Behind the Ukraine crisis: a lesson for China


Chinese expert Gao Cheng, at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, analyzes the geopolitical game between the US, Russia, and the European countries in Ukraine over the past years, its deep-seated reasons, and elaborates on the implications of the Ukrainian crisis for China.

On February 21, 2022, Russia recognized the 8-year old breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine as independent states. On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces launched attacks on Ukraine.

Key points
  • Behind the crisis in Ukraine is the historical conflict between the US and Russia in the post-Cold War period. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia tried to establish close relations with the West until the end of 2008.
  • The crisis in Ukraine was the trigger for the rapid deterioration of Russian-US relations. From the abandonment of the US commitment to “no eastern encroachment by NATO”, to the US’s support of pro-U.S. regimes in former Soviet countries, to political infiltration and color revolutions, through to the present Ukraine crisis, Russia’s attitude toward the US changed from one of patience and mild resistance to a strong counterattack.
  • Russia cannot sit back and watch the West control its strategic buffer zone, as NATO’s eastward expansion is a threat to its border security. In particular, Russia cannot allow the US to make Ukraine a military bridgehead to contain Russia.
  • The US has attempted to use Ukraine to keep Russia in check, create tensions between Russia and Europe, and successfully strengthen the security dependence of the EU countries on the United States. However, the US-European trust relationship has also weakened due to the decline of European power and status.
  • The US policy of containing China in the Asia-Pacific region and the policy of continued weakening of Russia in Europe go hand in hand.
  • The contradiction between Russia and China and the US-dominated international environment is one of the key foundations of strategic cooperation between Russia and China, and the crisis in Ukraine is only a further catalyst for promoting Russian-Chinese relations.
  • From a pragmatic perspective, Western sanctions may facilitate Russia’s energy exports to Asia and could enable the strengthening of China-Russia cooperation and the expansion to a number of fields such as finance, high-speed railway construction, agriculture, military technology, and manufacturing.

This article argues that the crisis in Ukraine is actually a new round of adjustment of the international situation after the Cold War.  The U.S seeks to use Ukraine as a pawn to keep Russia in check, to create and promote Russian-European conflicts, to make the EU more dependent on the U.S. for security, and thus to achieve the effect of weakening both Russia and Europe. 

It also argues that the conflict in Ukraine will not prompt the United States to change its strategy to contain China.

Gao Cheng believes that the US will continue to try to prevent China and Japan from cooperating in Asia, while trying to prevent the European countries from aligning with Russia in Europe.

Facing the pressure of the US-dominated international system, China and Russia will maintain and deepen their comprehensive strategic partnership for a longer period of time into the future. In a time of mutual suspicion between the major powers, and with regional integration hampered, China and Russia need to think about how to become a constructive force to change the established international order, which is unfavorable to them and emerging countries.

US military M1A2 Abrams battle tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles arrive in the northern Estonian on Russian border. (File photo: RT / David Mdzinarishvili)

Extract from full article:

U.S. promotes Russian-European conflicts to weaken both and make E.U. dependent on the U.S. for security

The conflict in Ukraine is not only about the relationship between Kiev and the eastern region, but also about the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also about the rivalry between Russia and the United States. The civil war in Ukraine is not only a result of the internal divisions caused by the pro-Western government’s policy of “choosing sides” that came to power after the February Revolution, but also a battle between Russian and American proxies. There is evidence that both Russia and the United States have been deeply involved in the conflict in Ukraine since the February Revolution. The U.S. was a participant in the February Revolution and an external supporter of the Kiev regime during the civil unrest, while Russia was behind the Crimean referendum and the armed separatist movement in the east. Russia has provided weapons and equipment to militia groups in the east, and Putin has acknowledged the entry of Russian “volunteer” forces into combat in the east. The U.S. and NATO have provided a number of weapons and equipment to Ukrainian government forces, and NATO “mercenaries” are also present in the Ukrainian government forces. The U.S. is training Ukrainian government forces while planning to send at least 300 troops to Ukraine. The Russian-American conflict in Ukraine has gradually moved from the backstage to the front. Not long ago, Barack Obama admitted that the U.S. had political involvement in the “February Revolution” regime change in Ukraine and was considering openly providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, while Vladimir Putin admitted in his latest interview that the Russian government was behind Crimea’s entry into Russia.

