Ukraine has become a European war with Asian consequences.
The west, led by America, is driven by two objectives in its support for Ukraine. The first is incontrovertible. A nation state is the new building block of global stability, and any violent transgression of borders can trigger a domino effect as it legitimizes unilateral expansionism. The remedy lies in prevention.
The second objective is inspired by the NATO impulse: to weaken Russia in Europe. This is strategic fallacy.
You cannot weaken Russia where it is not strong.
Russia lost Europe with the Soviet collapse in 1991. Since then, its muscular atrophy along the advancing NATO frontier has become pronounced. The Kremlin is now in the paradoxical position of being a nuclear superpower without being a regional power. Russia can still destroy the world in five minutes. Ukraine, not quite so quickly.
Russia can be weakened where it is still strong: in Russian Asia. Eight of its ten time zones and 77% of its territory are in Asia, traversing some 5000 km eastwards from the Urals and Caucasus to the Bering straits and the Pacific ocean.
Despite more than a decade of continual war since 1994, Moscow holds the Muslim north Caucasus in a tight grip. In Central Asia it has reestablished degrees of influence through patient diplomacy and variable military presence. In Siberia and Outer Manchuria it exercises sovereignty through rights embedded in Tsarist colonialism. Vladimir Lenin killed the Romanovs in 1918 after the Bolshevik revolution, but kept their empire.
Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister in 1999, began to pick up the pieces of a shattered decade, saving what he could from the Soviet debris while searching for a defensive line against NATO’s relentless and ruthless advance. The NATO adjectives are not pejorative. Powers which become sentimental do not remain powerful. Stalin was hardly overwhelmed by tears when he pushed the Soviet perimeter into half of Germany after 1945.
Putin, perhaps lulled by the smooth acquisition of Crimea in 2014, misread the mood during his second invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022. His mistake was overestimation of Russia’s military prowess. This is clearly not Stalin’s Red Army. Russia will in all likelihood hold on to a slice of eastern Ukraine when the firing ceases, but the reputation of the Russian army has been dented. Invincible, it is not.
The neighbourhood is doing the math.
Russia is growing vulnerable in three of its Asian regions: in north Caucasus, where there is always the possibility of renewed conflict; in Central Asia, but with less dramatic consequences; and in its far east, across the vast Siberian steppes spread over 13.1 million sq. km., or one-tenth of the earth’s territory, but home to only one-fifth of Russia’s population, or some 37 million people at the last count.
The Caucasus range running south of Ukraine and east of Turkiye is considered the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. The Caucasus states, a network of ethnic identities, are wedged between the Black and Caspian seas. In 1991, three of them, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan swept to independence on the tide of change that changed the map of Europe and Asia. But this tide stopped short of North Caucasus. Moscow denied Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushtia independence. When their people elected the nationalist Major General Dzokhar Dudayev as president of the Chechen-Ingush Republic in October 1991, President Boris Yeltsin sent troops to “reestablish order”.
The Muslim Caucasus has fought long and hard for freedom since the Tsarist advance two centuries ago. The first War of Caucasian Resistance, called a jihad by Muslims, lasted from 1817 to 1864. In 1832 the iconic Shaykh Shamil [1797-1871], third Imam of the Dagestan Imamate, took over leadership of the jihad. The memory of this legendary guerrilla commander lives on in lore. The Russians conquered Dagestan and Chechnya only in 1859, but fighting continued until Imam Shamil was captured. St Petersburg treated him well, giving him a palatial residence in, ironically, Kyiv. Two of Shamil’s sons joined the Tsar; two others served in the Ottoman army. In 1869 he was given permission to go on haj, and died in Medina after completing the pilgrimage. He was buried in the garden of Paradise.
When, in less than 50 years, the Tsars were overthrown, Imam Shamil’s grandson Said became one of the founders of the Mountainous Republic of Northern Caucasus. Freedom lasted a brief three years. In 1920 Moscow was back, this time waving a red flag. Forced into exile, Said Shamil set up the Committee for Independence in 1924.
When independence was again denied in 1991, the separatist jihad revived by the winter of 1994. Its most prominent leader, Akhmad Abdulkhamidovich Kadyrov, was appointed chief mufti of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in 1995. The Kadyrovs had been deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin, and returned home in 1957, after Stalin’s death. Born in 1951, Akhmad studied at the famous Mir-i-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara and the Islamic University at Tashkent. He summed up his theory of war in two pithy sentences: “There are a million Chechens, and 150 million Russians. If every Chechen kills 150 Russians, we will win.” That bruising spirit was a hallmark of the mujahideen, who called themselves grey wolves, in the Chechen conflicts of that decade.
