What Lessons Will Beijing Learn From Putin’s Ukrainian Fiasco?

February 28, 2022 Updated: February 28, 2022


Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t going as planned. On Feb. 24, Central European Time, Russian military forces attacked Ukraine across four axes from the north, east, and south. In a military operation right out of the Soviet Cold War playbook, massed Russian armor rolled across the Ukrainian frontier in a Russian version of shock and awe.

Only the shock was to the Russian troops, who were surprised by the unexpected ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance, and to the rest of the world, who were appalled and disgusted by Russia’s brutal invasion of its smaller neighbor. As for the awe, that was reserved for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who rose to the occasion to rally his troops and Ukraine to resist the Russian attack.

The United States and its allies, along with the European Union, imposed a tepid set of sanctions on Russia in response to the attack. Significantly, the sanctions did not affect Russia’s crucial energy sector, nor did they expel Russian banks from access to the SWIFT system that is used for interbank communications.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. President Joe Biden makes a statement from the East Room of the White House about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Washington, on Feb. 24, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Initially dismissed as largely ineffectual, Western leaders, in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the invasion, have now stiffened the sanctions, proposing to freeze the overseas assets of Russia’s Central Bank, kicking many Russian banks off the SWIFT system, and levying sanctions against Putin and key members of his government personally.

More significant, is a mushrooming consumer boycott of Russian goods around the world. Across North America and around the world, consumers, bars, restaurants, and liquor retailers moved to yank Russian-made vodka off the shelves.

Will cratering Russian vodka sales change Putin’s behavior?

No, at least not until it spreads to a consumer boycott of Russian energy, but it is a consequence that won’t be lost on Beijing.

China, which had initially supported Russian demands for a neutral Ukraine and for a rollback of NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe, noting that “Russia had reasonable concerns,” is now furiously backpedaling—calling on Moscow to seek a diplomatic solution. That’s a surprising turn from an ally that only a few weeks ago had declared, at the Xi-Putin summit in Beijing, that “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

The Ukrainian war is the first European war fought in the age of social media. That means every citizen with a cell phone is a news crew. The war, its violence, and all its horror are being continuously uploaded in real time and go viral within minutes.

The unceasing coverage, and in particular its human drama, has been an important factor in mobilizing the world’s public opinion against Russia and in pushing Western leaders to respond more forcefully to Russia’s aggression.

Given Beijing’s increasingly aggressive threats to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force, what conclusions will Beijing likely draw from Putin’s Ukrainian fiasco?

J-16 fighter jet
A Chinese PLA J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location in a file photo. (Taiwan Ministry of Defense via AP)

First, Russia failed to shut down Ukraine’s communications and internet access. Blocking communications and its related infrastructure, along with destroying air defense systems and command and control facilities, is widely seen by military strategists as a prerequisite for launching a successful ground assault.

It’s not clear whether the Kremlin tried to carry out an invasion on the cheap, was concerned about minimizing civilian casualties in order to curry support for a pro-Russian government, or if the Russian military simply wasn’t up to the task. The number of Russian troops, while considerable, was not the overwhelming force that was needed to carry out a successful invasion.

Second, Russia’s internet troll armies notwithstanding, Moscow quickly lost control of the narrative. Real-time coverage of events on the ground belied Russian claims that its troops were being greeted as liberators by Ukrainians or that the Russian attack was proceeding on schedule. Claims that Russia was invading Ukraine to “denazify it” or to end “ethnic genocide” were dismissed as deranged and only underscored how out of touch the Kremlin was with world public opinion.

Accounts of Kalashnikov wielding grandmothers or impromptu Molotov cocktail factories, along with poignant accounts of Ukrainian soldiers sacrificing their lives to slow the Russian advance, both strengthened Ukrainian resolve to resist and mobilized world public opinion against Russia. Seizing the telephone exchange and broadcast facilities has long been a feature of third world coups. The spread of decentralized and satellite-based communication systems, however, makes attacks on communications infrastructure less effective, even when they are carried out successfully.

Third, Newton’s adage—to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—proved prescriptive. Faced with Russian aggression, NATO rallied, declaring that it would strengthen its forces along its eastern periphery. Germany and Italy, both highly dependent on Russian gas, reversed their opposition to more extensive sanctions.

More importantly, Germany scrapped its ban on supplying lethal armaments to Ukraine. It pledged to send 500 stinger missiles and 1,000 antitank missiles. It also gave permission for other NATO members to supply weapons that had been obtained from Germany or that incorporate German technology and materials. Even more significantly, Germany announced plans to commit 100 million Euros, 2 percent of GNP, to rebuilding its military. Sweden and Finland, also indicated their willingness to join NATO. Rather than weakening NATO, Putin’s actions have given it renewed life and purpose.

More importantly, although half a world away, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also galvanized support for Taiwan and a renewed resolve to resist Chinese aggression against that nation.

Fourth, Putin’s attempts to leverage Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas has once again underscored the national security implications of global supply chains that originate in, or include, adversaries. Global trade has not made the world more harmonious or reduced the threat of violence. Weaponizing trade, and in particular supply dependencies, has handed would-be aggressors a potent new set of weapons they can use.

Talk of economic disengagement from China has, at least until now, been just that—talk. In light of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States, its allies, and the EU are likely going to take more concrete steps toward reducing their dependence on critical goods and materials from China or any other would-be aggressor, even if that aggression is not directly targeted toward them. Beijing’s actions to punish Australia for what it saw as Canberra’s impertinence is a case in point that won’t be forgotten soon.

Finally, the prospect of a worldwide consumer boycott of Chinese goods should give Beijing pause. Russia is not a major supplier of consumer goods to the EU or the United States. Boycotting Russian vodka, caviar, or furs won’t move the needle on Russia’s economy. China, however, is a different case. It’s a major supplier of consumer goods, and those goods are a significant component of both China’s exports and its domestic economy.

This is one area where China’s position is directly opposite Russia’s. Russia is primarily a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water,” the bulk of its exports are raw materials, principally oil and natural gas, and the bulk of its imports are mainly consumer goods, machinery, and technology. China is the opposite. It’s primarily an exporter of consumer goods and an importer of raw materials. A worldwide boycott of Chinese consumer goods would cripple Beijing far faster and more effectively than a military response to defend Taiwan by the United States and its allies.

Moreover, China’s success at co-opting Western leaders is a strategy that works best in the shadows, away from the limelight. Faced with overwhelming public opposition, Western leaders will side with their constituencies rather than Beijing.

What lesson will China draw from Putin’s Ukrainian fiasco? The obvious lesson would be to attack with overwhelming force, to seize or destroy Taiwan’s ability to communicate with the outside world, and control the narrative while leveraging its economic influence and trade dependencies to prevent a unified global response. But then again, that’s what the Kremlin thought it was doing.

Maybe the better lesson that Beijing should draw from Putin’s Ukrainian fiasco is to never start a war that you don’t know how you can end, lest the sequel to Putin’s Ukrainian fiasco becomes Xi’s Taiwanese disaster.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, bestselling author, syndicated columnist, war correspondent, and private equity investor. He holds a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Fulbright fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs. He has been a commentator for several broadcast venues and media outlets and has also written several books on military history and world affairs. His latest book, "Leadership in an Opaque Future," is forthcoming. Micallef is also a noted judge of wines and spirits and authored a bestselling book on Scotch whisky.