Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
As Russia continues to brutalize Ukraine, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to appear neutral while taking steps that reveal his support for Moscow. Under his leadership, Beijing has criticized the United States for allegedly triggering the current crisis by enlarging NATO; helped Russia to spread conspiracy theories about Washington’s involvement in a nonexistent biological weapons program in Ukraine; taken exception to Western sanctions; and provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with a lifeline amid Russia’s deepening economic crisis.
Citing a Chinese proverb, Xi has told U.S. President Joe Biden “only he who tied the bell to the tiger’s neck can untie it,” meaning that he sees Biden as responsible for, and therefore required to resolve, today’s military conflict in Europe.
But despite these measures, Xi is still hedging bets. Rather than supporting Moscow during a UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion, Beijing abstained. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has signaled respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He has also hinted that China might be amenable to mediating between Russia and Ukraine. And China has yet to recognize either Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, two territories in eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin backs pro-Russian separatists who launched a war against the government in Kyiv in 2014.
There are indications that the Kremlin is putting pressure on the Chinese to get off the fence. U.S. intelligence revealed that, in March 2022, Russia asked China for (likely lethal) aid. The Biden administration moved swiftly to warn Beijing against replying favorably. There is a concern in Washington that if China were to lean to one side in this conflict it would not only prolong Russia’s atrocious war in Ukraine but also mark a tectonic shift in global politics, with Beijing and Moscow becoming military allies.
This prospect should not just worry Washington; it should worry Beijing, as well. Put differently, Xi’s inclination to hedge is well advised. To understand why, China should carefully consider an episode from opening of the twentieth century in Europe.
At that time, another power was rising in economic, military, and technological prominence, just as China is today. Its industries were advancing, its technology was cutting-edge, and its military strength was growing. Its neighbors and trading partners worried that it would dominate the coming century. That country was imperial Germany.
But thanks to a fateful choice made by the country’s leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany fatally undermined itself. The United States went on to dominate the twentieth century instead. As the historian Odd Arne Westad has argued, it would behoove Beijing to pay attention to how this geopolitical “own goal” happened if China does not want to be dragged into a similar abyss.
The decisions that led to Germany squandering its advantages in the early twentieth century were ultimately Berlin’s responsibility, even though the proximate cause for them lay abroad. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated. That murder was the work of a group of separatists supported by some members of the Serbian Army. But Vienna, the capital of the failing empire, decided that, rather than limiting its response to the perpetrators, it would make war on all of Serbia.
Sensing its own weakness, before commencing hostilities the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent a delegation to Berlin, the capital of rising Germany. The goal was to seek German support for Vienna’s fractious military in this risky venture.
German history offers a cautionary tale for the Chinese leadership.
In the previous century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had understood the need for caution and for keeping European powers balanced. Once he had united Germany through a series of daring wars, he pursued a strategy of consolidation, not adventurism. But by the time the Viennese delegation arrived in Berlin, Bismarck was long gone. And, unwisely, Wilhelm II decided to throw his support behind Vienna. He granted what became known as the “blank check” to his fellow royals, assuring them of the strongest possible support.
Thus emboldened, the Austro-Hungarian Empire launched war against Serbia. As any student of modern history knows, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Other countries swiftly mobilized to avoid being caught flatfooted should war come their way next. As tensions rose across Europe, Berlin launched an invasion of the Low Countries with an eye toward conquering France. The German goal was to defeat the French quickly, before Germany found itself trapped in a two-front war with Russians, as well. One by one, countries around the world found themselves pulled into the resulting conflict.
The subsequent global conflagration—World War I—ended with the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the defeat of Wilhelmine Germany. Put simply: by supporting its bellicose, unsteady neighbor in its military folly, Berlin ultimately sacrificed its own future as a dominant power.
Much as the Austro-Hungarians sought Berlin’s approval before launching the fateful attack on Serbia, the Kremlin turned to China in the run-up to Russian invasion of Ukraine. In February 2022, on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Putin and Xi signed a joint statement signaling their deep friendship, claiming to speak for “the international community,” and decrying the tendency of a certain “minority” (meaning the West) “to resort to the use of force.”
But upon closer inspection, the Putin-Xi accord was less than met the eye. The public joint statement that Putin got, though criticizing NATO enlargement generally, said nothing specific about Ukraine. And it seems unlikely that Putin divulged the full extent of his invasion plans to Xi, given that he allowed even some of the senior figures in the Russian government to believe that the buildup to the invasion was merely a bluff.
Russia’s mounting problems since the true nature of Putin’s plans became known must surely have confirmed for Beijing that Putin committed a blunder of historic proportions, one that raises grave questions about Xi’s own room to maneuver with regard to Taiwan. It is unclear whether Xi was in great hurry to invade Taiwan before Putin’s war. If he was, he has likely rethought the matter in light of Russia’s debacle.
It seems unlikely that Putin divulged the full extent of his invasion plans to Xi.
The damage that Russia has suffered from Western sanctions—becoming an international pariah and facing a significant decline in its economic well-being—is a cautionary tale for the Chinese leadership, which, unlike Putin, draws its domestic legitimacy primarily from its economic performance. And the Ukrainians’ valiant resistance to the Russian onslaught has highlighted to Beijing that Putin-style gambles on rushed military takeovers are a sure way to invite military disaster. Even if Russia regains the initiative, risks for Beijing remain, such as further economic uncertainties, and the no longer unthinkable prospect of Russia widening the conflict. China could hardly remain on the sidelines in World War III.
It is because of their awareness of such risks that the Chinese have been walking a tightrope of benevolent neutrality: trying to help Russia while at the same time standing aloof from what’s happening in Ukraine. As the world learns more about the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Russian forces during their invasion, however, that position is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. Beijing finds itself at a critical inflection point, one where Xi will have to make a choice: either distancing his country from Putin’s atrocious war and trying to bring it to a close or continuing to risk China’s future by remaining in the bad company of a highly unpredictable, dangerous actor.
It is time to choose—and the consequences for China of making the wrong choice are clear. Continuing to support Russia de facto means further destabilizing the international system that has nurtured China’s stunning rise. It also means facing real economic costs for China as its companies face prospects of secondary sanctions. And the wrong choice will have grave reputational consequences, as Beijing’s unconvincing incantations about noninterference are exposed as a hypocritical cover for a revisionist neighbor that has unleashed an orgy of violence against a sovereign country. None of this is in China’s interest.
Instead of being dragged along by Russia, China should use the leverage that it has with Putin to persuade him to desist. As the Imperial German experience suggests, there is no greater folly for a world power than to cater to the whims of a trigger-happy neighbor. It is Putin, not Biden, who has tied a bell to the tiger’s neck. If Xi knows what is best for China, he will help untie it.
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