This is Part Two of Four; Part One can be read here. This is a series of pieces talking about the implications of a Ukrainian victory or a Russian victory on situations around the world. Heads up—each Part will be a long-ish read.
Assume, Russia wins.
Putin will build on this beginning of his geopolitical tragedy reversal.
Putin has long obsessed over reconstituting the Russian empire as embodied by the USSR: those ex-SSR nations (the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus are the primary nations in the European context) and the USSR-controlled client states, including Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, and Czech Republic and Slovakia (sort of née, Czechoslovakia). That most of these are NATO members or merged into NATO members is a complicating factor, but with NATO having just been roundly defeated in the war for Ukraine, perhaps not that complicating. After all, NATO began the crisis already weakened and potentially fragmenting, with fissures based on energy needs, differing levels of foreign risk-taking (France vs Germany), differing economic strengths and interests (north vs south as canonically illustrated by the economic dislocations of 2008-2010, but extending beyond the Eurozone to include NATO’s member nations)—and differing degrees of the willingness of member nations to honor their mutual defense commitments.
Belarus already is in thrall to Russia, and Ukraine is just partitioned if not fully conquered. The Baltics then become the most immediately vulnerable, being small, significantly Russian national-populated (Putin’s Anschluss excuse), and flanked by Russia to the east and Kaliningrad to the west. With these nations forced to accommodate a resurgent Russia, Poland will become isolated, and its diplomatic freedom of action will be curtailed, even if it isn’t pried loose. Pulling the DDR back out of the Federal Republic of Germany will likely remain a bridge too far, for a generation, perhaps more.
Russia’s success in Ukraine and the Baltic States (and to an extent Poland,), however will be diluted for some years: the citizenry and escaped military units will engage in an ongoing guerilla war, sabotaging Russian equipment and killing occupying soldiers. These will be an ongoing drain on Russia’s finances, and military establishment, mitigated only to the extent Russia is able to coerce a lifting of US and European sanctions given the fait accompli of Ukraine, and Putin’s ability to convince People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping to continue financing his expansionism. This last, though, will come in the face of Xi’s awareness of what a strengthening Russia means to the PRC.
Pushing back into Romania and Bulgaria will isolate a Hungary that historically has been ambivalent toward both Europe and Russia and give Putin ready access to the Balkan region—with which Russia has historically been allied and with which if shares—publicly conveniently when politically convenient—a pan-Slavic identity (the name “Yugoslavia” means “South Slav Land”), if only as an excuse to give Tsarist Russia flanking room around Main Europe.
While that’s going on and to the extent Russia is successful at it, Russia will seek to extract itself from its overt dependence on the PRC economically and financially, with particular concern for its financial debt. Of course, that contradicts Putin’s expected efforts to get Xi to continue financing him, but the relationship between Russia and the PRC is rife with contradiction.
Russia will have bought its success in Ukraine with PRC currency and those agreements for joint exploitation of Siberia. That’s exploitation money Russia will be sharing with the PRC rather than collecting entirely for itself. Of course, the joint exploitation will produce far more joint revenues, and that may well work out to net more money for Russia than had it been left to its own devices for the exploitation—which wasn’t all that prior to the agreements.
The joint arrangement, also, is and will continue to be facilitated by a steady, if not growing, influx of PRC citizens into Siberia, setting the stage for a mainland Chinese Anschluss into Siberia. Recall that generations of Chinese governments have considered Siberia stolen from them by the Russians. Recall, further, that Russia (then in the form of the Soviet Union) and the PRC engaged in several gunfights along the Amur River border region. That region has been the scene of gunfights between Russians and Chinese for nearly 400 years. The two nations, the two peoples, do not trust each other.
In short, the PRC wants Siberia and is willing to wait the generation or two that it will take for the Chinese Siberian population to grow enough to warrant a move to formally occupy. On the other hand, Russia wants to keep Siberia and needs the resources: its economy is heavily extractive, with limited capacity for goods production, and there is very little to extract west of the Ural Mountains by comparison. It’s true that Ukraine and much of the area east of Ukraine are a global bread basket, and it’s also true that the Donbas (the traditional Donbas, which extends into Russia) remains rich in coal, but the two combined are not enough to fuel the kind of expansion Putin intends.
