Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.03.28

Two serious miscalculations: Strategic for Putin and tactical for Xi

Russia's Ukraine mistake may turn out to be China's gain

the japan times on March 18, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. China Russia

Four days prior to Russia’s armed invasion of Ukraine, I wrote in this column about President Vladimir Putin’s misguided logic and justifications for his actions. As early as Feb. 25, immediately after the invasion, I started calling Putin’s decision to go to war against Ukraine a “strategic misjudgment.”

That said, Putin is not the only politician on the planet who miscalculated the politico-military situation in Ukraine.

One such leader is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who must have regretted stating in the Feb. 4 Russia-China joint statement that “the friendship between the two states has no limits.”

As I wrote in my previous column, “The worst kind of mistake in politics is a fatal mistake that is not only irreversible but also extremely detrimental to the nation,” and that “fatal mistakes are often made out of intuition, coincidence or misjudgment.” China’s Xi, of course, is no exception.

Putin’s strategic miscalculation

Before the crisis erupted in Ukraine, many Russia hands in Japan had predicted that at the end of the day, it would be highly unlikely that Putin would use force against Ukraine. Some even asserted in a matter-of-fact way that there were so many good reasons why Putin would never invade its neighbor in 2022.

Those Russia hands, or foreign policy experts, who failed to predict the invasion can be divided into three groups. The first are those who remain silent. The second are those who publicly admit that they did not foresee the armed attack.

I prefer the second to the first. The Mainichi Shimbun’s Moscow bureau chief, for example, reported on Feb. 25 that “Now that Putin has decided to launch a military invasion, I have no choice but to confess that my outlook was wrong.” I commend this kind of intellectual honesty.

As for me, I was lucky, on Feb. 20, to be able to somehow state in this column that “If the U.S. and NATO make concessions, that will put Moscow one step closer to achieving its strategic objectives. Still, even if NATO does not concede anything, Russia may seek to use its military to seize parts of Ukraine for future negotiations.”

That said, it is the third category of experts whom I most highly respect. They not only regret that they made a serious analytical mistake, but have also sincerely tried to examine why they miscalculated Putin’s intentions.

The best such example in my view is Rodger Baker, a senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform.

Baker noted that “I was wrong about Ukraine. I concluded that the Russians would constrain their activity to the east of the Dnieper River. The central reason for my miscalculation was that I emphasized strategic logic and failed to adequately consider political ideology.” I fully concur with this thoughtful analysis.

Xi’s tactical misjudgment

Compared to Putin’s strategic miscalculation, Xi’s misjudgment was just tactical and not as fatal as his Russian counterpart.

The biggest mistake that China might have made before the invasion was that Beijing probably predicted that with the Russian blitzkrieg, Kyiv would fall within days and NATO would lose control of the situation.

That is probably one of the reasons why China boldly stated in the joint statement that the China-Russia friendship “has no limits” and there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. Beijing’s initial tone of semiunconditional support for Moscow has been gradually watered down.

While the United States and Russia are engaged in mudslinging over Ukraine, China, a third party, now seems to be trying to reap the benefits. The Chinese leadership is trying to distance China from the crisis in Ukraine while carefully avoiding criticism against Putin.

2001 deja vu

Beijing’s efforts to weather the Ukrainian crisis reminded me of U.S.-China relations after the Sept.11 attacks in 2001.

While then-U.S. President George W. Bush was reviewing his China policies, Beijing took advantage of the crisis in the Middle East and managed to avoid a U.S.-China bilateral confrontation.

China seems to be trying to do the same this year. The United States does not have the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously and China benefits most if Washington remains bogged down with events in Europe or the Middle East, thus my feelings of deja vu.

China’s strategy is crystal clear. Despite its initial misjudgment about the capabilities of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, Beijing has changed its tactics to maximize its national interest by seeking to revive bilateral cooperation with Washington while maintaining its partnership with Moscow.

From Beijing’s perspective, if Russia manages to survive the crisis in Ukraine, it would keep the United States bogged down in Europe for years. If Putin fails to achieve his objectives in Ukraine and becomes politically paralyzed, that might be a good thing as well. It would not necessarily be bad for Beijing if a weakened Russia grew more dependent on China.

With all things considered, Beijing may believe that China will ultimately survive the crises and become the final winner in the ongoing global contest among the three major powers. Japan, together with the United States, Australia and other like-minded democracies should never repeat the fatal mistake of 2001.