Why Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine is a Disaster for China
What do Ukraine and China have in common? Let’s start with geopolitical significance: both China and Ukraine hold strategic geopolitical importance. China is the world's most populous country with a population of approximately 1,426,000,000 in 2023 and the second-largest economy, preceded by the US. Ukraine, on the other hand, is the second-largest country in Europe by land area with a total area of approximately 232,900 square miles.
This means that the second largest country in Europe is roughly 28 times smaller than Europe's largest country, Russia, which spans an area of roughly 6,606,000 square miles. Then there's the fact that both China and Ukraine are connected through China's Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, making Ukraine an important transit country for the BRI's land-based routes and thus linking China with Europe. However, lately, a new and deeply disturbing commonality has arisen between both countries: Putin's war on Ukraine. And as bad as it has been for Ukraine itself, it has also been downright disastrous for China.
But why? In what way? Let's find out. In today’s world, it pays to have friends in high places. Fortunately for the Western world–and especially Ukraine–Russia has virtually none of them. China, however, is among the few. The two neighbor nations are strategic partners, linked economically by $190 billion of annual trade and politically by virtue of their authoritarian, like-minded leaders.
Over the past decade the two countries have forged closer bilateral ties; both sides, moreover, view the United States as a hostile actor bent on containing their territorial and cultural ambitions. On the surface, they’re like two geopolitical peas in a pod. But all is not as rosy as it seems. Once aspirational partners of Western democracies content, even keen to assimilate these two Eurasian powers into their economic, cultural, and political spheres, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. Russia’s once vaunted military has, in many circles, become a laughing stock, and this has reflected poorly on China, whose own extraterritorial designs on its neighbors are well known throughout the world.
Most peace-loving nations today view both as a threat–though certainly not on equal levels. One U.S. official perhaps summarized it best: “Russia [is] a hurricane. It comes on hard and fast. China,” on the other hand, “is climate change: long, slow, pervasive.”
Today, China continues to foster close relations with Putin even though the Russian President headlines the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant list. It’s a bad look. But the PRC isn’t willing to throw the Kremlin out with the bathwater just yet. Today, we’ll discuss why they might want to reconsider that decision–and just how Russia’s reverses in Ukraine may influence China’s strategic calculus moving forward. Putin’s illegal war has been an eye opening experience for the world.
China, as we all know, harbors territorial claims on Taiwan, its independent island neighbor. As such, the United States, Taiwan, and the vast majority of the civilized world place China’s ambitions in the same category as Putin’s toward Ukraine. Ever since Russian forces stormed across the border in February 2022, the United States and its allies kept a closer eye on China; if the Ukrainian invasion went as well as many thought it would, it was fair to assume China might feel empowered to attack Taiwan, especially as Europe and the U.S. were distracted by Russia. We can safely say now, over a year in and knowing what he knows about the complexities of modern joint and combined arms warfare, Xi would have to be stupid to authorize an unprovoked amphibious invasion of Taiwan. So far, there’s only one dictator dumb enough to do that.
And look how that’s going. With each passing day, the PRC is witnessing Russia sink unfathomable amounts of blood and treasure into an almost unwinnable war of attrition. In the wreckage of Bakhmut, the atrocities of Bucha, and the discontent growing in the hearts of babushkas far and wide, China’s leadership sees its future plans of easily seizing Taiwan slipping away. War is a hard teacher.
For now, China’ may be content to sit back and learn all it can…while it can. Why, then, has Putin’s invasion become a disaster for China’s future plans? Let’s dive in. No matter how you cut it, almost every lesson in Ukraine spells bad news for China. So far, China has adopted a unique, long-term, “over the horizon” strategic approach in its posture towards Taiwan.
Its primary tactic has not been as in your face as you would expect from a rising superpower accustomed to throwing its economic and cultural weight around; but militarily, China has adapted something called gray zone operations to achieve its strategic ends. Gray zone operations are just like they sound: Actions on the spectrum between peace and war. These small, compounding confrontations are not designed to escalate into a full-scale war, but they certainly can. They tend to be employed by powerful actors bent on achieving objectives that ordinarily might be illegal or too difficult to do all at once, and often take a variety of forms.
These can include cyberattacks or covert espionage; political propaganda and misinformation campaigns; election rigging; economic warfare and sanctions; proxy wars and the funding of destabilizing insurgencies; or the gradual weakening of alliances and partnerships. One of China’s preferred tactics is to slowly increase the number of times it flies into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the internationally recognized airspace around the island, until it almost becomes normal. Along with this, China has recently sent more and more vessels up to and even over the Taiwan Strait Median Line demarcating the boundary between both countries; it has deployed men and materiel onto smaller island chains–manmade and otherwise–in the South China Sea to intimidate and pressure their neighbor; it harasses foreign vessels traversing these waters, too, as a Chinese naval vessel recently did to a Philippine coast guard patrol just 105 miles off its own coastline.
