What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
As peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine continue against the horrific background of what appear to be Russian atrocities, it is unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin genuinely wants an off-ramp. While Russian forces have moved out of Kyiv and the surrounding area, they are regrouping for what is expected to be a major assault on the Donbas region in the east. As the United States and Europe look for ways to convince Putin to pursue his goals at the negotiating table instead of on the battlefield, it is important that they do not offer concessions and face-saving paths that could incentivize the Russian leader to try something like invading Ukraine again.
That’s because the more conciliatory the West appears, the less likely Putin will be to compromise. For years, Europeans offered him incentives to cooperate, hoping that an economically vibrant Russia that depended on the West would not cut off its nose to spite its face. That, however, is not how Putin thinks. As a career intelligence officer in the KGB, he was conditioned to believe that people are driven primarily by money, ideology, coercion, and ego—a combination that intelligence officers refer to using the acronym MICE. He values credible threats that leverage vulnerabilities rather than rewards. Beating Putin requires an approach that targets his fears, stretches his resources, and makes him look over his shoulder. The only carrot worth offering him is the absence of a stick: he sees concessions as a sign of weakness, and they only embolden him.
A far better way for the West to build leverage to use against Putin would be to foment unrest in his own house and weaken his regime from within. This would be taking a page from Putin’s playbook: strengthening one’s hand by weakening that of an opponent. Unable to directly challenge the United States militarily, economically, or politically, Putin attacked it asymmetrically, through disinformation that amplified populist themes of victimization; interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; and carried out aggressive cyber-operations with the intent of destabilizing the U.S. economy.
Putin’s confrontational, multidomain strategy distracted Americans from foreign policy issues, polarized the country politically, weakened its national institutions, and countered the historically accepted image of Russia as the most threatening adversary to the United States, as witnessed during the Trump administration. It was an effort also aimed at driving wedges between Washington, NATO members, and other U.S. allies.
The United States should now consider using similar tactics against Russia, sowing division and threatening Putin’s grip on power, especially in places such as Belarus, Chechnya, and Kazakhstan. In those former Soviet states, anti-Russian sentiment is already running high—a threat that Putin cannot not afford to ignore, despite his massive military commitment in Ukraine. Likewise, the United States can target Russia’s grassroots opposition. Overtly and covertly, the United States can amplify news of the economic costs of the war and the toll it’s taken on Ukrainian and Russian lives. In response to this pressure, Putin would prioritize stabilizing his position at home, which could mean accelerating an end to his ill-fated war.
There are a handful of places in Putin’s backyard that could cause him major trouble if civil unrest were to grow. Barely a year ago in Belarus, hundreds of thousands took to the streets following election results that were widely regarded as fraudulent, demanding that the country’s president, Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko, step down after decades in power. The demonstrations ended after a brutal crackdown and mass arrests, but it’s likely that anti-Russian hostility remains.
In Chechnya, where Russian troops and Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB, the former KGB), battled anti-Russian separatists for years, the conflict has never really ended. The thuggish pro-Kremlin despot whom Putin put in charge, Ramzan Kadyrov, has for years carried out a brutal campaign of repression of critics and opposition figures, some of whom are now fighting in Ukraine on Kyiv’s side against Kadyrov’s forces. Russia’s ruthlessness in Chechnya left many seeking to settle old scores, offering a rich target pool from which the United States could mobilize opposition and, if appropriate, revolt.
And in January, widespread protests in Kazakhstan demanding the government’s resignation turned violent. Russian troops were sent to help quell the uprising, which grew despite Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s efforts to defuse the crisis by offering economic and political concessions. As in Russia, popular frustration in Kazakhstan is fueled by rampant corruption, unapologetic nepotism, and the Moscow-aligned elite’s unwillingness to share the energy-rich nation’s spoils. But this year’s broad unrest in Kazakhstan suggests discontent, as in Belarus, is already simmering and ripe for escalation.
For the United States and its allies, overt political support and messaging to those who seek to break the chains of authoritarian rule in these places could be complemented by more active (but still plausibly deniable) covert efforts. Doing so would require a presidential finding, which authorizes the CIA to conduct covert operations, and the notification of Congress. Such a campaign would not necessarily be a significant stretch from the covert support that Washington is reportedly providing to Ukrainian intelligence, security, and special operations forces. Unlike the U.S. cooperation with sovereign Ukrainian government institutions, however, the United States would be engaging and managing a decentralized assortment of sometimes rival opposition elements and leaders across Russia and its former republics. The dynamic is not without its operational, political, and logistical challenges. The United States should look at its problematic covert support to the opposition in Syria and its more successful campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan for lessons learned.
Beating Putin requires an approach that makes him look over his shoulder.
There are a range of measures the United States might secretly undertake in all the former republics as well as within Russia itself. Beginning with a lighter touch, the United States could orchestrate covert influence campaigns to stir up outrage regarding these regimes’ repression and corruption. The United States has the means to do so, via short-wave broadcasts, in print, or by distributing bootleg DVDs and USB flash drives through established internal clandestine networks.
To get those messages out, the U.S. intelligence community would finance the networks and train them in secure communications, intelligence gathering, and organization. Such assistance could eventually evolve into guidance on how to stage demonstrations and, if warranted, how to carry out violent acts of revolt and insurgency with training in military organization and tactics and the provision of lethal aid.