That sets the stage for military confrontation, and the risk of nuclear war against the West. The risk, though, is small in my view. Although Russia has inherited the Soviet Union’s doctrine for fighting and winning a nuclear war, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia would use them only if the existence of the Russian state were at risk. He made this statement through his Press Secretary, Dimitry Peskov[i], in the context of his invasion of Ukraine, but the principle extends.
But any outcome of the operation [in Ukraine], of course, is not a reason for usage of a nuclear weapon. We have a security concept that very clearly states that only when there is a threat for existence of the state in our country, we can use and we will actually use nuclear weapons to eliminate the threat or the existence of our country.
Russia is much more likely to play its own long game from its position of growing strength to the west. It will seek to exercise increasing control over the ‘Stans that used to be SSRs of the Soviet Union, with particular emphasis on Kazakhstan, which borders on the PRC’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Russia already has sent—at the Kazakhs government’s putative request—military units to help that nation’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev put down “unrest.” Reoccupying Kazakhstan won’t be hard, and it would open a new point of contact with the body politic of the PRC. Too, Kazakhstan is an important component of the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative routing[ii], and so becomes a bargaining chip for Russia. In addition, from Putin’s Russia-domestic perspective, Kazakhstan has the Baikonur Cosmodrome, over which Russia would like to reassert stable control.
The ‘Stans, Kazakhstan in particular, also will be a source from which to foment further unrest within the PRC to the extent Putin and his successors can convince the Muslims in Xinjiang that he’s really on their side. In the long run, though, that’s a losing game for Russia due to the differing sizes of economies and the differing skill levels in running an economy—Xi’s government is much more effective than Putin’s. After all, the PRC economy also actually produces stuff; Russia, as noted above, is heavily extractive and must buy a broad range of components and finished goods or barter for them with its extracted resources. Which it now must share a significant fraction of with the PRC. Both this border and the border of which the Amur River is a part will be sources of continuing irritation between Russia and the PRC, but the gunfights of the 20th century are unlikely to recur until the PRC is ready to make its move in that generation or two.
On the other side of the People’s Republic of China sit the Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the South and East China Seas, the nations rimming the South China Sea—particularly Vietnam and the Philippines—and Australia below Indonesia and Malaysia, which form the southern rim.
Russia victorious in Ukraine and expanding farther into Europe—or just looking like it’s expanding, and occupying much of the US’ attention—will strongly suggest to the PRC’s President Xi Jinping that he has a much freer hand in the east than heretofore.
The first move for the PRC in this new environment of a defeated Ukraine, NATO, and the United States will center on the RoC, resident on the island of Taiwan a bare 120 miles across the Taiwan Strait from the mainland. The PRC considers the RoC to be a rogue Chinese territory that will be resorbed into the Chinese body politic, at gun point if necessary. Gordon Chang[iii], columnist, author, and lawyer, has written that the PRC will use the world’s most destructive weapons if needs be to block interference with its conquering of the RoC, has threatened to incinerate Japan over its support for Taiwan, and has threatened a nuke threat against Australia over its participation in AUKUS, the Australia, UK, US joint effort to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines[iv] and both to help Australia strengthen its defense establishment and to form a containment facility against the PRC.
The island also is the anchor of the Inner Island Barrier—the First Island Chain in PRC parlance—that stretches from the Kuril Islands, through the Japanese Archipelago and Ryukyu Islands, on around through northwestern Philippines, to Borneo.
The PRC already has moved extensively to isolate the RoC politically from the world outside the mainland, and with considerable success: a very few nations still recognize any sort of political, or even economic, dealings with the RoC. The PRC even has moved to block the RoC from observer status at WHO conferences concerning the Wuhan Virus, even though the RoC has been among the earliest at diagnosing the virus and among the most successful at controlling the virus’ impact on its population. The PRC had, until the Russia-PRC rapprochement and declaration of “eternal friendship” immediately prior to the PRC’s Olympic Games, held off making any overt moves other than demonstrations with bombers and fighters penetrating the RoC’s ADIZ.