Gray zone operations take place independent from one another, on different days, at different times, just infrequently enough for the world to forget about them in our 24-hour news cycle. It’s pretty smart. If China did everything at once, the world would label it as even more of a belligerent and untrustworthy actor than it already does. Collectively, these acts normalize displays of Chinese power, chip away at Taiwan’s defensive resolve, condition the west into accepting higher levels of belligerency, and set China up for its ultimate aim.
For anyone paying attention, the world has seen this type of behavior before. Vladimir Putin utilized gray zone tactics prior to and during its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, dispatching mercenaries and Russian forces in anonymous green uniforms with no markings to do his bidding–destabilizing the local government and paving the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Putin told everyone he had no idea who these “little green men” were.
As if. Their disguise as local, pro-Russian separatists enabled Putin to claim plausible deniability for their involvement, giving him the ability to achieve his geopolitical aim without officially escalating the crisis into an unwinnable war…that didn’t last long. Despite the Kremlin’s reliance on gray zone operations, it ultimately could not get everything it wanted without a bigger, pre-planned invasion.
And here, China will have certainly taken note. Before 2022, the West could only respond to what seemed a measured, limited invasion with measured, limited sanctions. China can–and does–expect the same when it pulls similar stunts in the South China Sea. The United States, as yet, hasn’t been able to do much to challenge China’s construction of artificial islands or its repeated violation of Taiwanese airspace since it is short of a pronounced, conventional invasion.
China can harass and weaken Taiwan in limited ways and still not be seen as overt aggressors. The West can apply economic, political, and diplomatic pressure, but China has weathered this type of response for decades now. Russia’s switch from gray zone tactics to full-blown warfare has given China insight into the West’s response–and it probably doesn’t like what it has seen. The world rallied behind Ukraine, pouring billions of dollars worth of arms and aid into the fight. Its alliances grew stronger, its commitment to defending vulnerable nations–even indirectly–more firm. China now knows what it can expect in a similar Taiwan contingency.
If they had plans to invade in the near future, they have probably shelved them for now. And rightly so. Just another reason why Putin’s war has not only benefited the West, but also deterred China in the east. There are other lessons to be taken from Russia’s invasion.
Chief among them: China has learned that size isn’t everything. China’s military is excellent, on paper. It has two million active soldiers, half a million more than the U.S. It recently launched
its third aircraft carrier which, compared to anyone besides the U.S. is a decent number, and now boasts the largest navy in the world by pure numbers. Its defense budget is surpassed only by the U.S. It has some of the world’s best air-to-air, hypersonic missiles, and attack drones.
But China sees that Russia, too, once boasted similar stats; from Ukraine, China has learned that material and numerical superiority doesn’t automatically translate to victory. If it wants to successfully invade Taiwan, it will need far, far more. Russia had by far the more achievable territorial ambitions when it invaded Ukraine compared to China’s designs on Taiwan. It had amassed so many tanks and mechanized infantry on Ukraine’s border, it was easy to assume, as most did, that Kiev would quickly capitulate. The countries are right next to each other; Russia had excellent railway access into the country. Save a few key waterways, Ukraine lacks natural defensive features.
Russia even had a friendly partner in Belarus whose territory it used to stage its attack. China would have to surmount a logistical Mt. Everest if it commits to a similar invasion plan in Taiwan. Amphibious operations are among the most difficult to pull off, combining the intricacies of air, land, and sea warfare and the logistical challenge of transporting vehicles, men, and weapons across open water to contested shores. China has to cross the 100-mile wide Strait of Taiwan first and foremost–a span in which it will be vulnerable to barrages of artillery and anti-ship missiles.
If the fate of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, is any indication, modern anti-ship missiles can in fact exercise a massively disproportionate influence over the battlefield. When it gets onto the island of Taiwan, assuming it can actually establish a beachhead, it will have to establish and sustain huge stockpiles of supplies shipped over in secure convoys, defend itself from what will undoubtedly be an onslaught of Taiwanese artillery, and withstand any counter attacks that come. Superior numbers may not be enough to win out.
Ultimately, the outcome of Russia’s invasion is bad news for China for this one simple reason; you cannot intimidate your way to victory in war, especially when the enemy you fight has the moral high ground. Resistance will be fierce and pronounced. Taiwan will not give up simply because China outnumbers them. China has learned other lessons from Ukraine, among them the importance of training in the outcome of military engagements.
