'A Fateful Error'

As the 1904 cartoon from Puck magazine shows, this isn’t the first time in the past 100 or so years that Russia has shattered the peace. [Or has been defeated, as it was in 1905 by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War.]



February 17, 2022
'A Fateful Error'
The Face Off

Many have written that the Ukraine invasion will distract the Biden administration from its focus on China.

  • I can’t speak for the administration, but it has certainly distracted me.

I am by turns appalled to see a free people about to be subjugated by a tyrant and elated by the incredible courage of Ukraine’s leadership and people.

  • I could have devoted this entire issue to the latter.

As the 1904 cartoon from Puck magazine shows, this isn’t the first time in the past 100 or so years that Russia has shattered the peace. [Or has been defeated, as it was in 1905 by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War.]

  • The difference between then and now is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia - with not much, except oil, nukes, hackers, and a willingness to attack a neighbor unprovoked – can’t do much to threaten peace on a large scale.

The same can’t be said for his buddy, Xi Jinping.

  • Mr. Xi has the vision, the will, and the capability to change the world and the world order.
  • But, as he watches, over just this past week, Mr. Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the world's reactions, it is likely that Mr. Xi is rethinking issues from how close should China be to Russia; to how to deal with a much-galvanized band of democratic allies; to how the world would react to an invasion of Taiwan; and more.

In 1997 George Kennan called the expansion of NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries 'a fateful error.'

  • And, if Mr. Putin is to be believed, that expansion is one of the reasons why Russian troops are in Ukraine today.
  • [And also the reason why he won't be able to invade eastward beyond Ukraine.]

In 2022, though, the fateful error may be Mr. Putin's invasion.

  • We will see. The world is watching.

As George Soros says, ‘It’s amazing how fast things can change.’

1 | ‘It’s amazing how fast things can change.’

George Soros, commenting on last week’s CHINAMacroReporter, ‘Under Construction: Two (Opposing) World Orders,’ wrote me:

  • ‘Dr. Beckley’s predictions were upended by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with the objective of destroying its army.’

‘Xi and Putin were closely allied with Xi as the older brother.’

  • ‘But the invasion will drive them apart.

‘At the same time, the US and Europe were quite far apart.’

  • ‘This has also turned around.’

‘Unfortunately, Putin may achieve his military objective but politically he has weakened not only himself but also Xi Jinping.’

  • ‘It’s amazing how fast things can change.’

There’s a lot to unpack in Dr. Soros pithy statement.

  • Here is my take on a just few of his insights.

[BTW, ‘Dr. Beckley’s predictions’ refers to my quotes from Michael Beckley of Tufts’ ‘Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order’ in the last CHINAMacroReporter, ‘Under Construction: Two (Opposing) World Orders,’ which included: ‘The international order is falling apart….There are only two orders under construction right now—a Chinese-led one and a U.S.-led one….And the contest between the two is rapidly becoming a clash between autocracy and democracy.’]

2 | 'Looks like Putin suckered Xi.'

Especially interesting is Dr. Soros’ comment that ‘the invasion will drive [Russia and China] apart.’

  • This is high stakes.

Remember the primary motivation for President Nixon’s opening to China 50 years ago was to play the ‘China Card’ against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

  • Now, in a turnabout, China appears to be doing the same, except this time Mr. Xi is playing the ‘Russia Card’ against the U.S.
  • So from the U.S. point of view, anything that weakens the China-Russia relationship is a good thing.

Just a few weeks ago, that relationship looked stronger than ever.

  • When Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin met at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February, they issued a joint statement declaring that their countries’ friendship “has no bounds.”
  • Now there’s a question about whether or not Mr. Xi really knew what he was getting into in light of the Ukraine invasion.

‘Mr. Xi’s calculus in signing on to a deeper partnership with Russia’ included ‘the persistent brushing off of the invasion risks,’ according to The Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei in ‘China Adjusts, and Readjusts, Its Embrace of Russia in Ukraine Crisis.’

  • ‘In meeting with Mr. Xi before attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics, say the people close to Beijing’s foreign-policy establishment, the Russian leader shared his grievances against the U.S.—complaints they say deeply resonated with a Chinese leader who has accused Washington of trying to build cliques to hurt China.’
  • ‘But Mr. Putin left his plans for Ukraine out of the conversation.’
  • And, it seems, Mr. Xi may have been under the impression that Mr. Putin did not intend to invade.

‘ “After that statement that ties Xi so closely to Putin, the U.S. and others are bound to punish China for enabling Russia’s aggression,” says Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who now leads the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego, quoted in ‘ “Abrupt Changes”: China Caught in a Bind Over Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine’ by The New York Times’ Chris Buckley.

  • ‘ “But it’s also harder for China to signal to the world that it doesn’t support Russia’s move.” ’
  • ‘ “Looks like Putin suckered Xi.” ’

You have to wonder if Mr. Xi feels the same way.

  • If he does, well, that got to make him think twice the next time he buys a used car from Mr. Putin.

3 | In a Bind

Training to defend Ukraine

Here is more on why the Ukraine invasion may drive Russia and China apart.

‘For more than a decade, Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have forged a respectful, perhaps even warm relationship, reflecting the deepening ties between two world powers that share common cause against American military and economic might,’ writes The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers in ‘Ukraine Invasion Tests the Ties That Bind Putin and Xi.’

  • ‘The invasion of Ukraine could upend all that — or forge, in diplomatic isolation, an alliance that reshapes the world order in the 21st century.

Mr. Buckley again: ‘Russia’s war has put its partner Beijing in a severe bind, including over where it stands on countries’ sovereign rights.’

