What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
Ten weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is hard to see how and when the war will end. At the end of March, the Russian army withdrew from around Kyiv, but it is still pounding Kharkiv and Mariupol and slowly advancing, in the face of defiant Ukrainian resistance, in the east and south. The Black Sea port of Kherson, which fell to Russia early on, is being put through a process already familiar to inhabitants of Crimea and the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, who lived through Russian—or Russian-backed—takeovers eight years ago. Kherson’s occupiers have violently broken up protests, invaded city hall, and taken national broadcasters off the air in favor of Russian channels and a new pro-Moscow local station. About 400 inhabitants have been arrested, and although some have been released with broken ribs, relatives of others have no news. At the end of April, Internet and mobile phone communications were suspended, and there are now rumors of a coming “referendum” aimed at turning the region into the “Kherson People’s Republic”—another Russian puppet statelet.
A moral turning point of the war has been the discovery of the Russian army’s atrocities against civilians. Among the most shocking sights in liberated Bucha, and other commuter towns on the outskirts of Kyiv, are the temporary graves that inhabitants had to dig for their relatives outside their apartment blocks and the abandoned cars that the Russians shot up as residents tried to flee. These cars—bright new family hatchbacks or shabby old Soviet Zhigulis, with white cloths tied to the radio antennas and handwritten “children” signs taped to the windshields—are riddled with bullet holes and often filled with their owners’ possessions: a hair dryer, a child’s scooter, a plastic bag full of neatly folded flannels, a 62-year-old woman’s medical records, a packet of fish food. To try to grasp the level of anger and disgust Ukrainians feel about this, one needs to imagine it happening in New York’s Chappaqua or London’s Ealing—the kind of leafy outer suburb that Bucha resembled until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces reduced it to rubble and twisted sheets of roofing tin.
All over the country, Ukrainians—those who have not fled—live a day-to-day existence, often separated from their families and with no assurance, even if they are far from the frontlines, that their country will ever be whole again or that a long-range missile will not fly in tonight through their bedroom wall. Many cope by throwing themselves into the war effort. From west to east, people are working seven-day weeks driving vans loaded with food or medical supplies, weaving cut-up clothes into camouflage nets, running clubs for displaced children, or handing out rolls and tea at railway stations. The khaki-clad, often older men who work the checkpoints in the newly liberated towns around Kyiv are volunteers, too, their spectacles and ready smiles unmistakably civilian.
Yet despite all the misery and uncertainty, some are already beginning to think about what kind of country they want to rebuild when relative peace returns. (“Victory” is the word they use—nobody talks about “the end of the war.”) Security will be paramount: even in the most optimistic scenarios, Ukrainians recognize that they will likely face a future of continued conflict in the east, perhaps lasting for years to come. The country will also need to address the loss not only of much of its economy, but also of more than five million of its citizens who have fled the country and will have to be persuaded that there is something to return to. At the same time, it will take exceptional effort for the Ukrainian government not relapse into corruption, even as it pleads for tens of billions of dollars in desperately needed reconstruction money. And it remains unclear just what status the country will have in the West when all is said and done.
How well Ukraine is able to address these challenges will of course depend on the outcome of the war itself—first and foremost on how much of its territory the country ends up controlling. Given that any meaningful negotiations with Moscow are currently off the table, that question will likely be decided on the battlefield. Thanks to the Ukrainian army’s unexpectedly (to the West) good performance, an absolute Russian conquest now seems improbable. But a war that grinds on for years, as some of the more dire projections predict, could be nearly as devastating, reducing Ukraine to a depopulated, economically moribund shell. At the other end of the scale, Ukrainians dream of a coup in the Kremlin or of a Russian military collapse that gives them all their old territory back, including Donetsk and Luhansk. (They are not quite as “maximalist” about Crimea, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in early April.) Perhaps one of these things will happen; the Kremlin and the Ukrainian army both have a way of springing surprises. But far likelier is an emerging stalemate toward the end of the year, with the Russian army digging in as the autumn rains start. A new line of contact, taking in some or all of the east and its Black Sea coast, would take hold, as the two sides settled back into semi-frozen conflict. Such an outcome would be dismal and radically unjust. But barring a dramatic change of tack by Moscow—or unexpected gains by increasingly well-armed Ukrainian forces in the east—it seems highly plausible. How much territory Russia takes and holds will depend largely on whether Russian forces or their Ukrainian counterparts are able to re-arm the quickest. Hence U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s call, at a meeting with donor nations on April 26, for weapons and supplies to be sent to Ukraine “at the speed of war.”