The Ukraine issue is the trigger of a long-standing conflict between Russia and the U.S.-led Western world, and behind its crisis is the historical entanglement of the U.S. and Russia in the post-Cold War era. Taken out of this context, it is difficult to understand the tug of war in the Ukraine conflict in depth. For the first decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was eager to integrate into the U.S.-dominated Western world. Although Yeltsin’s policy of wholesale Westernization saw Russia through an unpleasantly dismal decade, Putin’s first two terms in office did not abandon his efforts to establish close ties with the West. During Putin’s honeymoon period with the Bush administration, Russia strongly supported the U.S. counterterrorism strategy and devoted significant diplomatic resources to strengthening ties with the West. In a NATO speech, he candidly expressed Russia’s thinking: “We gain nothing from confrontation with the world. Russia is returning to the family of civilized nations. There is nothing she needs more than to have her opinions heard and her national interests respected.”

However, a Russia with full diplomatic and military self-help capabilities has always been a concern for the United States, and the United States is even less tolerant of its sphere of influence radiating into the neighboring CIS countries and becoming a dominant force, even if this does not challenge U.S. global hegemony. The U.S. strategic community’s memory of the Cold War and the resulting hostility and precautions against Russia caused the U.S. to miss the opportunity to integrate Russia into the Western international system. Thus, we see the U.S. encroaching on the space and sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union step by step, in spite of its private commitment to Russia that “NATO would not expand eastward” when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. Eastern Europe and the Baltic States were incorporated into the EU and NATO one after another. The Bush administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the U.S.-Russian Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, which led to the establishment of anti-missile and radar monitoring systems in Poland and the Czech Republic covering the entire territory of Russia, destroying the strategic nuclear balance between the two countries.

In 2003, the U.S. supported pro-Western Saakashvili’s rise to power through the “Rose Revolution,” and from 2004 to 2005 in Ukraine, the U.S. did the same thing by promoting the “Orange Revolution” in favor of Yushchenko. The “Orange Revolution” supported Yushchenko’s rise to power in 2004-2005. Russia, which is recovering its strength, has been more tolerant or moderate in its protests and countermeasures against these offensive strategies. However, in the eyes of Putin’s government and most Russians, the U.S. has acted in total disregard of Russia’s security concerns and legitimate demands on its neighborhood as a regional power, and has continued to squeeze and weaken Russia’s strategic space for survival and development. The foundations of strategic trust in Russian-US relations had long been in ruins over the years before the outbreak of this conflict in Ukraine.

The events in Ukraine became the trigger for a rapid deterioration in Russian-US relations, turning Russia from mild resistance to the US offensive in its neighborhood to a tough counterattack, as the US challenged the Putin government’s strategic bottom line in two dimensions. First, Russia cannot sit back and watch the West control the political situation in its strategic buffer zone, making it possible for NATO to expand eastward into the CIS countries to threaten its border security, and especially not to give the United States any opportunity to make Ukraine a military bridgehead to contain Russia. Although the ostensible cause of the February Revolution was Yanukovych’s obstruction of Ukraine’s accession to the EU, the fact that the EU and NATO cannot be simply conflated, and the fact that Ukraine has domestic legislation on non-alignment, the lack of Russian-US strategic trust and the previous historical experience of the integration of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States (and Georgia, which has not yet succeeded) into the Western system have made it difficult for Russia to be concerned about Ukraine’s integration into NATO. Russia’s security anxiety over Ukraine’s integration into NATO is obvious, as it will be difficult for the Ukrainian government to independently determine its foreign policy once it has become a full-fledged “puppet” of the United States.

Second, in the view of Putin’s government, the U.S. is eager to bring Ukraine into the EU in order to undermine the Russian-led “Eurasian Union. The “Eurasian Union” is Putin’s third-term commitment to reinvent Russia as a regional power by integrating the markets and resources of the CIS countries, of which Ukraine, with a population of 45 million and a good manufacturing base, is the most crucial link. The U.S. and the West see the Eurasian Union as a manifestation of Russia’s ambition to reconstruct the Soviet empire, and the U.S. global hegemony cannot accommodate Russia’s dream of becoming a regional power, which it refuses to give up. This is also a structural conflict between the United States and Russia.