In this US-weakened environment, though, and having observed the US’ acquiescence regarding Russia’s Nordstream 2 pipeline on the heels of Russia’s cyber attack and shutdown of a key American domestic oil node—Colonial Pipeline—President Xi Jinping is likely to make a more overt move: a physical isolation of the RoC with a naval blockade on the seaward side and sealing of both ends of the Taiwan Strait. This move may be preceded by a cyber attack against a major US financial node, denying consumer and business access to the financial records held there until Xi gets at least quiet, tacit acceptance of his move against the island nation. The US is notorious for its inability to protect even Federal government computer networks from penetration. And: so long as there is no physical invasion of the RoC, there likely will be no American overt response to the isolation of the RoC.
Nor would there be need for invasion: the isolation will bring about, within a very few years, the RoC’s acceptance of PRC control over the RoC’s foreign and defense policies.
With that control over the Inner Island Barrier cemented, the PRC then will move to solidify its control over the South China Sea, while holding in abeyance its already very low key moves against the East China Sea. The PRC already has militarized key islands around the southern loop of the Sea, making them fit for bomber and fighter aircraft basing and emplacing surface-to-surface missile systems able to range the nations around the Sea. I speculate that the PRC also has based, or soon will, long-range anti-ship missiles as well. With this consolidation in conjunction with that cyber attack, the US will be forced to reduce its naval presence in the South China Sea to a bare minimum, face-saving, occasional sailing.
The PRC already is moving to limit rimming nations’ access to the fisheries in the Sea and their ability to drill for oil beneath the Sea. It will likely extend that to overtly confine Vietnamese and Philippine access to the Sea those nations’ territorial waters, functionally eliminating the entirety of their claimed Exclusive Economic Zones in the Sea. The Philippines will be pushed to withdraw from its occupation of a few islands in the Spratly group.
There are riches, both physical and security, in the South China Sea that the PRC is anxious to control, both for its own direct benefit and to deny them to other nations. The fisheries are rich, but they are at their peak and overfishing effects are beginning to appear. The sea floor, though, is rife with mineral nodules: polymetallic nodules consisting largely of iron and manganese hydroxides, and rare earths. Beneath the floor sit rich oil and natural gas deposits. Controlling these latter, especially, would greatly reduce the PRC’s dependence on foreign oil, particularly via the relatively hazardous routing from Iran, and it would reduce its need for Russian oil and natural gas (to the detriment of the Russian economy and energy trade with the PRC). That last may seem to contradict the PRC’s interest in developing Siberian oil and natural gas resources, but keep in mind two things. One is that development’s use as a tool to develop an Anschluss rationale. The other is that the overland pipelines from Siberia are both more secure than even shipping from a secured South China Sea and economically cheaper.
The security wealth of controlling the South China Sea is even greater. More than half of the global merchant marine traffic[v] goes through the South China Sea, entering (and leaving on the return trips) the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok, and nearly all of that South China Sea traffic passes by the Spratlys. As of 2016, some $5.3 trillion of trade goods pass through the South China Sea every year[vi]; one-fifth of that heading for the US, or about 14% of our total seaborne trade. Japan gets 42% of its annual seaborne trade via the South China Sea, and the Republic of Korea gets more than 80% of its oil via the South China Sea[vii]. For perspective, total world trade was $15.9 trillion.
The RoK also exports nearly twice as much in value to the PRC as to the US and imports nearly twice as much from the PRC as from the US[viii]. Japan exports the same value to the PRC as to the US, but its imports from the PRC are twice as much as from the US[ix].
With those sea lanes so critical to the RoK and Japan, the PRC will demonstrate its control by going back to its prior demand that non-PRC ships transiting the Sea identify themselves and ” report their information[x]:”
any vessel deemed to “endanger the maritime traffic safety of China” will also be required to report its information, which would include their name, call sign, current position, next port of call, and estimated time of arrival. The vessels will also have to submit information on the nature of goods and cargo dead weight. “After entering the Chinese territorial sea, a follow-up report is not required if the vessel’s automatic identification system is in good condition. But if the automatic identification system does not work properly, the vessel should report every two hours until it leaves the territorial sea….”
