The recent example of Russian barbarism and medieval sieges of Ukrainian cities is a stark reminder that we still live with dictators who believe in blood and soil, despise any notions of constitutional self-governance, and do not observe any fictional “red lines” that third parties project onto them.
Vladimir Putin has never acknowledged the existence of Ukraine as an independent country, and is willing to go to extremes to realize his lifelong goal on conquering it and subjugating its people.
Many people around the world, and particularly in the West, have deluded themselves into believing that the catastrophic events of the World Wars and the human enslavement within the USSR during the Cold War belong permanently in the past. They do not.
Refusal to acknowledge this has resulted in a failure of deterrence thereby resulting in Putin and his inner circle erroneously concluding that they could invade and conquer Ukraine quickly, decisively, and at a low cost.
It has become clear that the Ukrainian armed forces, civilian militias, and international legion fighters will take extreme risks and fight to the end. Putin has panicked at the prospect of an intense Ukrainian insurgency and has opted for the Grozny model of indiscriminate shelling of civilian infrastructure (including apartment buildings), the use of cluster munitions, and encirclement of entire cities.
The historical parallels between Russian forces presently attempting to strangulate Kharkiv and the actions taken by Josef Stalin to deliberately induce famine and starvation in the same city are impossible to ignore.
If Ukraine had been a full member of NATO, this would not have happened. If Ukraine had the full integrated air defense systems, artillery and mortar systems, cruise and ballistic missile systems, and attack aircraft that Kyiv had requested for years, this would not have happened.
If Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were not members of NATO, Russian troops would likely be (at least) staged on their borders. It would also be an even more dangerous time to be in Poland, Romania, Hungary, or even Turkey.
Putin does not understand or appreciate indirect communication, the polite diplomatic language of cocktail parties, or any forms of nuance. He has come up through the Russian jungle and he operates as such. Putin has sought to reconstitute the USSR ever since he physically witnessed the Berlin Wall fall during his KGB days, and he invaded Ukraine because he thought that he could. If official NATO was not next to him in Ukraine, the strategic situation would be even more severe than it presently is.
No Limiting Principle: Putin Will Not Stop Unless He Is Stopped
Putin does not respect the European Union as an institution, nor does he likely acknowledge the independent existence of the Baltic States, especially Lithuania. He also is clearly intending to conquer all of Ukraine, not simply the mythical “Eastern Half.”
It is important to remember that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself is from the East and speaks Russian as his first language. Understanding the mindset and strategic orientation of Putin is not complex: he will continue to push as far into Europe (yes, Europe) as he can until the costs of these actions exceed his personal threshold of acceptance. This is at least Putin’s fifth war since he has been president and his threshold is higher than what many appear to appreciate.
While economic and financial sanctions, the cancelling of pipeline projects, and other non-kinetic measures are not to be trivialized, it is likely that these risks have already been factored in by Putin and his team. The collapse of the ruble has placed millions of Russians into economic hardship, who then face the potential of treason charges if they speak out publicly against Putin’s actions in Ukraine. While there have been protests across Russian cities, they have been dealt with ruthlessly and do not likely represent a credible threat to the Putin regime.
Nor is a rebellion within his inner circle likely either as they owe their positions and, maybe even more importantly, their own personal wealth to Putin granting it to them. As a substantial portion of this personal wealth has been kept in Russia to protect it from international sanctions (and is not likely denominated solely in rubles due to their privileged status), it remains subject to Putin’s discretion. If Putin gives it, he can also take it away.
The net result is that, in Moscow, Putin remains in control and will continue to execute his medieval ambitions in Ukraine (and then Europe more broadly) unless he is stopped and his forces are obliterated. Only when Putin and his inner circle have been defeated and have personally lost everything, will this insanity cease. Half measures such as temporary ceasefires, partial territorial partitions, economic sanctions that can even take years to have an effect, or any other measures short of outright Ukrainian victory and full Russian expulsion and/or destruction will not resolve the issue.
Previous generations of World War II-era leaders (aside from Winston Churchill) did not fully understand or appreciate this timeless strategic principle and roughly 60 million people (mostly in Europe and Asia) lost their lives as a result. Decisive actions need to be taken now or we will end up taking extreme actions later. Either way we will deal with this—it is not an option.
Ukraine and Taiwan: Very Different Countries With the Same Strategic Principle
Ukraine and Taiwan are two countries with unique histories, cultures and languages, and their own respective forms of democratic and constitutional government. One country is an island nation in between East and Southeast Asia, while the other is a large landmass in Eastern Europe. Despite these differences and others, Ukraine and Taiwan share one fundamental principle that both the West and Asia must understand, absorb, and act upon.
Ukraine is an Orthodox Christian, Slavic, and Ukrainian/Russian-speaking country that has successfully navigated the chaos of the collapse of the USSR and continued Russian intimidation and psychological warfare. It has emerged as a self-governing democratic nation that sees its future in Europe and as a full member of Western civilization. Ukraine is living, breathing proof that Putin’s claim that Russia is the true Slavic father nation and must be governed by an iron fist to maintain stability is a self-evident and self-serving lie.
As Ukraine continues to progress, it becomes increasingly impossible for Putin to explain Russia’s own relative lack of progress (and now outright regression) while a neighbouring country like Ukraine moves forward under a fundamentally different and superior system. Every day that Ukraine exists, it poses a threat to Putin through its mere existence.
