Russian-Ukraine War: China’s Opportunities and Challenges

By – Prakash Raj;

In his annual address to Parliament in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked, ‘First and Foremost, it’s worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. From Putin’s perspective, the disintegration of the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ (USSR) compounded the demise of a lingering discourse of great empire. Principally Russians see Ukraine as a land linked closely by culture, linguistics and generational ties. 

Most of the Russian historians view that medieval Kyvian Rus was the origin of their nation. Since last 22 years Putin’s obsession to influence and control Ukraine is ubiquitous in containing the popular uprisings like ‘orange revolution’ in 2004 to ‘Euromaidan  revolution in 2014’. However, the genesis of the Russification of Ukraine started in 1654 during the Periaslav era but successfully wrested back with the USSR during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Notably, in 1954 USSR granted autonomy to Ukraine under the Treaty of Pereyaslavl and gifted Crimean territory. Eventually, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 helped seventy-seven percent of ethnic Ukrainians to gain Independence through a series of referendums

What’s the tipping point for current conflict? 

In 2014, Ukraine banned Russian as the official language, although 30 percent of the population speaks the Russian language, which infuriated Putin. Two months after Russia’s Crimean annexation, separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine launched a proxy war against Ukraine. According to the United Nations, since 2014, around 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. Meanwhile, Russia accused Ukraine of the genocide for the Russian-speaking population and rejection of comprehensive autonomy in the Donbas region. 

Nonetheless, there is no documented evidence to establish the genocide of the Russian minority in Donbas. During World War II, some section of the Ukrainians actively collaborated with German invaders to oppose the communist dictatorship of Soviet Union. Invoking the past history of Nazi alignment, Putin tries to distort the Russian nationals for his insidious war propaganda. On 24 February 2022, Putin unleashed a ‘special military operation’ aiming for ‘demilitarization and denazification’ of Ukraine, further stating not with the intention of ‘occupation.’ Whether Putin shows a revanchist tendency to bring Greater Russia or USSR back envisaging strategic parity? Did the strategy of ‘defensive aggression’ evoke the failure of the West’s deterrence and security calculus? What will be the larger geopolitical ramifications in the security architecture of Europe?

Why does Russia want Ukraine?

Historically, Russia felt encircled by ambitious powers and vulnerable western borders without any natural barrier. The insidious expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) towards the east, especially post-cold war, created insecurity to Russia, anticipating future threats. Since 1999 United States-led NATO added 14 new members with an ‘open-door policy’. Remarkably, in the 2007 Munich Security Conference (MSC), Putin said that expanding the footprint of NATO is an existential threat for Russia; perhaps placing nuclear missiles in the neighbourhood could be more disastrous. Defence Analysts speculate that NATO Missiles could reach Moscow within five minutes from these East European Nations. 

Geopolitically, Russia perceives Ukraine as a buffer state and the most accessible gateway to enter the Russian heartland. It is important to note that, Napolean in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 invaded Russia through this route. 

Apparently, Ukraine’s pertinent wish to join NATO deepened Russia’s geopolitical calculations as the heartland would be under threat. For the Kremlin, the Black Sea is the vital gateway to the Mediterranean, where most of the seacoast goes to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia perceives Black Sea as a pivotal security buffer zone to protect its strategic Crimean Peninsula. Moreover, the increasing NATO domination in Mediterranean create flutters, that west could use Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, the only access point to Black Sea as a strategic choke point during a state of war. 

Hence, this ‘Black Sea access dilemma’ forced Russia to annex Crimea in 2014 to strengthen its Black Sea fleet to counter economic or naval blockade from the West. In an attempt to bring truce between Ukraine-Russia, international community fostered Minsk agreement. Despite signing the Russian demands through Minsk accord of 2014 and 2015, and Normandy Paris summit of 2019, Ukraine was reluctant to implement the agreements, as it required Constitutional restructuring which unsettle the question of Sovereignty. Unfortunately, failure of these agreements implementation poised Russia in a diplomatic stalemate and pushed Europe to present nuclear brinkmanship. 

What was the backdrop of recent conflict? 

Firstly, Ukraine’s shift from neutral foreign policy towards pro-America by negotiating NATO membership in 2008 drastically changed the equations between Russian and Ukraine. Subsequently in 2014, the West installed a government under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, setting the stage for hostile relations to perpetual conflict. Secondly in 2019 Ukraine entered an agreement with Britain and America to develop two naval ports, ‘Ochakiv and Berdyansk’ in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov respectively. Thirdly, in June 2020, NATO recognized Ukraine as ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partner’ to deepen the interoperability programs and exercises. This series of decision created serious security concerns for Russia’s ‘command positions’. Such a move demonstrated a potential threat to Russian interest in the geopolitically capricious Crimean Peninsula. Remarkably Putin presumed such a crisis in Eastern Europe’s backyard is an opportunity to calibrate Russia’s geopolitical ambitions of restoring the Rimland and restructuring the western rules-based European security order. 

Why did West Fail to act? 

