China-Russia joint anti-terrorism training, December 2017 in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China. Picture Credit: TPG/Getty Images)

China is the only real victor in Ukraine

A frightening new autocratic international order is taking shape

Artillery Row

A month plus into Putin’s war, and we want to tell ourselves that Russia is losing. That Ukraine can survive this brutal onslaught. That the West has defined the battlefield, “between democracy and autocracy,” as President Biden said powerfully in Warsaw, before he ad-libbed the suggestion of regime change, and an end to Putin. Maybe, but the memory bank tells us how much the West has already lost, how we’ve had our world re-shaped by this latter-day Stalin. And how Putin’s use of conflict opens windows of opportunity for others, especially China.

We took for granted that nuclear war was inconceivable

I keep thinking of a Christmas, 1990, when I left Moscow as a correspondent after years witnessing the meltdown of the old Soviet Union, the internal implosion of mother Russia, and the end of the Cold war. What’s so striking now, after a month of the assault on Ukraine, is how much of what we took for granted back then has disappeared under Putin’s dark, murderous hand. Equally, how much we got wrong 30-odd years ago.

At the end of 1990, with Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin insisting on the will of the people, no more diktat of the party, democracy had surely won as communism imploded, yes? Democracy ruled, right ? Maybe not, when you watch Putin the despot launch war to control an independent democracy next door, seeking to take the Russian empire back with utter contempt for independence, or sovereignty, or the will of the people for that matter. 

Then you consider China’s emergence in the same period, a ruthless one-party state, no dissident voices permitted. Yet soon to be the world’s leading economy, boasting such military muscle, fast expanding its nuclear arsenal, its navy already larger than all others, its boot crushing the rights of so many, from the Uighurs to the folks in Hong Kong. China’s strategic silence on Putin’s war speaks volumes about its wish to wait and see the outcome, the lessons along with the opportunities. 

We took for granted back then that nuclear war was inconceivable, indeed Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan had discussed a world without nukes. Yet today Putin has that existential threat back on the table. As for chemical and biological weapons, he makes their use almost a semi-inevitable option, accusing the Americans of arming Ukraine with such tools of war, setting up an age-old  Russian gambit, of needing to act first with such, to protect itself. To all who doubt that, just consider Russia’s support of the Syrian regime over the past decade, and its use of chemical weapons in that civil war, Syria so clearly a model for Putin’s assault on Ukraine.

Then let’s consider nationalism. Extreme nationalism was dying in 1990, yes? We were living in a new, globalised world, remember, inter-dependent as never before, connected as never before by trade, markets, jobs? A Russia, or a China, needed us as much as we needed them, their products, in China’s case, or their oil and gas, in Russia’s, right? Well, think again, and consider how Putin and, yes, sadly, Donald Trump, have mobilised their cohorts under the flag of nationalism, with rank xenophobia, the demonising of others, to make their countries “great again.”

Consider even the question of war. Wars, we thought back then, would be about resources, energy, food, minerals, in a planet about to explode in population terms, from six billion back then to nine billion in this century? Forget about territory, old-fashioned land grabs and invasions, we thought. Wrong again, as Ukraine is learning. Not to mention others: think Afghans and Iraqis.

Finally, the hi-tech revolution meant that no dictator could control his own people with propaganda, as the Soviets did, right ? No way, we thought, come the internet revolution of the 90s, let alone come Facebook and Twitter. The jury might be out on this one, but Putin, and China’s President Xi show us tyrants see no problem with dictating all information. As for Trump, we surely have to remember his use of his “alternative facts,” like winning an election he patently lost.

The West has to adjust to a sad new horizon

In short, we need perhaps to be asking ourselves whether our take-away on history, as our world turned 30-odd years ago, wasn’t naive, blind, worse still triumphalist, drunk on victory. The good news is that the Ukrainians have reminded us, day in, day out, of some of what we took for granted. The need to fight for democracy, make sacrifices for it, fighting for their land, such a breadbasket to the world, and above all, fighting for the right to be heard not silenced. That’s the kind of patriotism we can surely applaud, maybe learn from. 

The bad news is that this new landscape, so bereft of what we took for granted for 30-odd years, surely points to a new cold war where the autocrats, knowing no bounds, can seize the initiative, and pick up wherever Vladimir Putin leaves off. His latest gambit seems to be dividing Ukraine, along the line of North/South Korea in the 1950s. Once again, we see the playbook of the past, a past we thought had died. Not to mention a model, in Korea, that China has nurtured for its own ends.

As a longtime White House correspondent, the recent exchange between Presidents Biden and Xi struck me as chilling, two hours long, yet neither side telling us anything more than the very basics. Likewise, Boris Johnson’s call to Xi. Neither sounded remotely like a conversation, and Xi’s patent ambivalence about Putin’s war, expressed at the United Nations and elsewhere, surely tells us how China can watch this conflict play out, with a keen eye on its own ambitions, certainly reading what to expect from the West should Xi decide to move against Taiwan.

Here’s the bottom line. We want to tell ourselves that Putin is on the defensive in Ukraine. Maybe so. But in the wider world, going forward, however united the West may be at NATO, or within the EU, or with Visa and Mastercard, the West is also on the defensive. “Containment” of the autocrats, from Moscow to Beijing, is the new watchword in Washington DC, a Cold war thought if ever there was, and the “long fight ahead….between liberty and repression,” as Biden put it in Warsaw. No secret that Biden fears China much more than Russia.

We’re faced with a reality check amid the war of words, over what Biden did or didn’t mean by saying Putin can’t remain in power (though given his history of gaffes, he should surely know better). The West has to adjust to a sad new horizon, a landscape where you take nothing for granted when it comes to dealing with those who see a new cold war, of their making, as being in their best interest.

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