Assuming a return to long-term frozen conflict, Ukraine’s leaders will be confronted by a particular set of challenges. For one thing, the country that emerges will have to remain defense oriented. In a press conference on April 5, Zelensky talked about Ukraine becoming “a big Israel.” As he explained, “We will have representatives of the armed forces or the national guard in cinemas, in supermarkets. … Security will be issue number one for the next ten years.” The comparison may have been aimed at the Israeli government, which has been ambivalent about sanctioning Russia. But it struck a chord at home, too. As Dmytro Natalukha, a prominent young member of Parliament, told me: “We’ll have to stay very militarized, we’ll have to stay strong on IT, and very integrated with the West—in banking, trade and everything else.”
A long, grinding war could reduce Ukraine to a depopulated, economically moribund shell.
The idea of centering Ukraine’s future economy on information technology is not fanciful. Before the current war, Kyiv, Lviv, and Kharkiv were all fast-growing tech hubs, employing around 200,000 developers and accounting for more than eight percent of GDP. Ukraine boasted five billion-dollar tech startups, the best known of them Grammarly, the prose-improving app. Information technology is also an important part of the war effort. Ukrainian hackers spar with the enemy online, and apps warn people of air raids, allow them to register the location of Russian troops and vehicles, and even enable them to post information about potential war crimes. Open-source investigators identify and track enemy units. (In one example, a Ukrainian man followed the Russian soldiers who had looted his house using the “Find My” function for his stolen earphones.) Many programmers have also been able to keep earning despite the war, often doing wartime volunteer work during the day and their usual, offshore jobs at night. One London-based venture capitalist recently reported that nearly all the 100-plus programmers working for the startups he was investing in have continued to deliver on their assignments and are asking for more. Some are doing this even from besieged Kharkiv.
Other sectors of the economy are doing far worse. As of April, the World Bank estimated that just repairing damaged infrastructure and buildings would cost about $60 billion. Another enormous job will be clearing unexploded ordnance. The British landmine-clearing charity, the HALO Trust, which has been at work in Ukraine for six years, estimates it could take decades. Before the war, HALO teams worked to help the country clear rural areas of mine belts left over from Russia’s 2014 seizure of Donetsk and Luhansk. But their new task—sifting through collapsed apartment blocks for rockets, bombs, artillery shells, and cluster munitions the size of tennis balls—will be much harder.
And if Ukraine loses control of its entire Black Sea coast, especially the important port of Odessa, it will have to reroute by land the bulky commodity exports—particularly grain—on which much of its economy depends.
Even as Ukraine searches for new sources of revenue, it will also face the challenge of spending wisely what it already has. Since the war began, Western leaders have been almost silent on the question of corruption. But ever since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, corruption has been endemic, especially in the public sector, and the problem is unlikely to get better with an influx of postwar aid. Although Ukraine’s political culture is a world away from Russia’s—it has free media, unpredictable elections, and a vibrant civil society—it has been unable to shake some Soviet-era practices. Daily life, from getting a doctor’s appointment to top marks in a university exam, is routinely eased by personal contacts or bribes. The courts and prosecution service are lazy and politicized, and oligarchs often pull strings from behind the scenes. Odessa in particular is known for organized crime.
In the years before the invasion, international pressure succeeded in pushing through some reforms in Kyiv, including an online government procurement system, a National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and a new High Anti-Corruption Court vetted by foreign jurists. But in 2021, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index still ranked Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries, tying it with Eswatini and ranking it only a few places ahead of Russia itself. Last November, Zelensky signed new anti-oligarch legislation into law but then made sure that its first target was his political rival and predecessor as president, the confectionary mogul Petro Poroshenko. The problems have continued even during the war. Although the international press reported it only briefly, in March Hungarian customs officers discovered $28 million in cash in the luggage of the wife of a former Ukrainian parliamentarian.
But many younger Ukrainians hope that the chance to build a new country out of the ashes of war will jolt the establishment into reforms that really bite. One possibility is that reconstruction money could be overseen by an independent board, bypassing the government altogether. As a 23-year-old computer programmer explains, unlike his parents’ generation, young people refuse to take corruption for granted. “A woman who works in the tax office buys a brand new Ford,” he said. “My father says, ‘She works in the tax office. Why shouldn’t she?’ But I say, ‘Why should she?’”