The European Union (EU) collectively failed to cease the catastrophe in Ukraine. Analyst pointed out that Europe’s substantial dependence on America and chronic divisions in EU curtailed the agency to deal Russia. Many observers have also noted that the failure of United Kingdom (UK) to act explicitly is due to the major foreign policy crisis of UK to comprehend the post-cold war emerging security architecture and creation of non-NATO countries informal security alliances without joining NATO put Russia on high alert. Firstly, the United States failed to comprehend that Russia’s threat perception is shaped by geopolitics. Secondly, America and its NATO allies underestimated the increasingly bellicose and aspiring Russian foreign policy over the past decade. Former American Security Adviser Henry Kissinger once quipped, ‘To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal’. From the American perspective, the ‘Finlandisation’ of Ukraine would maintain its hegemony as status quo in tumultuous Eastern Europe. John Mearsheimer, International Relations Scholar and Offensive Realism theorist, argues that the United States, EU and NATO are predominantly responsible for the current crisis entrenching in ‘great power politics

Particularly, the recent American debacle in Afghanistan plummeted Joe Biden’s administration to confront the Russian assault directly. It’s evident that America’s inability to cease emboldened Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, Biden’s leadership seems lackadaisical as he could not lead the West for a decisive and collective approach. Even America’s strategic conundrum to bring unity in trans-Atlantic with NATO is perturbing. 

We cannot deny that the West’s belligerent posture eventually sought a modus vivendi signalling a geopolitical rebalancing in Eastern Europe. At the same time, Ukraine’s overdependence on NATO failed to create its own deterrence and a lesson for maintaining an ambiguous foreign policy principle on choosing an alliance. Eventually, the West’s prolonged inactivity heightened the China’s strategic ambitions in Europe with an intention of expanding geoeconomic influence. 

China’s Ukraine Calculus 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov articulates that China-Russia relations are the ‘best in the entire history’. Since 2013 Xi Jinping and Putin have met 38 times and manifest a strong bond. That is why, against Russian incursion, China followed a more docile approach of neutrality. In the International forum, China stated that it comprehended Russia’s security concerns and asked to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity without explicitly criticizing the aggression of Russia. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that ‘China’s approach is in sharp contrast to the United States approach that aims to create a crisis and benefit from the crisis.’ 

What made China maintain neutrality? 

Over the years, the peaceful border settlement between Russia-China aided them to move close ‘ideologically, strategically, and commercially’ to counter the US and its allies. Firstly, both China and Russia oppose the formation of bloc structures like AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) and QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) in the Indo-pacific region. Recently China’s foreign Minister Wang Yi accused America for building ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ using Quad and referred current relations with Russia is ‘rock solid’. Primarily China would be relieved that America’s prime strategic focus has been shifted from Indo-Pacific to Europe to contain Russia. Strategically, Americans being entangled in Europe is what precisely China would contemplate now. 

Secondly, China’s ambitious connectivity project ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is gaining a strong ‘strategic footprint’ in Eastern Europe, notably in Belarus. Through BRI investments, Beijing invested USD 20 billion in geopolitically debilitated Belarus. Apart from this, China has tremendous influence and economic footprint in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Even United States and European Union expressed concern on China’s growing interest and influence in these four Eastern European countries. China believes that Russia’s ascension in Europe would enable them to solidify their investments, trade and interests. 

Thirdly, Russia even now retains a substantial sphere of influence in Central Asian countries that could be vital for China to safeguard its BRI interests. To maintain strategic BRI investments, China embraces Russia’s approach of keeping democratic intervention away in Europe and Central Asia. Both countries are determined to support authoritarian style of governance. Such regimes will help Beijing to pursue its national interests, especially for exports and exploitation of natural resources And in long-term China is envisaging Russia’s favour to support its territorial aspirations in South China Seas, East Asia and South Asia.

How can China help Russia? 

In 2021, Russia is the second largest supplier of Crude Oil and Coal, and third largest supplier of natural gas to China. On other hand, China can insulate Russia from American sanctions by purchasing more Russian energy and use Chinese renminbi instead of using US dollars. And Beijing has the record and ability to provide economic support to Moscow in vulnerable period. Moreover, China aspires to undermine the existing US-led’ rules-based international order’ and Bretton Wood system. Several scholars have accentuated that China’s growing economic power and soft power could subvert the norms of rules-based western order. Indeed, the present geopolitical climate is conducive to decoupling from the West to meet its strategic ends. It’s crucial to understand that whenever America imposed sanctions on any country, it often advanced China’s commercial and strategic interests. In this light, West’s ‘containment 2.0 strategy’ against Russia would benefit Xi Jinping to pursue the ‘China Dream’ of supplanting America in the power equation. But in the long run, Russia’s robust relationship with China could help them overcome the western economic sanctions to develop a resilient economy in the following years. Finally, whether China balance western powers and Russia immaculately will be tight-rope walk remains to be seen. 

Prakash Raj is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, India. He is currently working on ‘China’s Belt and Road Initiative.’ (BRI) His research interests are focused on BRI, Geopolitics, Maritime Silk Route. China’s Foreign Policy and China’s Economic Policy. He can be reached at @PrakashRajLanSe

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