The Western world has portrayed Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine as an aggressive expansion, but in Russia’s view, it was a defensive desperation in the face of national security threats and as a regional power when its strategic buffer zone was encroached upon. The Putin government has responded to Western economic sanctions with decisive countermeasures, redefined national security threats with new military guidelines, announced the suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and even threw out the “Russia is a nuclear power” deterrent, all of which demonstrate Russia’s strategic will on the Ukraine issue. The majority of the Russian people stand by Putin on Crimea and the UAE, believing that he has chosen to preserve the core security and interests of the country and is willing to work with the government to overcome the difficulties of Western sanctions. To Russians with strong national sentiments, the U.S. intervention in Ukraine, its disassociation from Russia-Ukraine relations and its malicious intent to weaken Russia are inexcusable. According to the poll results, the U.S. became the number one enemy in the minds of Russians, which fully demonstrates the social basis of the Putin government’s strategic determination. Putin’s government and Russian society seem to be psychologically prepared to cope with, or tolerate, long-term Western sanctions.

NATO mobilizes ‘Response Force’: German tank howitzers on way to Lithuania at the Bundeswehr army base in Munster, northern Germany, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

From the U.S. perspective, it does not want a smooth de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis, let alone a political settlement in Russia’s favor. The U.S. needs to use Ukraine as a chess piece to keep Russia in check, to create and promote conflicts between Russia and Europe, to use Europe to weaken Russia’s power, and to pit Russia and Europe against each other and consume each other. The conflict in Ukraine has changed the relationship between NATO and Russia from one of post-Cold War cooperation to one of confrontation. At the NATO summit on September 4, 2014, Russia was explicitly identified as a NATO “adversary” for the first time since the end of the Cold War; Russia subsequently revised its military guidelines to include NATO and the United States as the main threats to Russia’s national security. The Crimea and Ukraine crises have further collapsed the already fragile strategic mutual trust between Russia and the United States, a situation that is unlikely to change substantially in the near future.

The conflict in Ukraine has triggered a subtle change in both Russian-European and U.S.-European relations. As evidenced by the U.S. success in using the MH17 incident as an opportunity to force Europe, Japan and Australia to impose severe sanctions on Russia, Europe has no ability to change or influence U.S. decisions in major power relations, and the U.S. retains the ability to make its Western allies “choose sides. Putin has made Europe one of his top diplomatic priorities for many years, especially during the Putin-Schroeder-Chirac troika years when he established a tacit cooperation with Germany and France in international affairs, which to some extent constrained the unilateral hegemonic policies of George W. Bush Jr. This good interaction has continued into personal relations with the current leaders of Germany and France. But after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the EU, which lacks military autonomy and has the broader Atlantic Alliance as its strategic priority, chose to pursue a policy toward Russia in line with U.S. interests, despite the reluctance and resentment involved.

However, the crisis in Ukraine is not enough to shake the basic Russian-European relations. There are no structural political contradictions between Russia and Europe, on the contrary, economic ties are very strong. The economic losses caused by the Western sanctions against Russia are mainly borne by the EU countries, and today most of them do not want to consume themselves in the sanctions. EU countries have already lost tens of billions of dollars to the conflict in Ukraine, which is certainly a further blow to the European economy, which has been stagnant for two years. Today Greece and religious extremism are the main problems plaguing Europe, and major European countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain do not want to carry the burden of Ukraine, much less confront Russia over it. Russia has exploited the disagreement within the EU over Russia-Ukraine to seek a de-escalation of relations with European countries, dividing them internally and creating a conflict between these countries and the United States. Through the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has succeeded in establishing Russia as an “enemy” in Europe as a target, strengthening the security dependence of EU countries on the U.S. But the relationship of trust between the U.S. and Europe is developing in the opposite direction, as the U.S. is trying to weaken Russia while weakening the strength and position of Europe.

U.S. policy of containment of China in the Asia-Pacific region

As we look away from Europe, which is now in a quasi-cold war state, will the persistence of the Ukraine crisis and the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations affect the positioning of the U.S. Asia-Pacific and China strategy? Some argue that if the conflict in Ukraine becomes a long-term tug-of-war, the U.S. may adjust its current “return to Asia” strategy, which focuses on containing China. The author believes this is unlikely. From a realpolitik perspective, the structural conflict between China and the U.S. based on the change in power contrast is more important than the strategic conflict between the U.S. and Russia. The intensification of the U.S.-Russia conflict is partly due to the inertia of the U.S. strategic community’s Cold War thinking about Russia and the Putin government’s over-sensitivity to the security of the surrounding geopolitical buffer zone. However, there is no miscalculation of strategic intentions between China and the U.S. China, with its rising power, is trying to seek a corresponding international status, hoping to change the irrational international order, which the U.S. is worried about and cannot accept.