Russian morale was in quicksand when Putin, a year younger than Khadyrov, became Prime Minister on the last day of 1999 and President on 7 May 2000. In a serious of attacks Chechens spread havoc in Moscow, taking a heavy toll of Russian blood and will. Putin split the Chechen resistance through a deal with Kadyrov. Kadyrov became head of Chechnya’s government in the summer of 2000, and was named President of the Chechen Republic on 5 October 2003. Eight months later he was dead. On 9 May 2004, an explosion shattered the VIP enclosure during the Russian Victory Parade in Grozny, killing Kadyrov instantly. The attack had been ordered by a former colleague in the jihad, Shamil Basayev.
Putin kept his commitment to the family, appointing Akhmad’s young son Ramzan as President in 2007. Ramzan Kadyrov has been loyal to Putin, sending troops to the Ukraine battlefront. Helped by generous funds from Moscow, he has turned Grozny into a vibrant city, resplendent with mosque spires. A principal mosque is named after his father.
Those tall spires, and indeed the long beards that Ramzan and his supporters wear, are a reminder that there is an older identity waiting for its moment. The spirit of independence has been subdued but not suppressed. It is not widely known that a battalion of Chechens is fighting on Ukraine’s side. They are not apolitical mercenaries. They are the grey wolves now risking their lives to weaken Russia, for their hopes of independence lie in a degradation of Russia’s ability to defend its protectorates.
Demographics tell the story: 94% of Chechnya, 97% of Ingushetia, 83% of Dagestan, 70% of Kabardino-Balkaria, and 64% of Karachay-Cherkessia is Muslim. One in six Crimeans is a Tatar. At 20 million, there are more Muslims in the Russian Federation than in Malaysia.
Unspoken questions hover over northern Caucasus. The central one is: can the present Russian army, which promised to seize Kyiv within days and now sits behind deep minefields, survive another Chechen war, particularly if the Chechens are allied to Ukraine?
A number of Russian “autonomous republics” or “federal states” hang on to Moscow by a silken thread. Strong, but not steel. One switch could electrify this volatile space seething with currents, undercurrents and crosscurrents.
What happens in Russia does not stay in Russia.
ACROSS THE CASPIAN
Caucasian volatility will not travel from Dagestan on the west coast of the Caspian to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on the eastern shores because the five ‘stans’ took their independence in 1991 and have preserved it. The Communist USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was very socialist and theoretically soviet, but not much of a union. The Soviet Union constituted the largest Asian territorial since Chengiz Khan. That age of hegemony was replaced by an informal Russian umbrella over Central Asia. This has been punctured after Ukraine. Just as its war in Iraq eroded fear of future American military intervention, Ukraine has nullified dread of any Russian intervention in the ‘stans’.
The five heads were at the Kremlin on 9 May this year: Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Turkmenistan’s Serdar Berdimuhamedow. But they went to be heard as much as to listen. The language of discourse had changed.
Tokayev reflected the difference when he distanced himself from Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022. In an unscripted answer to a question from the floor, he said: “There are different opinions, we have an open society. Modern international law is the UN Charter. Two UN principles, however, have come into contradiction – the territorial integrity of the state and the right of a nation to self-determination…”. He added that “if the right of a nation to self-determination is realized, more than 500 states will emerge on Earth and there will be chaos…”. He could not resist taking a swipe at Russian parliamentarians who wanted to meddle in Kazakh affairs. He also praised China for investing over $22 bn in Kazakhstan over the past 15 years and becoming his country’s the main economic and foreign trade partner.
Sitting calmly in the waiting room of superpowers, President Xi Jinping hosted the second China-led Central Asia summit in May this year at Xian, capital of the Han dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD. He called the conference the highlight of China’s diplomatic calendar in 2023. One fact is obvious. The only nation which can fill the vacuum left by Russia’s retreat is China.
THE MAP OF SHAME
Memory is everything and time is nothing in Chinese political cosmography.
In 1820, the 25th year of the reign of Jiaqing the Great, China published a map of its empire. In the south it extended to Ladakh, which reached Nepal. The province of Tibet included Arunachal Pradesh. Nepal, Bhutan and Assam were marked as tributary states. In the west, Afghanistan, Bukhara, Kirkiz-Kazhak and swathes of Central Asia beyond the Pamirs and Xinjiang were also tributaries. The northern limits reached Altai, Mongolia, the whole of Manchuria and the Sakhalin islands. The Qings, of course, were Manchu; Manchurians ruled China from 1616.
