Not too long ago, I wrote a commentary (In Vlad’s Shoes, February 14, 2022) where I said I did not think that Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine. I observed that he was smart and savvy and would realize that an invasion would not help him achieve his long-term goals. Boy, was I wrong. I thought that because he was so smart that he would realize that an invasion was irrational. My mistake was that I thought that smart people could recognize when they were acting irrationally. But they often can’t. We have a recent president of the United States that is proof of that (along with a host of academic PhDs that believe that socialism can actually work).
But I was right that invading Ukraine was irrational as well as a bad idea. (Note to Readers: you may have noticed that in this commentary I use the term “Ukraine” and not the term “the Ukraine.” Only Russians, call Ukraine the Ukraine, so I now refer to the country as Ukraine. Also Kyiv is the Ukrainian spelling of the capital that Russians refer to as Kiev.) As I write, the Ukrainians are not only resisting they have held on to the capital, Kyiv, and pushed the Russians back from the second largest city, Kharkiv. Ukrainian citizens are lining up to volunteer for the national defense and those not receiving guns are making Molotov cocktails.
Many Ukrainians have been killed and wounded but they claim that they have also inflicted serious losses on Russian forces. In the fog of war, claims by both sides are unverifiable and likely exaggerated. But it is clear that Putin’s soldiers have not gained the quick victories they expected.
Putin may sneer at Western economic sanctions, but his brutal use of force is giving many NATO countries some backbone. The United States is sending financial and military assistance to Ukraine including Javelin anti-tank missiles. Latvia and Lithuania are shipping Stinger missiles to the front and Estonia is also sending Javelins. The Czech Republic is sending artillery shells and Poland is sending drones and anti-aircraft defenses. Even Turkey is pitching in.
In addition, NATO members are sending troops and equipment to frontline NATO countries to bolster their defenses. The Netherlands is sending F-35 fighter jets to Bulgaria and Denmark sent a frigate to the Baltic and F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania. And Germany has sent a field hospital to Estonia. Even more devastating for Putin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz just announced that Germany will increase its defense budget to more than the NATO minimum of 2% of GDP. Instead of a divided and diffident collection of countries, Putin now faces a newly invigorated and unified NATO as a result of his blatant aggression.
But it is not just NATO countries that are rallying to Ukraine’s cause. Anti-war protests have blossomed around the world and Putin is subject to global condemnation. People are protesting Russian aggression in Finland, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Ireland. Stores are taking Russian products off their shelves. Russian vodka is being poured into the gutter. KLM, Lufthansa, Japan Air and British Airways have cancelled all flights to Russia and Europe declared a no-fly zone.
The anti-war protests have extended into Russia itself. Russian social media is on fire as everyone from journalists to figure skaters express their outrage. Street protests have flared up in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk and Perm. Thousands have said to have been arrested.
Clearly, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not going as he thought it would. People are beginning to question his grip on reality. Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has called Putin “the old man in the bunker” referencing the mental ability of Adolph Hitler at the end of the Third Reich. And Florida Senator Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate’s select committee on intelligence tweeted, “I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with Putin.”
The expectation that Putin would not invade Ukraine that I expressed in my commentary was based on the assumption that Putin was a rational actor on the world stage. I may need to reevaluate that assumption. Putin has totally failed in achieving his strategic objectives: Ukraine is still independent and fighting fiercely, NATO has been reinvigorated, instead of being feared and respected as a powerful leader he is now a global pariah, and even his own people are rejecting his mad adventure. His grand plan has backfired. In his desperation, Putin recently issued an order “to transfer the Russian army’s deterrence forces to a special mode of combat duty.” Putin’s deterrence forces are the strategic nuclear missiles in his arsenal. How far will this man go?
Chinese President Xi Jinping is watching the events in Ukraine and the reactions around the world very closely. He may be having some doubts about his new partner in the authoritarian axis, only abstaining from the UN’s sanctioning of Russia and not vetoing the proposal.
Russia’s relationship to Ukraine is analogous to China’s relationship to Taiwan. As I noted in my previous commentary on Ukraine, that country has been overrun and dissected by numerous countries and empires in Eastern Europe over the centuries including tsarist Russia. After World War One, Ukraine was briefly independent as the Ukrainian People’s Republic but was eventually absorbed by the Soviet Union.
Like Ukraine, Taiwan was subject to conquering armies and invaders for much of its history, eventually coming under Chinese rule in the Qing Dynasty for about two hundred years (1683-1895). China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after losing the First Sino-Japanese War. After the American defeat of Japan in World War Two, forces of the Republic of China that had replaced the Qing Dynasty, assisted by the American military, took over administration of the islands. But when the army of Republic of China lost the mainland to the People’s Republic of China, General Chiang Kai-shek retreated with his army to Taiwan. Taiwan has maintained its independence from the Communist Party ever since. Xi Jinping considers Taiwanese independence the last remnant of the Century of Shame that China suffered at the hands of foreign devils, and he wants Taiwan back as part of his China every bit as much as Putin wants Ukraine.
I don’t think that Xi Jinping is very much disturbed by the slow progress of the Russian military machine currently bogged down in Ukraine, as he contemplates his modern, well-disciplined forces. But there are three things that he will be looking at very closely. The first thing is the fierce resistance offered by the Ukrainian people. Although only independent for thirty years, they remember Russian domination and are ferociously protecting their new-found freedom. The Taiwanese have been independent of the mainland for over a hundred years but have been able to gain their freedom recently, creating a prosperous, democratic country over the last 35 years. The Russians have encountered the fiercest resistance in the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and the Chinese are likely to encounter similar urban resistance in densely populated Taiwan. Conquering Taiwan will not be easy, and it will not be bloodless. And the whole world will be watching China annihilate peaceful people who posed no threat to China.
That is the second thing Xi Jinping is observing. World reaction to Russian aggression has been immediate and almost universal in its condemnation. Russia does not have large commercial relations with other countries other than energy (which those countries cannot do without) so refusal to buy Russian products may not have a large impact. But China has huge commercial relations with almost every country on Earth. A rejection of Chinese products stemming from aggression against Taiwan would have a huge impact on China.
But it is the third thing that Xi Jinping is watching that probably concerns him the most. And that is the protests against Putin’s invasion across Russia. The Russian people reject the assault on their irritating but peaceful neighbors. They welcomed his harsh treatment of the Chechens and shrugged their shoulders at his invasion of Georgia. They actually welcomed the annexation of Crimea, but they always thought of Crimea as Russia anyway. But Ukrainians are like family and the slaughter of close relations (and it will be a bloody slaughter) is repugnant. Putin is losing legitimacy at home with every Ukrainian soldier or civilian killed (already in the hundreds and rising). Xi Jinping cannot afford to lose legitimacy in the minds of a billion and a half people. Fierce Ukrainian resistance may have bought Taiwan a temporary reprieve as Xi Jinping reconsiders his alternatives.
The Ukrainians are teaching America and the West what it takes to be a free people. They are sacrificing their lives to be free while Americans carp about family leave, vaccine mandates and early childhood education. Build Back Better would not stand much of a chance against a Russian tank (or a Chinese hyper-sonic missile). We are entering a very dark period of great power confrontations caused by a lack of American leadership over several administrations.
The Ukrainians may not be successful in their resistance to Russian aggression. But Putin won’t last forever, and the Ukrainians’ fight for freedom will go on. In the meantime, they all can hold their heads high.