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What If Putin's Invasion Of Ukraine Was Really A China-U.S. Proxy War

Putin may seem an irrational actor, but he is clearly staging a wider war against the West and the U.S. Even if Russia couldn't survive an urban guerrilla battle in Ukraine, it has China's silent support.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a 2019 gala celebrating diplomatic relations between Russia and China

Putin at a gala celebrating Russia-China relations in 2019

Andrej Mrevlje


WASHINGTON — While discussing the new nuclear age with Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast, Joseph Cirincione, a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said something obvious but very accurate: “All our deterrence theory is based on the idea of rational actors. That is why we see so much reference to the game theory in these things. What is the logical thing someone would do when confronting this situation? … Do we know if Putin is logical, is he stable?”

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We may not know the answer until Putin goes completely overboard, but it may be too late by then. The Russian president had no apparent reason to start the murderous war in Ukraine, and I see nothing that could stop him from turning the war into a nuclear disaster.

As he announced after the first week of his criminal attack on Ukraine, he has put his atomic weapons into special combat readiness. In other words, he took the safety off of his nuclear weapons and is ready to launch them at any moment.

Zelensky winning the propaganda war

Some people explain Putin’s actions as a more or less coherent story. As Putin seeks revenge on the West for expanding NATO toward the East, he might consider the sanctions imposed on Russia as an act of war. According to some observers, this could be enough for Putin to retaliate with ballistic missiles. Perhaps the first missiles will be of reduced power, but at that point, NATO will no longer be able to sit on its hands. It will fire back, escalating. Does this mean there should be no sanctions?

There is also a more reasonable hypothesis on the outcome of this ridiculous war. The reports from the battlegrounds indicate that Russian forces have logistical and supply issues. Their soldiers’ morale is low, and the Russian army is unprepared for the urban guerilla. Three Russian generals are already dead, but the Russian propaganda apparatus is withholding information about the young soldiers giving their lives for no cause. This is a war with no mercy, and perhaps it will end as badly as the bloodshed that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

But the battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and other cities that may follow demonstrate Ukraine’s incredibly well-organized resistance. The curfews imposed by the defenders in attacked cities make the attackers and infiltrators easy targets.

The Russians are even losing the propaganda war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a perfect performer, and he and his team have an excellent command of PR. His speech to the U.S. Congress was a masterpiece. The highlight reminded the U.S. political class that two defeats America suffered — Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — came from the sky. Zelensky’s message was clear: Give us planes or close the air space above us so we can win our war on the ground.

There is a general doubt that Russia will be able to conquer the entirety of Ukraine.

There is something theatrical and archaic about Ukraine sending away its women, children and elders (three million to this day) while the men stay put and learn the alphabet of guerrilla war from foreign war veterans and instructors.

Putin must be aware that Russia will lose the war if it is fought out in urban, door-to-door clashes. The feisty Ukrainians know all too well what they are fighting for. This is nothing new, and Putin should know it. This war is like the battle for Stalingrad. The 40-mile-long convoy of Russian vehicles looked so much like a cold war, like that brutal 1968 Red Army crush of the Prague Spring with its heaviest, rustiest hardware.

Putin knows this and that’s why he left his massive infantry of 150,000 men stranded on narrow countryside roads, without supplies and starving. Did the Russians think that Ukrainians would disperse when they saw Russians rolling into their country? Is this the reason why Putin wants to erase every Ukrainian city to the ground? And yet, there is a general doubt that Russia will be able to conquer the entirety of Ukraine, even if it will transform it into one massive pile of debris. There will be no annexation. As for any consequences, some military experts now think that the downfall of Putin may bring down the rest of the world.

Making of an angry man 

I am not a fatalist. I’ve imagined many worst-case scenarios that I hope will never materialize. But the fact that these hypothetical endings for this war have become a matter of public debate by experts and general audiences proves that there has been an extremely rapid deterioration of the global situation.

A short month ago, we were still able to muse ironically about Putin’s need to attract the attention of the U.S. and NATO by gathering his armed forces along Ukraine’s borders. There could be only one reason why Putin was acting this way, I wrote: “When President Joe Biden retrieved the American forces from Afghanistan (a gesture never understood correctly by the shortsighted media) and declared the intention to dedicate substantial national resources to America’s competition with China — its primary and only rival, Moscow was out. Not in an absolute way, of course. But it must have been a similar feeling to the abandonment and betrayal inflicted on Putin by President George Bush Sr. when he promised the former colonel of the KGB a seat at the negotiable table.”

In short, a time ago, Putin was seeking love and attention. Even one month ago, geopolitics still ruled the world and deterrence was still functioning. But during the months-long shuttle diplomacy, Putin was not listened to, and nobody told him that he would be struck hard if he attacked. Biden, Macron, and others just spanked him. They seemed like the lord Chamberlains of WWII. Where is the Winston Churchill of today?

In the end, Vladimir turned into an angry man. With the Russian economy no bigger than Italy’s, but with China’s support, he felt strong enough to start bugging his adversaries. At first, Russia’s army deployment looked like simple posturing. But not so to the Americans, who knew from the beginning that Putin would attack. They had the intelligence on the ground and were, for training purposes, in contact with Ukraine’s armed forces. So, based on first-hand information, the Pentagon was capable of anticipating Putin’s every step in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine. Besides feeding the press, Washington was also sharing their intel with the Chinese, hoping to turn Beijing against its evil partner.

Photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin standing side by side in 2019

Putin and Xi in 2019

Wikimedia Commons

History of the China-Russia alliance

The Americans acted as if they did not know about the close connections between China and Russia, a partnership whose only aim is to contain America. This strategic gambit, as it is called geopolitics, was created half a century ago. As the Americans needed to get out of Vietnam, they tried a rapprochement with China. To be more convincing, they showed the Chinese a satellite photo of Russians presumably preparing for a nuclear attack on Beijing. It was a ruse that Nixon and Kissinger created while trying to isolate Brezhnev’s regime, a tactical move within the frame of the Cold War. That was in 1972, 50 years ago. Seventeen years later, the Berlin Wall crumbled, followed by the implosion of the Soviet Union. It was the end of Cold War I.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-China alliance ended, and a China–Russia rapprochement began. In 1992, the two countries declared a “constructive partnership.” In 1996, they progressed toward a “strategic partnership,” and after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, fearing that American bombing diplomacy might expand into their courtyard, the two nations signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation” in 2001. I was in Beijing then, watching the charade from very close. To me, the Russia-China agreement looked like a paper tiger, like propaganda. But this was 20 years ago when the world was different and the two countries had nothing in common.

For some period of time, the U.S. pretended to be the sole winner of the Cold War, mistakenly pursuing aggressive expansion of its influence and occasionally exporting democracy with bombs. When NATO bombed Belgrade and Kosovo and later on attacked Iraq, Russia and China’s response was to request a multilateral world. But as soon as Putin was in power, he crushed Grozny and Aleppo.

We entered the era of globalization not only in the economy but followed by the globalization of military clashes. There are no longer single, isolated acts in the current global interconnectivity. There were long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. There were endless terrorist attacks that increased tensions around the globe and militarized our societies. There is a permanent Middle East crisis. There is Iran, Yemen, Libya, and yes, in the end, there is China, left alone for decades, free to do two Olympic games and free to build the infrastructure for its future empire. As Mao Zedong would say: While China is enjoying peace, it is also preparing as if the war will start tomorrow.

Authoritarianism vs. democracy

Today, the games are over. Putin has started a real war. It is not a local war. The war against Ukraine is an overall war so powerful that it brushed COVID away in a single stroke. This war is not World War III — yet. It’s Putin’s war against the world, against all of us. What we first considered Putin’s bluff has turned into an irrational, raging, cruel and insane war overnight.

The notion that Putin had broken his strategic alliance with China, built during the last two decades, and attacked Ukraine unilaterally, made no sense. A few days into the war, confirmation from Beijing arrived: Xi Jinping, the Chinese autocrat, asked Putin not to attack Ukraine before the end of the Olympic games, The New York Times reported. So China is silently backing Putin, sitting back and waiting to be declared the winner of the current mess.

The current war in Ukraine may be a good lesson for Beijing.

On the other hand, no matter how brutal, devastating and criminal the Russian attack on Ukraine may be, in its substance, this is Putin’s war against America and the West. At its best, it could be considered a proxy war. Putin, being backed silently by Beijing, is testing the U.S.

There is no way Russia could sustain a long war with the West. Russia can only do a lot of immediate damage with its modernized arms. Instead, what Putin is doing is erasing a country that was leaning toward democracy and building a better quality of life for its people. Putin is now massacring Ukrainians and pushing their country back into the Middle Ages. He is looking provocatively into the eyes of America and waiting for a reaction. Ukraine has become a moral question about how much massacre we need to absorb before we will stand up and say enough is enough. To replace Putin is Russia’s task; to stop him now is the task of the West or NATO. As Zelensky says, the West needs to act now. It is already very late.

Let’s not forget that this whole thing started when the world began discussing authoritarian versus democratic models of societies. The discussion clearly divided Russia and China against the U.S. and the West. Does it mean that America is a model of democracy? While the first two no doubt fulfill all the characteristics of an authoritarian regime in which corruption is a stimulus and politics and freedom of expression are banned, America under Trump was getting close to that same model. With Biden, things are somehow better, no thanks to Jill Biden, who blocks my back alley once a week with her four Secret Service cars that protect her while she is doing yoga. But aside from that, I will leave the judgment on America open, and hope for better in Europe, because if not, we are screwed.

As far as China’s plans with Taiwan are concerned, including the speculation that Beijing may use the attack on Ukraine to snag Taiwan, things are different. China does not work that way. Or better, China is not crazy Putin. Even if NATO gets involved in a battle with Russia, which would overstretch America, Taiwan does not represent part of this geopolitical game. Right now, the question is purely military-related and China will make a move only when it is sure that it can anchor Taiwan.

The current war in Ukraine may be a good lesson for Beijing; it is better to act through economic ways or integration. But who knows. Perhaps one day, we might get lucky and witness a new China open to free elections, like military regimes in South Korea and Taiwan did in the past. And just like, eight years ago, Ukraine did too. So let’s not forget this.

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