Great as the Qing dominion was, it was less than the sum of Chinese claims. If Mongolia was part of China then so was the Mongol Khanate of Sibir, the original term for Siberia, also known as the Khanate of Turan, established by Genghiz Khan’s eldest son Jochi, and Jochi’s fifth son Shayban. The Turco-Mongol-Tatar Sibir became the world’s northernmost Muslim state after its conversion to Islam from shamanism. Russia conquered Sibir in 1598, but reached Chukotka on the Bering Strait only in 1778. Tribes like the Buryats, Yakuts, Tuvans, Altais, Khakas and Khitans still live in this vast expanse.
Qing power began to decline with the loss of Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, at the end of the first opium war. Sixteen years later, in 1858, Russia took Outer Manchuria. The ebb made no difference to China’s sense of its boundaries. Conversely, it vitalized a desire for repossession that transcended differences of polity. Sun Yat Sen, who led the movement to remove the last emperor in 1911, made the Qing map into China’s national project. In 1938 the Chiang Kai-shek government published a “map of shame” showing parts of China and its tributaries seized by Russia, west Europeans, and Japan: north-east Asia, Senkaku and Nansei islands, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, Ladakh-Kashmir and of course Central Asia.
The past was never forgotten. Communist China waited till 1997 to recover Hong Kong from the British after 155 years. China recovered the part of Manchuria taken by Japan in 1931, but Outer Manchuria is still in Russia. China claims that Russia took a million square kilometres of territory in Manchuria and another half a million elsewhere from the Qings.
Beijing has gone to war against Russia over Manchuria twice since 1858. In 1929 the Chinese Northeastern Army went on the offensive. Stalin deployed 156,000 troops, or one-fifth of its total forces, to hold his ground. Amity between Communist regimes in Beijing and Moscow diluted border tensions but did not eliminate them. In 1964 Beijing raised Manchuria in talks, arguing that Russia had imposed an unjust frontier upon the Qings. When nothing happened, Mao Zedong ordered a troop build-up. On 23 August 1968, Premier Zhou Enlai, who could turn a phrase, castigated the Soviet Union for “fascist politics, great power chauvinism, national egoism and social imperialism” at a banquet held at the Romanian embassy in Beijing. China attacked on 9 March 1969 in Ussuri and Xinjiang. The war halted only in September after negotiations between Premiers Chou Enlai and Alexei Kosygin restored the status quo.
There were two significant outcomes. Mao Zedong’s détente with Richard Nixon in 1970 was a direct consequence. The second never made the headlines, and is still secretive. China initiated a drip-feed of emigration to the region to reset the demographic balance in the far east. It was a formidable ploy for Russia has ensured, mainly through deportations and forced transfer of populations, that 85% of the region is of European descent in the Siberian expanse.
The prize is inestimable. Siberia is the mother lode of mineral wealth. The bright lights of European Russia are sustained by the resources of Asian Russia. Asia contributes 90% if not more of Russia’s mineral oil, gas and mineral wealth. Siberia has immense resources of oil, natural gas, hydropower, coal, copper, timber, lead, zinc, bauxite, nickel, tin, mercury, platinum, titanium, manganese, potash, uranium, cobalt, tungsten, aluminium, mica, amber, iron ore, tobacco, gold and diamonds. The West Siberian Basin is the largest known hydrocarbon basin with reserves of 146 billion barrels of oil and 1600 trillion cubic feet of gas. It contains – for those interested in quiz answers – 107 giant fields have been discovered since 2019. The point made, we can spare ourselves further details.
This is not a prelude to any sudden outburst of war between Russia and China, currently basking in a diplomatic embrace as they cooperate against a common foe, America. But equations have shifted. Moscow has slipped from its perch as big brother.
And China will return to the northern map once it has played out the end-game for Taiwan.
THE DRAGON BUTTERFLY EFFECT
As Xi Jinping left Kremlin on the night of Tuesday 21 March 2023 after a two-day State visit he told Putin: “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years and we are driving this change together.” The two smiled, clasped hands.
“I agree,” replied Putin.
Xi’s last words before he stepped into the limousine were: “Please take care, dear friend.”
One aspect of change might have suggested itself to President Putin. Xi Jinping was at the wheel, while he manned the frontlines.
The Chinese leader implied more than he said. He might have described the relationship with Russia as a “limitless” partnership but both knew that the 20th century was finally over. America and Russia looked exhausted. The superpowers of the 20th century had become the Nervous Powers of the 21st.