The PLA Navy will stop a few (or more?) freighters seemingly bound for the RoK and Japan, ostensibly for inspections, perhaps detaining one or more of them in a PRC port for some period of time, to drive home the point to those two nations regarding their economic (and so security) vulnerability and to demonstrate American impotence in defending their commerce despite the US’ vaunted Freedom of Navigation Operations—and to emphasize a similar point to the United States: that American maritime commerce can be held up to the far greater detriment of the American economy, and so American national security, than any response from the US can produce. That will be true, especially given the weakness against cyber attack demonstrated by Russia against Colonial Pipeline and by the PRC’s anticipated cyber attack during the runup to its move against the RoC. Xi also will remind us of his growing nuclear first strike capability with his hypervelocity nuclear- and global reach-capable missiles.
These economic demonstrations will weaken the relationships the RoK and Japan have with the United States and draw them more tightly into the PRC’s sphere of influence. Recall the already tight economic ties, relative to the US, those two nations currently have with the PRC. This changing level of relative influence could well lead to a RoK push, at PRC behest, to get the US to withdraw a significant fraction of its forces from the nation, and to a similar Japanese push, also with PRC encouragement, to reduce or eliminate the US presence on Okinawa. An increasingly crowded Okinawan population already is restive about the large American military presence.
With this growing Western Pacific power and eroding American position in the South China Sea/Western Pacific, the PRC will be in a position to increase its pressure on both Australia and India (the latter pressure to work in a feedback loop with the already growing military pressure from the PLA along India’s sort-of border with the PRC and the sort-of border between Bhutan (to whose military aid India already has responded recently) and the PRC.
That pressure will come in the form of the PRC’s gaining functional (not necessarily military) control over the Outer Island Barrier—the PRC’s Second Island Chain— which runs from Japan through the Mariana Islands to Micronesia. That island chain will be a bit of a stretch for the PRC to control, but with a retreating and increasingly inward-looking US, coupled with the PRC’s growing security arrangements with the Solomon Islands[xi] (to the extent the agreement is finalized in substantially the form leaked) it will gain sufficient control. Although the chain itself is normally considered (at least by the PRC via its Second Island Chain designation) anchored on the island of New Guinea, it will be straightforward for a by now deep water-experienced PLAN to branch the chain to the Solomons.
A glance at a map[xii] reveals the risk to Australia and to India such controls—of the South China Sea and of the seas extending out to the Second Island Chain (to use the designation of the now regionally dominant PRC)—give the PRC.
From that position, the PRC will be able to heavily influence Australia’s maritime trade[xiii]—22% of its exports to the RoK and Japan combined, and 7% of its imports from Japan and 12% from the US.
India would fall into the same strait: 17% of its exports go to the US, and 7% of its imports come from the US. That’s not a stranglehold on India, although the Indian economy would suffer significantly were such interference to become actual. The point of the interference, though, from the PRC’s perspective, would be to further weaken the American presence in the West Pacific and to contribute to the erosion of American relations—and reliability—with the RoK and Japan from those two nations’ perspective. Any erosion of US-Australia relations from Australia’s perspective would simply be icing on that Boston cream doughnut.
The economic damage done by the PRC’s boycott of Australian exports to the PRC has been largely, and increasingly, mitigated by Australia’s growing trade relations with India; however, the state of India’s economy, its border problems with the PRC, and the PRC’s ability to interfere with Indian maritime trade with East Asia and the US all serve to limit the speed with which India can absorb increased Australian trade possibilities.
With that steady erosion of Asian influence that the US would be able to exert, two intermediate (relative to the PRC’s 100 Year War) outcomes would ensue: the PRC’s greatly increased influence over the RoK and Japan (and to a smaller extent Australia’s freedom of action, as well as India’s), and a greatly reduced freedom of action for the US.
