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War in Ukraine: China Will Not Be the Net Gainer if This Happens in Russia

By: Sushant Sareen

Last Updated: March 02, 2022, 12:49 IST

The jury is still out on how much China is ready to jeopardise its relations with the West for the sake of Russia, writes Sushant Sareen. Photo: Reuters

The jury is still out on how much China is ready to jeopardise its relations with the West for the sake of Russia, writes Sushant Sareen. Photo: Reuters

But for this to happen, the West will have to behave sensibly, responsibly and resist the temptation of imposing a new Versailles on Moscow.

Clearly, many of us misread and underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Americans had read him right and were warning that war was imminent. But neither the Ukrainians nor most analysts thought Putin would cross the Rubicon and launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. Apart from the unintended consequences of war which concern most leaders – not Putin, apparently – the Russians just didn’t have the sort of force levels required to launch an invasion and occupy a country as large as Ukraine. If despite this, they marched into Ukraine, it was probably because they thought Ukrainians will capitulate the moment they see the Russians breaching the border. After all, in 2014 they captured Crimea without much ado and pretty much got away with it. But not this time. It is apparent the Russians were not expecting the fight back they have got. Ukraine isn’t turning out to be a walk in the park. This miscalculation was compounded by miscalculation number two – the Ukrainian President didn’t do an Ashraf Ghani and flee.

These miscalculations have resulted in some unforeseen consequences, the first of which is that the Ukrainian army stood up and Ukrainian nationalism came to the fore to resist the Russian advance, even stall it and beat it back in places.

Unforeseen consequence number 2: Putin had probably anticipated some sanctions from the West. But did he cater for the sweeping sanctions that have been imposed, and the resultant near-meltdown of the Russian economy – Rouble has collapsed, interest rates have doubled, inflation could spike, shortages could become common, central bank sanctions will hurt badly, foreign trade will suffer grievously? Has he catered for the long-term consequences of these sanctions, especially if secondary sanctions start kicking in? Did he expect to see Western countries and companies willing to take the losses that come with the sanctions imposed on Russia? Did he anticipate the growing isolation of Russia?

Unforeseen consequence number 3: Putin saw a very weak pushback from the West before the invasion. But after the invasion and the resistance by Ukrainian army and the people, the sort of closing ranks by Western countries and the rather strident stand taken by them isn’t exactly something that Russia would have been expecting. The kind of military assistance that is now starting to pour in to assist the Ukrainians should worry Russia. It could face a prolonged insurgency and risks getting enmeshed in a war that its economy will find difficult to sustain.


Unforeseen consequence number 4: Putin thought this would be a popular war. But the way things are going – and it remains a pretty fluid situation right now – this war could end up being extremely unpopular in Russia, not just because of the economic impact, but also the human cost that it will exact. If this war becomes unpopular, will Putin be able to hold on to power?

Russians Face Three Choices

After the initial setbacks, the Russians face broadly three choices:

One, they double down on the invasion, which they seem all set to do. This means reinforcing the troops, bringing the massive Russian military machine into play, changing the battlefield tactics to a sort of saturation war in which they use all means necessary to pulverise the opposition, even if it means flattening cities and causing massive collateral. The Russians certainly have the wherewithal to do this. But have they worked out the consequences, especially the unintended ones, of doing this? Also, has Russia calculated the costs – human, political, military, strategic, diplomatic and economic – of pressing on until they occupy the entire country? Will the benefits Russia hopes to gain from its invasion outweigh the costs it entails? Will it be sustainable in the face of the rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism, or will this nationalism peter out? Surely Russia can no longer do what Stalin did? Or does Putin think that if Xi can get away with it in Xinjiang, so can he? What about the possible resistance or insurgency that could follow? How many Russian troops will stay back to contain it?

Two, the Russians could have decided to double back. This is bit of a redundant option given reports of massive Russian troop movements towards Kyiv. Even so, if this option had been exercised, the Russian spin machine could have said that they have made the point and leave it at that. But this would not sell very well. It would be something like the “lesson” Chinese went to teach Vietnam in 1979 and came back, with their tails between their legs, suitably chastised by the Vietnamese. This option also didn’t hold any incentive for Russia because it wasn’t as though the West would reverse the sanctions if Russia backed down. If anything, the West and Ukraine would have seen it as weakness and one unintended consequence of the invasion would have been precisely the thing Putin was trying to prevent by declaring war – Ukraine joining NATO. Putin would also find it personally and politically difficult to survive the debacle.

