanctioned and its soldiers killed in large numbers, it is no comfort for Ukraine because the latter suffered a lot more in terms of human casualties and an economic loss of $600 billion. Many cities have been bombed back to the “Stone Age.” Hopefully the conservative government in Seoul could strike a sensitive balance in supporting allied security and ensuring its own national interests. Despite all the current instabilities, peace on the Korean Peninsula deserves to be retained. Even with a negative stance toward the North, the new administration needs to recognize the fact that it has an unpredictable nuclear foe.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan. -- Ed.



By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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