Equally great is the question of whose country the new Ukraine will be. Although it has been little discussed until now, many in Kyiv are concerned that the more than five million Ukrainians who have left the country since February—one of the most rapid exoduses anywhere in the world since the end of the Cold War—will not all return. By the latest estimates, nearly three million Ukrainians have gone to Poland alone. And since men between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave, the refugees are overwhelmingly women and children. Though the western city of Lviv is crammed with families from farther east—on a warm spring evening, crowds of children scoot about its central Freedom Square—in Kyiv there is hardly a child to be seen. If fighting continues, the United Nations expects another three million will leave by the end of the year. Altogether, that would represent 20 percent of Ukraine’s pre-invasion population, and it would leave behind a skewed demographic, in particular a deficit of working-age women.
To persuade people to come home again, the government in Kyiv will have to provide them with jobs. As Natalukha, the young parliamentarian, said, refugees “will come back out of patriotism, but if after a month, a year, they can’t find work, they’ll have to leave again.” Forward-looking nongovernmental organizations already see themselves in a race to restart the country before refugees build permanent new lives abroad. “Every week,” the co-founder of a Lviv-based social entrepreneurship fund told me, “maybe 50,000 people are leaving forever.” Others complained that international organizations like the Red Cross are needlessly helping people who are in Lviv, which is safe, to go to Poland. But another driver of the outflow is education. Ukrainian schools have been closed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now even those that are far from the fighting have been commandeered as temporary housing for internally displaced people. At best, children—those remaining in the country as well as those who have fled abroad—have some online instruction. If European countries manage to come up with new school places for Ukrainian refugee children, and those children settle into them happily, that will provide a strong incentive for families to stay abroad. The opposition deputy Alyona Shkrum (also Natalukha’s wife) thinks the Ukrainian government should legalize dual citizenship; otherwise, people may be forced to choose between their job and their passport. Better to encourage workers to come and go, she argues, paying taxes and maintaining links to the mother country even if they are primarily employed abroad.
The extraordinary population upheaval, however, could ultimately bring benefits. Given its large population and relatively low income levels, it remains highly unlikely that Ukraine will be granted full membership in the European Union any time soon. But the population outflows have created important European ties of their own. As a result of the war, a generation of young Ukrainians has not only been forced to be exceptionally resourceful and adaptable, many of them are also developing crucial foreign contacts and language skills—capacities that will prove especially useful if the EU makes good on promises to give Ukraine some of the benefits of union ties.
Poland, in particular, sees itself forging a new partnership with Ukraine. Even before the current war, Poland was home to more than a quarter of a million Ukrainian guest workers, and as that number has ballooned with the arrival of millions of refugees, the potential for larger economic ties between the countries is already clear. Ukrainian workers have filled the same sort of role in the Polish economy that Poles themselves did, pre-Brexit, in the British economy. Both sides stress the broad sympathy Ukrainians have drawn from the Polish public. As Jacek Stawiski, a Polish broadcaster, puts it: “We simply do not see our own independence as safe unless Ukraine is secure. Of course there will be tensions, and marginal politicians who try to capitalize on them, but I really don’t think it’s an issue.”
With large swaths of Ukraine’s cities damaged or destroyed, a more immediate problem will be fixing the country’s physical infrastructure. Alexander Shevchenko, an urban planner who until now consulted on regeneration in the rust-belt and already war-blighted east, has pulled together more than 100 professionals to start thinking about how to rebuild Ukraine as a whole. Members of his team are looking into methods already developed in Sweden for recycling concrete rubble; others are considering ways of preventing new settlements of displaced people in the west of the country from turning into ghettos. The destruction also presents an opportunity to rethink how new urban districts are designed, and make them more community-minded and less clogged with traffic.
Not all of these dreams—of security, a thriving modern economy, returning families, well-planned new cities—are likely to come true. (Shevchenko puts the chance of a real cleanup of corrupt local planning departments at 30 to 40 percent.) But the fact that they are being discussed at all, even as a brutal war continues to unfold, shows how determined Ukrainians are to win, and how their unity and sense of identity has been strengthened by the Russian threat. Natalukha said that he views the country not as a wreck but as “a sandbox,” meaning a place for experiments. “There’s no conventional way to restore a country half of whose GDP has been destroyed,” he said. “We’re in a situation where everything is acceptable—the most incredible ideas, the boldest concepts.”