America made a crucial mistake during its triumphant mood in the 1990s. Spurred by spurious academic cheerleaders it began to believe that because Russia had diminished, America had risen. This misconception was corrected in Afghanistan and Iraq, where America misplaced its nerve. President Barack Obama spent eight becalmed years in the White House, hypnotized by the price of conflict. Donald Trump’s vocal belligerence stopped short of action. It was Trump who invited the Taliban back, through talks in Qatar. America still has an estimated 800-plus bases in more than 70 countries, at an annual cost of around $200 bn, but its boots seem frozen in the mind. [Russia, Britain, France and China together have less than 40].
American strategic mobility seems to have been transferred from Pentagon’s tank commanders to Washington’s think-tank commanders. Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s Secretary of State, was an advocate of the Creative Chaos Theory, an ornate phrase meaning that a new polity could rise only on the ashes of the system it had replaced. Change required total destruction and the resultant chaos. Someone else’s eggs had to be broken to make an American omelette. George Bush dreamt of a big omelette. At the G8 summit in 2004, he spoke of a “Greater Middle East” that included Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan living cosily in the happy fold of Pax Americana. What the “old” Middle East learnt from Iraq and the Arab spring was that Washington could not be trusted as principal guarantor of stability.
This set, albeit initially in slow motion, the stage for the “dragon butterfly effect”. The wings of this species flutter to the timbre of Chinese music. When Xi Jinping spoke of change of a kind that has not happened in a hundred years he could have had China’s diplomatic coup in West Asia. For the first time since the end of World War 1 in 1918, a western power was not the primary arbiter of events in the Arab world.
On March 10 this year Saudi Arabia, Iran and China issued a joint statement restoring relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The venue for the historic handshake was Beijing, not Camp David in America. President Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud left America blindsided. The implicit message was that Washington had kept the two apart at serious cost to the neighbourhood.
This pirouette might never have happened if America’s Democrats had not alienated and even humiliated the Saudi heir for reasons of domestic politics. When history recovers from media soundbites, Biden will have to answer the question he currently evades: What price is America paying for his treatment of Mohammed bin Salman?
Riyadh has not suddenly turned pro-Beijing or anti-American. Bin Salman is establishing, for the first time in many centuries, strategic autonomy, weaving it out of dependence. His conference on Ukraine in August, in which China was present but Russia excluded, was one more example.
China is less concerned with cause and more with effect. Its current focus is on an axis from Beijing to Riyadh, while a second curves from the Gulf to include the principal regional military powers including Iran and Syria. Syria, Iran and Russia are linked by complementary interests. On 19 March UAE’s ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan received Syrian President Bashar Assad in Abu Dhabi with full state honours. On the same day Riyadh invited Iran’s President Raisi to Saudi. These are still early days, but this could be the beginning of a radical shift away from the bitter confrontation that has trapped the region since 1979.
High on the agenda is a desire to rewrite the rules of the energy market, find alternatives to the dollar, and establish partnerships in renewable energy, digital economy, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and the industrial internet. China has even proposed a plan for Palestine, which may be a quest too far. Political graveyards are full of reputations clutching a peace plan for Palestine.
The Saudi initiative on Palestine could lead to better results, not least because it seeks incremental steps rather than solutions. Riyadh has made any revaluation of relations with Israel contingent upon Israeli concessions in Palestine. The broader framework is bilateral and regional. In June the Saudi ambassador to America Princess Reema bint al Saud said that her country wanted a thriving Red Sea economy with a prosperous Palestine and a prosperous Israel as part of her leader’s Vision 2030.
Aggressive language is a measure of China’s current confidence. On 5 July this year ‘wolf warrior’ Wang Yi, the now revived Foreign Minister and father of wolf-warrior diplomacy, told Japan and South Korea to foster “strategic autonomy” and “revitalise Asia” as a counterpoint to the West. Speaking at a trilateral forum in Qingdao, he said: “No matter how blonde you dye your hair, how sharp you shape your nose, you can never become a European or America, you can never become a Westerner…We must know where our roots lie…”. He told the two American allies to free themselves from “coercion of bullying and hegemony”.
He has given no such lectures to Delhi. At least, not yet.
INDIA, CHINA AND THE GIN LINES
A straight line is the shortest distance between two glasses of gin.
That is how Europeans drew the maps of their colonies in Africa and much of Asia, turning the natural geography of human habitation into one-dimensional lines. This legacy has segued with national ambitions of post-colonial states to create contested spaces that simmer with tension.