Just as material superiority won’t automatically translate to victory, armies will always struggle to overcome deficiencies in training. It is an indisputable fact that Ukrainian troops are far better trained than their Russian counterparts–mercenary, conscript, or otherwise. Most of Russia’s most experienced, best trained troops, commanders, and non-commissioned officers are now dead.
And Putin’s repeated mobilization efforts have starkly revealed the deficiencies in Russian military training–whether the alarming lack of weapons, vehicles, and live ammunition to train on, unsuitable training sites, poor leadership, a chronic lack of technological enablers, or concern for the general well-being and training up of cohesive collective units. On the other hand, Ukraine has integrated a vast spectrum of foreign munitions, weapons, drones, and technology, eschewing older Soviet models and tactics for more effective Western ones. And that, in tandem with the intelligence they receive on a daily basis, has helped deliver several stunning victories.
But while we often talk about the technology behind Ukraine’s success, it’s certainly no silver bullet. Western weapons are hard to maintain — at least in Ukraine — being both subject to breakdown and difficult to replace when stocks run low. In this discussion we tend to forget the human element — how hard it is to deploy and use modern weapons effectively. Among other things, Ukrainian troops are road-testing real-time online information and networking systems, drone-jamming guns, and maritime remote-controlled kamikaze boats — western systems that take real know-how and expertise to operate within a combined arms setting. They are improving their intelligence and surveillance-gathering efforts.
They are becoming experts at psychological warfare, joint operations, and sustainment logistics. It’s been a whirlwind crash course to say the least. But they have not worked alone. As far back as 2014, Ukrainian officers were receiving Western training, especially from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and other European nations. As early as 1993 Ukrainian armed forces were training in the US through the United States National Guard’s State Partnership Program–learning to deliver mission-type orders, empower Ukrainian soldiers to make on the fly battlefield decisions, and using realistic combat exercises to hole the skills and wartime resilience of Ukrainian personnel.
More recently, tens of thousands of Ukrainian officers have received crash courses in modern joint warfighting in Britain, Germany, Poland, and as part of the U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Multinational Training Group–Ukraine, a blended task force of Americans, Poles, Lithuanians, Brits, Canadians, and other soldiers established in 2015 to mentor and advise Ukrainian battalions in the art of combined arms warfare.These “train-the-trainer” programs — arguably more than the weapons and munitions themselves — are conferring Ukraine a distinct battlefield advantage. The bad news for China is that Taiwan joined a similar US-led program in 2022 and have been integrating western-built weapons systems far longer than that.
Every day that goes by, their military will glean lessons from the best forces in the world–making an invasion that much harder to pull off. Speaking of lessons, it is a well-known fact that Russia underestimated the extent to which Ukraine would receive western assistance after it was invaded–and China now knows that even if the United States, its allies, and partners do not expressly commit hard military power to fight side-by-side with Taiwanese forces in the event of an invasion, it can be sure that the likelihood the Western world will assist Taiwan in some way is extremely high. Geographic distance from an international hotspot no longer hinders the degree of foreign aid or the level of intervention in the way it once did. Even though a vast Pacific expanse separates Taiwan from the United States, it would still send crucial military and humanitarian aid if China invades. Witnessing the astronomical sums of money donated by NATO member countries to Ukraine will send shivers down Xi Jinping’s spine.
Thanks to Russia, the west is once more alert to the tangible threat of authoritarianism. Gone are the days of ambivalence or neutrality when it comes to ensuring territorial integrity. China’s hopes of the United States staying aloof from a Taiwanese confrontation are long gone.
The U.S. has proven willing to send state of the art tanks, high tech weapons, and advisors to help Ukraine–currently facing its second most pronounced national security threat, we predict it will offer the same assistance, if not more, to Taiwan. This leads to another reason why Russia’s experience should send warning signals to China: Just as it has drawn insight from the West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion, it must recognize that the West, too, has been learning what works–and what doesn’t–when countries threaten to invade their neighbor. China may have taken some confidence from the initial response to Russia’s decision to amass troops on Ukraine’s borders.
The West could only threaten to proportionately punish Russian aggression in the vaguest terms since, technically, it was all still hypothetical. The threat and implementation of economic sanctions was serious, but far from insurmountable. Russia had hoped to win the war quickly and incorporate Ukraine’s vast resources and manpower, thus shielding itself from the worst effects of sanctions. Yes, they might temporarily make average Russians uncomfortable in the short term. The long-term strategic benefits of a rapid, decisive victory, however, couldn’t be ignored.
Once the war was over and Russia controlled Ukraine, it’s fair to say that Russia might be able to slowly reduce the impact of sanctions and reengage in dialogue with the West as it had after it invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. In a perfect world, China foresees a similar outcome for its own invasion. But Russian setbacks have shown that once the war spirals out of control and the aggressor finds itself on the losing side, the West will move from mere sanctions to deterrence through denial, deploying rapid response troops to the region to prevent things from escalating further as a preventitive measure..