The United States has experience, for better or worse, in fomenting unrest that has overthrown regimes in Chile and Iran, stirred anticommunist forces in eastern Europe during the Cold War, and enabled militant insurgencies against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. These activities serve as blueprints that can be tailored for these three former Soviet states. Ultimately, the goal need not be pushing them into revolution or expecting pro-Western liberal democracies to follow but merely putting in motion steps that exploit Putin’s fear of losing control of this crucial sphere of influence.
It’s true that the United States has a mixed record in such covert campaigns, which includes failures in Cuba, Libya, Mozambique, and, most recently, Syria. But it is arguable that those misadventures were doomed from the outset by questionable end goals, inconsistent policy support, and a lack of popular domestic enthusiasm for the cause. In Ukraine, U.S. strategy has been refreshingly cohesive and has reflected the national consensus. A critical component for success would be the U.S. ability to regulate the pace and unforeseen consequences of its support to such groups, making sure they are not abandoned but also pressuring Putin without escalating the conflict beyond control.
Pressuring Putin requires demonstrating that he will suffer significant consequences on account of his aggression. The economic sanctions that Russia is facing now will likely not suffice to get Putin to concede in Ukraine. If Washington truly wants to put the squeeze on Putin, it needs to drive a wedge between him and his vital supporters and confidants—especially the siloviki, the former KGB and military officials who secured great fortunes and power through their close associations with Putin. While much of the Russian elite has publicly rallied to Putin’s cause, those with the most to lose, or those vulnerable to the ongoing blame game and prospective “purification,” might be receptive to a waiting American life raft and discreet back-channel contact.
Apart from those within the government holding prominent positions in Russia’s national security institutions, and who, as such, are more difficult to engage privately, the most promising candidates for this kind of approach would ostensibly be private sector insiders like Igor Sechin, the billionaire CEO of Russia’s Rosneft Oil. Sechin was Putin’s chief of staff in the 1990s and remains a close confidant. He knows which closets hold Putin’s skeletons—and likely placed many there himself.
There is also Nikolay Tokarev, CEO of state-controlled Transneft, the world’s largest oil pipeline company. A former KGB officer who was born in Kazakhstan, Tokarev goes back years with Putin, and was part of the Mafia-like organization that Putin assembled during his time as mayor of St. Petersburg.
This year’s broad unrest in Kazakhstan suggests discontent is already simmering and ripe for escalation.
Outreach to these and other of Putin’s reputed confidants and lieutenants could be useful in various ways. Discreet and ideally clandestine contact offers them the cover to play fixer if they choose to tell Putin, and to offer themselves to him and the West as a safe conduit through which to negotiate terms beyond public view. More conspiratorially, such engagement could serve as a lifeboat by which they could save themselves, by providing the United States with intelligence, exerting influence on Putin, conspiring to remove him, or as a means of escape if their number comes up in Moscow for “purification and blame.”
The more certain achievement against the admittedly long odds that they might genuinely cooperate is the win-win nature of such approaches. If exposed, U.S. outreach to his inner circle contributes to Putin’s apparent paranoia and elevates the internal pressure that might cause him to be more amenable to an off-ramp in the interest of his own survival.
Why would this be effective on Putin? Because Putin was trained as a spy, and spies are always on the lookout for threats and skeptical about people’s true agendas. Merely the appearance of wavering on the part of any siloviki might fuel Putin’s doubt about loyalty within his inner circle and his anxiety about the risk to his political or physical survival in a country with a history of conspiracy and skullduggery at the top. Even if his close confidants were to inform him of approaches by U.S. intelligence agencies, Putin would have to wonder who else might have been approached, and possibly turned.
Escalation is always a risk, but so is acting too conservatively. Lighting a match in Belarus, Chechnya, and Kazakhstan, not to mention within Russia itself, could start a fire. The unintended consequences could bring more human suffering, loss of life, destabilization of the international economy, or still worse autocratic governments. They could also bring Russia and the West into direct armed conflict. But long-standing political instability in all three former republics suggests that underlying tensions will eventually erupt regardless of whether the United States intervenes.
Establishing contact now with opposition forces would increase the likelihood of the United States’ exerting positive influence on the outcome—rather than being forced to react later—and, at minimum, provide a suite of capabilities and options for further down the road. Likewise, fueling Putin’s paranoia poses some risks; making him doubt his inner circle could prompt yet more desperate measures to rally national support by escalating into armed conflict with NATO. But that downside risk is small, and efforts to recruit or otherwise connect with members of his inner circle could provide insight into and influence over a move against Putin that might very well evolve with or without U.S. interference.
The United States and its allies have the means to apply significant pressure in the shadows and asymmetrically. What Washington can’t afford to do is expect that incentives might lure Putin into cooperation. It is simply not the way his risk versus gain calculation works. Neither can the United States afford to coast on existing sanctions without escalating the pressure for which the Russian leader might otherwise adapt and survive if given the breathing space. For years, Putin has employed covert means to keep the West off balance, divide and conquer, stress its political fabric, and redirect its focus inward. The time has come to return the favor—and the United States has the means to do so.