There are some lesser influences that the PRC would be able to exert from this Russian victory that become more likely to the extent the foregoing are realized. These involve increasing influence of the PRC over the ‘Stans that border Russia. These are more important for the PRC’s overland access to Europe than for their direct influence over Russia. Nor must the PRC’s moves here clash at all with Russia’s moves in the region. While Russia’s interest is in reasserting control, both nations have economic interests, also, and the PRC’s interests here can be easily accommodated via another economic agreement that doesn’t, overtly or immediately, threaten Russian control.
The PRC will continue to import oil from Iran, ignoring any sanctions that might remain in place, in order to keep the US occupied in the Middle East. The PRC also may well roll the dice and, sub rosa, aid Iran in obtaining nuclear weapons, and for the same reason it’s aiding northern Korea: to keep the US distracted from other matters the PRC considers more important.
All of that brings me to the twin elephants in the room: the direct relationships between, and among, the United States, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China.
With the US and its putative allies, the EU and the European NATO member nations, in retreat, Russia is likely to push its success and its nuclear war threats to create further retreat by these Western nations, particularly European but including the US, and gain further influence if not outright control over increasing swaths of Europe.
Neither the UK nor France, the only non-American NATO—or European—nations with nuclear weapons, have the ability to fight a nuclear war without the US. The UK has only 225 nuclear warheads, of which only half actually are operational[xiv]. Furthermore, British nuclear alert capability is a joke: only one nuclear missile-armed submarine is maintained on patrol, it operates on a “reduced day-to-day alert state,” and its missiles are not targeted, but require several days “notice to fire.”[xv]
France’s Force de dissuasion has 290 warheads[xvi], and its nuclear alert force, typically one nuclear missile-capable submarine, has been increased to three[xvii] in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The French alert force, though, remains inadequate: the three submarines aggregate to a total of 48 (MIRVed) ballistic missiles.
These forces are wholly inadequate to answering a Russian threat of nuclear attack or actual attack, and as long as the current and subsequent American administrations keep backing away in order to not fight a nuclear war, that is exactly the threat Russia will use against them and against the US in order to continue getting its way on the continent and increasingly so vis-à-vis the US. In the end, too, the threat of nuclear attack and the separate success of cyber attack is far cheaper against any of the three than actual nuclear war.
Should the expense of nuclear war become, in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, worth the price, then to the extent Russia actually has such a system, its developing nuclear-armed hypervelocity missile(s) give it a first strike capability against both nations, and possibly against the US (the missile seems range-limited, so far, and so would require a ship- or air-launch capability to reach the US).
To the extent of Russia’s post-Russia-Ukraine war maneuverings success, Xi Jinping will exercise similar and increasing pressure against the US, fueled also by the PRC’s own increasing political and economic dominance in the Pacific. In particular, its dominance of America’s Pacific sea lanes of commerce; its demonstrated cyber war superiority; and its hypervelocity nuclear missile capability, a capability that gives it a first strike capacity, will enhance Xi’s ability to apply pressure.
The PRC will continue its acquisition of American technology and intellectual property through espionage, its requirement for technology “sharing” as a condition of doing business within the PRC, and application of its National Intelligence Law. The resulting economic and technological superiority achieved by the PRC will enable it further to limit the freedom of action of the US in a PRC-dominated global environment.
One more thing. After its strike on Pearl Harbor, Japan did not follow up with an attack on the American mainland to force us out of the war before we started because Japan had neither the economic resources nor the military forces with which to do so. In whatever form the PRC’s Pearl Harbor strike takes, the PRC will have the economic resources and military capacity to follow up. And it will have no reason not to.
In the end, it may well be that most, or even many, of these dominoes will not fall, even that none of them will. If some or many of them do fall, then with the exception of the move against the RoC they’ll do so in rough sequence over the ensuing 10-15 years to a generation, barring an early radical shift in the behaviors of the American, EU, and UK governing authorities—and especially depending on the American response to the PRC’s move against the RoC.
In any event, I’m not willing to risk the economy, the freedom of action internationally, the sovereignty of my nation on those dominoes not falling. That radical change in behavior is a Critical Item from the current election cycle on.
[iii] Author of the optimistic The Coming Collapse of China and of the less optimistic The Great U.S.-China Tech War .
[xvii] https://bit.ly/3LBNrWS (Google Translate is fairly friendly)