China’s priority for reunification is Taiwan, annexed by the Qings in 1683 and occupied by Japan in 1895. In 1949 it became home to the Chiang Kai-shek regime, which claimed to be the real China. Xi Jinping has linked his credibility and future to reunification by 2027. If he cannot deliver in his third term, a fourth becomes difficult. If he does, he will lead China through the 2030s.
One characteristic of superpower rivalry was the division of the world into ‘obedience’ clusters. NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were the most obvious instances of quasi-colonization wrapped in economic benevolence. Two confident powers, India and China, stayed out of any “obedience” zone. China has been unwilling or unable to admit that India has an independent mind. Beijing is still in thrall of Mao Zedong’s dictum that India was a “running dog” of western imperialism. In Xi Jinping’s calculations, India’s participation in Quad is confirmation of the Mao canard.
China therefore has consistently viewed India as an obstacle to its rise. Mao Zedong was irritated by Jawaharlal Nehru’s patrician patronage rather than grateful. Nehru, more idealistic than realistic, told BBC in 1953 that he saw “absolutely no danger from China”, adding “I don’t think China has any desire to expand”. He was woken up in 1962.
China attacked across the Himalaya to punch India down into a lower division. As often happens, it had the opposite effect. The defeat of 1962 set India free from the Nehru peace jinx. India tripled its defence budget in 1963 and set a course for rearmament that has made it into one of the world’s premier military powers.
Pakistan was the first country to discover the muscle of a different India when in 1965 it tried to seize Kashmir through war and instead lost Kashmir forever. Since then, Pakistan has descended into a jelly state, neither able to stay stable nor disintegrate, quivering on the rim of helplessness. China can do little to help a hapless ally.
For Xi Jinping, the Quad is a direct threat to China’s plans for Taiwan, and hence it is time for the military containment of India. He has, in effect, three years left. His game of matchsticks and sulphur needs reinforcement by military heft.
A week after securing a third term, Xi Jinping pledged to turn China’s standing army of two million into a “Great Wall of Steel”. They had to be fit to fight on high roads, rough waves and perilous stormy seas. The high roads are the Himalayas, the rough waves and perilous seas lie in the Indo-Pacific. China has therefore invested heavily in light tanks for mountain roads; sophisticated submarines; an amphibious assault arsenal; cyber-and-space capability; and a ballistic missile force.
Will Xi Jinping invade Taiwan and risk war on the Third Front of Asia? Only the Chinese leader can provide a firm answer, and he is not in the habit of giving interviews. Moreover, invasion would be akin to an assault on his own country, killing fellow Chinese citizens and destroying Chinese industrial infrastructure.
There is an option outside the conventional box that would tempt him: raise the levels of confrontation in stages till the threat is palpable, and America is forced to send its navy or seem impotent. He then orders a blockade, not as the first act of a Chinese invasion but ostensibly to prevent an “American invasion” of Chinese territory. If Taiwan is Chinese then ipso facto American troops and warships in Taiwan constitute an American invasion. That is as good a cassus belli as he is likely to find.
Xi Jinping would then wait for media to ratchet up the dread factor, while ensuring that Taiwan’s supply chains are cut, particularly of semi-conductors. Simultaneously, his diplomats would remind the world that it has already accepted the single-China option, which is why Beijing is in the Security Council. All that the United Nations could do was appeal for a peaceful resolution. In November 2022, British defence secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Lords: “It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China…it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that”. A blockade would meet the “peace” requirement since China would not fire the first shot. It would be ready to return fire.
Would Washington risk a full-scale war by breaking the blockade? These are the known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s appropriate terminology. What we do know is that a Chinese climbdown would lead to a contagious meltdown on a scale last seen in 1990.
Compromise would be the intelligent way out. Xi Jinping would be ready to accept a Hong Kong solution. His purpose would have been met. The red flag would fly over Taiwan.
With Beijing getting fulsome support from Russia, its old and new friends, and indeed all those who have argued on behalf of the territorial integrity of a nation state, the odds on Taiwan becoming a second Hong Kong are higher than a Chinese meltdown or total war. America would be damaged in the process, but a relieved world would quickly get on with other business.
Lenin noted that there were decades when nothing happened, and weeks when decades happened. Ukraine has pushed us into the Lenin cycle. The decades are beginning to unfold.
As rising powers claim the attention of the 21st century, India and China will become leaders of different models of progress. India’s transition into an economic giant through the uncertainties of liberal democracy is an attractive alternative to authoritarian arguments locked in the assumption that political stability is essential for equitable economic growth. In the various struggles across a fraught globe for independence, inheritance, territorial integrity and a high place in the emerging world order, the future of freedom is also at stake.