As a result, the U.S. policy of containment of China in the Asia-Pacific region and the policy of continuing to weaken Russia in Europe will go hand in hand. To avoid weakening its dominance in strategically focused regions, the U.S. is doing its best to prevent China and Japan from forming cooperation in Asia, while in Europe it is trying to prevent Russia and the EU from reaching strategic rapprochement and mutual trust. A relatively weakened U.S. power is pushing the mainstream international community and regional powers against China and Russia as a way to maintain the legitimacy of its own dominance in the Asia-Pacific and Europe, a state of affairs that is more destructive than constructive to regional cooperation and development. In addition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-led NATO continued to expand eastward, continuously encroaching on Russia’s strategic space in the post-Soviet era until conflict erupted along Russia’s last and most important Russian-Ukrainian border defense line. This is also a warning to China that the United States has a deep-rooted realist geopolitical mindset when dealing with major powers with security self-help capabilities, whether this mindset is reflected in hard military-based checks and balances or soft checks and balances based on international economic rules. The contradiction between Russia and China and the international ecology of U.S.-dominated bloc politics has become one of the key foundations of strategic collaboration between the two countries.

In addition to pressure from the U.S.-dominated international system, similar sentiments toward the West are among the reasons why China and Russia have come closer. Both countries had hoped and strived to be recognized and accepted as equals by the mainstream international community, but the U.S.-dominated Western world is unable to tolerate the different ideas held by nation-states with similar great power aspirations as itself, and cannot accommodate the development models and ways of managing societies of great powers based on their own characteristics. The U.S. and Europe are accustomed to viewing China and Russia with a set of universally applicable standards and a friend-or-foe mentality, interfering in the internal affairs of the two countries for years in the name of human rights, etc., and using the advantage of international discourse to smear and demonize Russian and Chinese society and political hierarchy. Although Russia in democratic transition has its own problems, its basic social values and political system are not fundamentally different from those of the West, while the United States and the Western world still support opposition forces within it out of dissatisfaction and dislike for Putin’s strongman-style rule. In contrast, China and Russia, despite their different religious, cultural and political systems, have developed a mutually respectful, equal and independent relationship of great power interaction. Unlike the unequal relationship between the United States and its European and Japanese allies, this nature of the Sino-Russian relationship is not imposed and dictated by the two countries, but rather a collaborative partnership that respects each other’s sense of autonomy, takes into account each other’s core geopolitical interests as great powers, and relies on each other for major issues. At the same time, today’s Sino-Russian relations are different from the subordinate relations between China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, which were based on ideological “friendship”, but are equal and mutually supportive, based on the strategic interests of normal states.

Maintaining and deepening the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between Russia and China is a major trend and direction of efforts for a longer period of time. This is not only a response to the Cold War mentality of the U.S. in the relations between major powers and the long-standing arrogance and prejudice of the Western world, but also in line with the real and long-term interests of Russia and China. The strategic cooperation and cooperation of interests between Russia and China is long-term and structural and has an intrinsic basis. The crisis in Ukraine is only a catalyst for the promotion of Russian-Chinese relations. It has reduced the domestic resistance to Russian-Chinese cooperation and is not a turning point that will change the minds of the two countries at the top level. Putin had a strategic idea to revitalize Russia in his second term by taking advantage of China’s rise, but his domestic resistance was strong and strategic mutual trust between Russia and China did not materialize. When the Chinese leader visited Russia for the first time after taking office, the two leaders were very much in sympathy with each other in terms of their views on the world situation and their personal temperaments, and the deepening of strategic cooperation between Russia and China reached a consensus and mutual trust at the top level of both countries. Since then, thanks to the rare high frequency of meetings and close communication between the top echelons of China and Russia, the strategic partnership between the two countries has been advancing rapidly. Despite the objective obstacles to deepening Sino-Russian relations and the need to strengthen trust between the two peoples, Russia’s eastward strategy and China’s westward strategy have begun to intersect more and more since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