Because the threat of sanctions was not enough to stop Russia from invading, and when they were implemented they did not alter Russia’s behavior to the extent many hoped, it is possible the West will simply double down on not only arming Taiwan with the weapons and training it needs ahead of time, but redoubling its own presence. This is what Japan, Australia, and other Indo-Pacific nations have already been doing for months now. You can be sure China would much rather deal with sanctions than the latter. Another takeaway is actually a corollary to the idea that the West will go beyond the threat of sanctions–it is the idea that even if sanctions are slow, they do eventually work. China is in an entirely different weight class economically than Russia. U.S. and European officials are well aware that “The potential implications of sanctions
on China is a far more complex exercise than sanctions on Russia, given U.S. and allies’ extensive entanglement with the Chinese economy,” at least, that is according to Nazak Nikakhtar, a former senior U.S. Commerce Department official. China has the world’s second largest economy and a massive global supply chain. A war would not only harm them, but the West, which relies on China for countless goods–from shoes to surfboards and cell phones to computers. But if the West is able to target specific corners of China’s economy–for example, its reliance on foreign-made microchips and telecommunications equipment, it could limit its ability to pursue a long-term military operation. This is what is happening to Russia, who can barely get the specialized parts and resources it needs to maintain its aging arsenal of tanks, missiles, and other weapons.
It took close to a year for Western sanctions to show results, but it is happening. It has forced Russian leadership to look to Iran, North Korea, and even China for relief. It certainly makes Chinese leaders wonder if invading Taiwan would be worth the disastrous economic consequences if it were suddenly shut off from Western goods and resources or sell its own wares in foreign markets–the bread and butter upon which it has built itself into a regional superpower. Any invasion is likely to cement sanctions in place for years. And China now has every indication that the West would be willing to sustain these for the long haul–even if it adversely affected their own economies.
The invasion of Ukraine was a wakeup call to the U.S. and the rest of NATO. For thirty years it felt confident the threat of authoritarianism and conventional peer aggression were relics of the past. A false sense of security lulled the West into believing it could retrench its security commitments and focus inward on themselves. In the years leading up to the war in Ukraine, there were serious high-level discussions regarding the United States’ forward presence in Europe–and how far it should go to underwrite European security. It has the most powerful military on earth.
It is the backbone of NATO. If the U.S. had to fight alone, it could certainly defeat any other country in an equal fight. But Putin’s invasion reminded American policymakers how valuable multinational security collaboration can be. It highlighted the pitfalls of drawing red lines in the sand and not being willing to back them up. Now, the U.S. and its allies are clearer about how active they will be in supporting their
allies and partners. Unfortunately for China, Taiwan is one such place. And it has Putin to thank for the reaffirmation of American political, economic, and military support for the island. Had Putin never invaded, it’s fair to assume the United States may have drifted into ambivalence; with each presidential term, costs of projecting preventative power into the Pacific would continue to mount, causing debate over whether it was all worth it.
Who knows, over time the U.S. may have actually withdrawn many of its forces and shuttered its overseas bases, opening a window for China’s gray zone operations to come to full effect. Now, there’s little chance China will get away with this type of behavior without serious repercussions. The U.S. will keep a closer eye on china to ensure it doesn’t try to mobilize an invasion
force. If it does, it should take heed of one final lesson from Russia: If an invasion goes wrong, you can kiss your power and influence goodbye. Today, almost everyone across the globe besides Russia itself knows Putin’s military is nowhere near as powerful as he made it out to be.
Invading an independent, freedom-loving neighbor is a perfect way to turn the entire world against you. Failed invasions are tickets to infamy. They are permanent marks of discredit, disgrace, and disrepute. Russia has long since lost control of the narrative of benign liberation it touted as its primary aim. NATO has become more united and emboldened.
And all from a failed invasion. If China launched its own invasion and failed, it would undoubtedly witness its hard-earned influence and prestige throughout East Asia–and even beyond–fade away. America’s closest regional allies in the Indo-Pacific remain closely tied to China in some form or another; but if China invaded and embarked on a long, drawn out war, it would see its regional influence shrink relative to its enemies. Just because a country is a major power does not mean the world can’t live without it.
Just ask Putin. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been an unmitigated disaster for China. The powerful Eurasian alliance it once hoped to forge with its Russian ally is now severely unbalanced.
The world is a completely different place than it was a year ago. Just as the West has wised up to authoritarian threats, China has learned that an invasion would be met with stout Taiwanese resistance and long-term Western support. Power on paper does not guarantee success. But what do you think? Will China decide to invade Taiwan despite the obvious risks? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe for more military analysis from military experts!