  • ‘On the one hand, China has long said that the United States and other Western powers routinely trample over other countries, most egregiously in recent times in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. China’s message has been that it is the true guardian of sovereign independence, especially for poorer countries.’
  • ‘On the other hand, Mr. Putin has expected Mr. Xi to accept, if not support, the invasion. Mr. Xi’s government has played along so far, laying responsibility for Europe’s worst war in decades on hubris by the United States. China has also distanced itself from the condemnation of Russia at the United Nations.’

‘Unless the Ukraine crisis is resolved, China will continue performing verbal contortions to try to balance its solidarity with Russia with its declared devotion to the sanctity of the nation-state, experts and former diplomats said.’

  • ‘If the war expands and persists, the costs for China of hemming and hawing over a deadly crisis may grow.’

And Yu Jie of Chatham House in ‘War in Ukraine is a severe test of China’s new axis with Russia’ writes:

  • ‘President Vladimir Putin’s full military escalation in Ukraine has unsettled his seemingly best friend in international affairs, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who has invested in the bilateral relationship personally and politically.’
  • ‘Beijing’s axis with Moscow was recently strengthened during the 2022 Winter Olympics, with their joint declaration to proclaim “their cooperation with no limit”.’
  • ‘However, cooperation would have to come with some substantial limits to avoid undermining Beijing’s own priorities and interests in the eyes of Chinese foreign policy planners.

‘Beijing will have to consider the balance sheet for this current alignment carefully.’

  • ‘If the cost of alignment comes at a far greater price than the actual benefit, Beijing must reach its own conclusion and tread carefully.’
  • ‘Russia’s recklessness serves as a spur for China to rethink its return on its alignment with the Kremlin, and it may wish to minimise the risks associated with Russia’s fraught relations with the west.’

Remember Mr. Putin has been a rogue player for a long time, presiding over a nation whose better days appear to be behind it and - except for oil and nukes and hackers and a willingness to invade a neighbor unprovoked - doesn’t have much of an international footprint or future.

  • Xi’s presides over a country that has been on the rise for decades and has aspirations of world leadership – hanging out a little too closely with Bad Boy Putin could be tough on the reputation.

Just as Prince Hal broke with Falstaff when he became King Henry V, Mr. Xi may have to do the same one day with his best buddy.

4 | The International Order is All Right.

Dr. Soros doesn’t specify which of Dr. Beckley’s predications has been upended.

  • But I can identify one of his assertions that has been upended – and debunked by the reaction to the invasion: ‘The international order is falling apart.’

I wrote about that a week or so ago before the Ukraine invasion.

  • Then, I could sense some shilly-shallying among the allies and had real doubts about whether or not they would stand up to Mr. Putin, other than boots-on-the-ground, which was rightly off the table.
  • As I write today, much of that concern has abated.

Along with the rest of the free world, I watched, rapt, at the speeches by allies and others at the UN Security Council condemning Russian aggression.

  • Just words, but an affirmation of the values of the liberal world order nonetheless.

And many backed up their words with actions.

  • Have a look at the map, above, from a few days ago showing the sanctions imposed – and since then there have more and tougher ones.

Still to my mind, we are still way short of the sanctions we should impose – and of the countries who should be imposing them.

  • But I used to do multilateral diplomatic negotiation for a living – and I realize how tough it is to get countries on board for any given action.
  • Still, I’m standing by for more.

5 | ‘A Fateful Error’

Dr. Soros mentions how the U.S. and Europe ‘were quite far apart,’ but this has also turned around’ with Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • In fact, before this, I had grave doubts that all NATO countries would agree to defend its eastern European members against a Russian invasion – ‘Are we going to risk nuclear war for Estonia?’
  • If the answer were no, would pretty much be the effective end of NATO.
  • No more. Putin has managed to galvanize the one entity he most wanted to weaken.

But what if Estonia weren’t a NATO member in the first place?

  • Just as with Ukraine, no question western countries would not risk nuclear war with Russia to defend a country of otherwise little strategic value and with whom they had no treaty obligations.

Now, though, most of the former Warsaw Pact nations – not the former members of the USSR itself, like Ukraine - are NATO members.

  • So when people ask, ‘Where will Mr. Putin invade next?’ we know that for that reason his options are pretty sparse – unless it is he who wants to risk nuclear by attacking a now firm NATO alliance.

And this is one of Mr. Putin’s complaints and purported motivation for invading Ukraine: NATO - after it promised not to, he asserts – expanded closer and closer to Russia's border, imperiling its security.

  • The map above shows the NATO expansion eastward that began in 1997.

My hero, George Kennan, the architect of America’s ‘containment policy’ against the USSR, called that expansion ‘a fateful error’ in a 1997 New York Times op-ed of the same name. He wrote:

  • ‘In late 1996, the impression was allowed, or caused, to become prevalent that it had been somehow and somewhere decided to expand NATO up to Russia's borders.’
  • ‘Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.’
  • ‘Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.’

To that extent, he was right.

  • We – and, more tragically, the Ukrainian people – are suffering, in part, for that decision today.

What Mr. Kennan didn’t factor into his analysis, however, was the other part: The emergence of a Vladimir Putin, whose motivation, beyond security, is to reclaim, as best he can, the territory of the Soviet Union.

  • As Mr. Putin said in a 2005 speech, ‘The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’
  • And he seems to believe that it is his destiny reverse that catastrophe.

Without NATO’s ‘fateful error,’ we would now be waiting to see which countries from the former empire Mr. Putin will decide to pick off next.

  • And we would be standing by, as we are with Ukraine, not being able to stop him.

Instead, maybe not long from now, I hope, we will be calling Mr. Putin's invasion a fateful error.

  • And the Ukrainian people will be free.



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'A Fateful Error'
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