From the real economic point of view, first of all, the crisis in Ukraine and Western sanctions may bring changes in the global energy landscape, and the layout of Russia’s energy export market is beginning to shift to Asia. For China, which has huge energy needs and seeks to diversify its risks through multiple channels, it needs to seize this opportunity. China has already signed a gas deal with Russia that has been difficult to negotiate for more than a decade. Second, Western sanctions will force Russia into an increasingly interdependent relationship with China in the financial sector. Russian business tycoons are now switching to UnionPay cards, converting more U.S. dollars to Hong Kong dollars and depositing them in Chinese banks in Hong Kong, China, and the scale of local currency settlement in bilateral trade, investment and lending between Russia and China has begun to increase, and the scope of Russian payments in yuan is expanding, which will have a significant impact on the internationalization of the yuan. Once again, Western sanctions have caused the Putin government to begin to promote the diversification of Russian markets in its economic strategy. The economic countermeasures against Europe involve a massive shift in the market for agricultural products and may continue to expand into industrial products, which will lead to a rapid expansion of Russian-Chinese economic and trade cooperation and deepening into high-speed railway construction, agriculture, military technology, satellite navigation systems, ports, logistics, IT industry, manufacturing, nuclear power and many other fields.

Since China and Russia also have common strategic aspirations beyond economic interests, the relationship between the two countries is becoming more and more than purely economic in terms of mutual benefits and pragmatic cooperation. The past model of one-off “return the favor” interaction based on short-term mutual use has changed and is forming a long-term strategic partnership based on mutual trust. The East China Sea, South China Sea and Ukraine are only specific points of contention and symptoms of the combined efforts of the U.S.-led alliance system that China and Russia are facing in East Asia and Europe respectively. The core issue behind is that, as military self-help powers with long history and civilizational traditions, both China and Russia cannot accept that their internal affairs and foreign policies should be determined according to the path set by the U.S. and the Western world, so they need to counter the U.S. military alliance system and the resulting international ecology of political blocs, and fight for the survival and development of cultural traditions and civilizational diversity.

From a defensive perspective, China and Russia’s strategic mutual assistance can give each other some support and solidarity in the face of real and public opinion pressure from the West, or in the game with the U.S.-led political bloc, or at least play a political balancing role to avoid their own isolation in the relations between major powers. During the Ukrainian crisis, Chinese officials have been trying to promote the de-escalation of Russian-Ukrainian relations and the situation in Ukraine. While the West has imposed economic sanctions, political isolation and public opinion suppression on Russia, China has always taken a clear stance against this bloc political siege and given strong support to Russia. In the future China may face similar dilemmas in the international community on Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands as Russia did on Ukraine, and will also need to have partners at the major power level.

From the perspective of positive action, we see that the United States, in relative power decline, has gradually lost the ability and willingness to provide more constructive public goods for world and regional prosperity. The United States has used the South China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands and Ukraine to fuel disputes in Asia and Europe, and has triggered the “A. L. B.” in the Middle East, West Asia and North Africa. Arab. In the Middle East, West Asia and North Africa, the U.S. has triggered the “Arab Spring” series of revolutions, but is unwilling to take responsibility for them afterwards. So, in an era when the U.S. is intervening and failing to solve problems, and when regional integration is being hampered by the mutual suspicion and restraint of major powers, the question for China and Russia is how to become a constructive force to change the established international order, which is unfavorable to them and to emerging market countries. This requires that cooperation between the two countries not only be limited to bilateral, but also require further solidarity with regional powers such as India, Brazil and South Africa, and a greater role under the cooperation mechanisms of emerging market countries such as BRICS, as well as deepening collaborative relations across the board in multilateral cooperation organizations such as SCO, APEC, ASCC and ASEM.

With China, the world’s second largest economy, leading the establishment of the ADB in 2015 as an alternative to the Japanese- and U.S.-led Asian Development Bank and signing bilateral currency agreements with a growing number of countries and economies for direct yuan payments, Russia, the world’s second-largest oil exporter, already moving forward with the process of de-dollarization of oil, and the opening of the BRICS Development Bank, the U.S. financial hegemony will continue to loosen. At the same time, the “Belt and Road” promoted by China and the “Eurasian Economic Union” being promoted by Russia are also establishing cooperation docking points, and the two countries have basically reached a strategic mutual trust on this issue. Everything is just the beginning.


Author: Gao Cheng (高程) is a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.