Taiwan is an ethnically Chinese-majority, Mandarin Chinese-speaking country with a fully functioning democratic system and free market that has produced a degree of widespread economic well-being and political stability that is unimaginable in mainland China.
Taiwan weathered initial periods of dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek, followed by stagnant one-party rule to emerge as arguably the most robust multiparty democracy in Asia. Taiwan today represents that exact inverse of the program of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who continue to abide by the demonstrably false and incredibly regressive idea that Chinese people are incapable of self-rule and, therefore, require a ruthless top-down system of control in order to maintain stability.
Taiwan’s continued progress and unapologetic existence represents an existential threat to Xi and the CCP leadership. Taiwan is a Chinese nation that has taken the polar opposite path of mainland China and has achieved superior results according to any metric that matters.
Xi does not, and never has, had any method of credibly addressing this issue and explaining it to his subjects in the mainland. This explains his continued multi-decade obsession with a country that has fewer people living in it than the greater Shanghai metropolitan area.
Ukraine and Taiwan represent the future, but are located directly across from those who are committed to the brutal and barbaric past of the atrocities of the 20th century. The continued success and freedom of both countries will further reduce the risk of any repeat of these events. The inverse is also true. A set of seemingly small border wars in Europe in the 1930s culminated in at least 20 million people in Asia dying not long after. We ignore or attempt to dismiss this historical reality at our own peril.
Xi Is Watching
It is inconceivable that the Russian military buildup and potential invasion of Ukraine was not discussed during Putin’s visit to Beijing as Xi’s personal invited guest for the Winter Olympics. While what was specifically discussed is not fully known, Xi’s strategic intent can be inferred by his actual actions over the course of this invasion.
Aside from bizarrely attempting to blame the United States for Putin’s invasion, Xi and the CCP leadership have sealed long-term energy supply contracts with Russian state-owned companies, a mechanism to circumvent the ever-increasing Western sanctions. This will also likely have the effect of increasing Russian dependence on the Chinese yuan to settle transactions and clandestinely procure resources for the Russian state from China as well as from international markets.
Russian arms exports are also likely to be more narrowly concentrated on Xi’s priorities and considerations given Putin’s increasingly junior partner status in the relationship. The CCP understands leverage in a ruthlessly strategic manner and exploits it accordingly.
Putin’s major mistake in this situation was believing that he was the smartest person in the room. With or without Putin, Russia will find itself in a structurally diminished state relative to China and, therefore, will find itself being subjected to Xi’s own strategic agenda.
The CCP’s established track record with many other internationally ostracized countries, such as Pakistan, provides solid evidence of this. Aside from China, India and Vietnam are the other major regional importers of Russian arms and weapons systems. It is unlikely that Xi will continue to tolerate this situation as his senior partner status is fully solidified.
Aside from leveraging Putin’s strategic errors to establish asymmetric advantages in the Sino-Russian relationship, Xi is fundamentally observing the precedents that are, or are not, being established and determining what precisely will be tolerated, or reacted against, by leading Western and Asian powers.
Putin’s insane claims on Ukraine are based on fictional historical accounts that are made up as they go along, superficial linguistic commonalities, and superficial claims of generalized ethnic overlap without any regard to citizenship. If this precedent is allowed to again be established in Europe without severe consequences, what Xi has the potential to attempt to actualize across Asia could dwarf what is happening in Europe today, as serious as the situation is.
If You Invade an Independent Democratic Country, You Are Gone
Brave words, impromptu visits to Moscow, and pleading mixed with unspecified threats of “consequences” and ‘international isolation” all failed to deter Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine—and we are all now living with the results of this failure.
Both the West and Asia must understand that murderous tyrants still live among us and that they closely coordinate with and take cues from each other. While they may even have substantial differences, they are able to temporarily put them aside to focus on their shared strategic goal of reorienting the world order around top-down control, self-enriching dictatorships, and inflicting outright misery for billions of innocent people.
Many in the generation of our parents and grandparents were unable to perceive these risks as there had never been an event such as World War II in human history. Today we have no such excuse and we owe it to ourselves, our future generations, and those who fought and defeated these evils before us to stop these agendas dead in their tracks.
Deterrence does not work unless a nation or nations effectively utilize their comprehensive national resources (military and otherwise) and communicate clearly and directly that they will be used. Modern strategic concepts such as “soft power” and “leading from behind” have demonstrably failed.
In order to safeguard our own futures, medieval warlords such as Putin and Xi must be spoken to directly. They must be told the following:
“If you invade an independent democratic nation, you and everyone around you will lose everything. The loss of your self-appointed titles and self-granted medals will be the least of your concerns. Your entire circle will be decimated, bankrupted, and you will not be safe even in your own house. You may start this fight but you will have no control over where or how that fight is finished.”
This is not the flowery diplomatic language that is taught at Cambridge or Georgetown. However, it is the direct type of communication that dictators with the personal histories and strategic orientations of Putin and Xi understand and actually respect.
Both the West and Asia should never again be in a position where we are verbally negotiating at gunpoint with those who do not believe that we even have the right to exist. The combination of democratic governance, freedom of speech and information, and free market capitalism have produced military superiority and dynamic, robust economies that continuously innovate and produce unimaginable abundance. It is time to point these capabilities directly at the dictatorships in Moscow and Beijing.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.