Three, the Russians can decide to press on with their invasion but limit the military objectives. Instead of wanting to bring the whole of Ukraine under their control, they could decide to stop their advance after capturing some of the big Ukrainian cities. They would have made their point and would have disabused those who thought that the famous Russian Army was a spent force. At that stage, they could decide to divide Ukraine along an east-west axis; alternatively, they could dismember Ukraine further and create a buffer zone. But this option will hardly work well for Russia. If anything, it will only make things worse for Russia because it wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of the objectives that it announced while launching the ‘special military operation’ – demilitarisation, decapitation and deposing of leadership and replacing it with a pro-Russian regime, and forcing neutrality on Ukraine. The invasion has caused too much resentment and revulsion, especially in Ukraine, that any kind of reconciliation or diplomatic solution is now looking virtually impossible, neutrality even more so.

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Will China Be the Net Gainer?

The bottom line is that the Russians don’t seem to have worked out their end-game once their opening gambit failed. If war is a part of strategy, it must lead to something tangible, not to something inchoate which keeps hanging mid-air. If Putin knows, he is not telling; if he doesn’t know, then he has put Russia in more trouble than he was trying to get it out of.

It is getting increasingly difficult to see how Russia or Putin could come out of the Ukraine crisis relatively unscathed. The West has all but burnt its bridges with Russia. Under Putin at least, there seems to be absolutely no possibility of Russia and West relations going back to even the state of relations that existed after 2014. An isolated Russia will naturally gravitate towards China – this was already being done after 2014. Not surprisingly, many strategic thinkers are predicting that China will be the net gainer. Not only will Russia be more dependent on it, but China could also form an alternate block of PRICs, with Russia, Iran and Pakistan. China will gain technology which is otherwise not available to it. The Sino-Russian axis will have the economic muscle and military might to pose a formidable challenge to the hegemony of the West and become a nightmare for India.

But this scenario is based almost on two somewhat heroic assumptions: one, China will be ready to bear the burden of Russia; two, and more critical, Putin will survive Ukraine. The jury is still out on how much China is ready to jeopardise its relations with the West for the sake of Russia. But the second assumption holds even more tantalising possibilities.

It is entirely possible that the Russians hunker down and close ranks against the West which might be underestimating Russian grit and determination, not to mention nationalism. The demonstrations on the streets of Russian cities will remain limited to a fringe and bulk of the Russian population will rally behind Putin. The Russians are known to be tough people who can bear hardships, much more than the Europeans. Russian nationalism will elevate Putin to a national hero who is defying the perfidious West to defend Mother Russia. If Putin’s hold on power remains intact, then it will be a very long haul for both Russia and the West, and will work well for China.

But what if instead of a regime change in Ukraine, the Russian overreach leads to a regime change in the Kremlin? If the war drags on and becomes very unpopular, becomes ruinous and economically unsustainable, the sanctions bite, and bite hard, and the resentment against the regime reaches its apogee, what are the chances that Putin will survive? If Putin becomes a casualty of his own war, and is replaced by someone who is a proud Russian but also seeks a closer relationship with the West, then the entire scenario will change quite dramatically. A new, popular leader in the Kremlin who is more inclined towards the West than towards China could be the answer to not just the West’s dreams but also take India out of the pickle she finds herself in. India has for long argued that the West needs to woo Russia, and not push it towards China’s waiting arms.

A pro-West Russia could completely alter the strategic scenario of the world and shift the focus back to the arena where the real challenge lies – the Indo-Pacific. But for this to happen, the West will have to behave sensibly, responsibly and resist the temptation of imposing a new Versailles on Moscow – humiliating conditions that no self-respecting Russian will accept. Is the Western leadership working as per a plan, or is it making its plan as it goes along? More importantly, is the West enlightened enough to get past its Russian bugbear and understand that the real geo-strategic challenge is not Ukraine’s neutrality or Russia’s containment, but China’s aggression and lethality in both the economic and military sphere?

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:March 02, 2022, 12:49 IST
last updated:March 02, 2022, 12:49 IST