WHEN RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin ordered the first of his 190,000 troops into Ukraine on February 24, the invasion had a seismic effect on Europe and the Western world. But tremors were also felt some 5,000 miles to the east: Taiwan rapidly became a trending topic.
For years, the world has speculated nervously on when President Xi Jinping will finally make good on the Chinese Communist Party's vow to annex Taiwan, a self-ruling island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China—an act that threatens to provide the spark that ignites a hot war between Beijing and Washington.
The developments in Ukraine offer Beijing a hazy window into its own future. Russia's many failures and miscalculations in its blitzkrieg, and its struggle to assert full control in Ukraine against a fierce, well-armed and highly motivated resistance, are tough meat for Xi's Taiwan planners to chew on.
So too is the unexpectedly unified and powerful Western response to Russia's aggression. Moscow now sits atop a pile of economic rubble because of devastating sanctions. As Russia counts the cost in rubles and bodies, Washington believes China's calculations about annexing Taiwan are changing as a result.
AS THE KREMLIN BROADCAST PUTIN'S PRE-RECORDED hour-long address in the February 21 prelude to the full-scale dawn invasion that followed three days later, his framing of Russians and Ukrainians as one people, and his argument that Ukraine's statehood was a demonstrable fiction and a mistake, likely sounded eerily familiar to those in Taiwan.
Leaders in Beijing have employed similar historical narratives for decades. The Taiwan public has made clear its preference for an identity that is distinctly Taiwanese, and its rejection of any existence that isn't wholly free and democratic. Yet China likens the island's 23.5 million people to political hostages who have been led astray by a small cabal of radical separatists backed by the United States.
Putin told Russians fantasies about liberating Ukraine's long-suffering people from bandits and neo-Nazis. His soldiers, it was said, would be welcomed with flowers and smiles.
CHINA LIKENS TAIWAN'S 23.5 MILLION PEOPLE TO POLITICAL HOSTAGES LED ASTRAY BY A SMALL CABAL OF RADICAL SEPARATISTS BACKED BY THE U.S.
A comparable picture appears to exist inside Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, in the minds of Xi and those in his inner circle. It's difficult to say whether the Chinese leadership truly buys into this worldview. What's known is its patience and determination to unify Taiwan with China in order to achieve Putin-esque national glory.
A pretext for a Chinese invasion could read very similarly to Putin's justification for going to war.
China expert Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, thinks Putin may even have borrowed the idea from Xi—an example of authoritarian learning,” she says, “in framing and making its claim to Ukraine in atavistic and historical terms, denying it statehood or even identity, as China has done for decades with Taiwan.
The Kremlin's Miscalculations
CHINA DOES NOT NEED TO LOOK HARD TO FIND Russia's miscalculations so far—and there are plenty for Beijing's strategists to analyze.
Though Russia may yet achieve its near-term military objectives by capturing Kyiv, Moscow's apparent political objectives—forcing neutrality and territorial concessions out of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky-are far from guaranteed.
It is surely not escaping Beijing's notice, for example, that Russia's military progress has been slower than expected. The invading forces broke from the Russian doctrine that relies on overwhelming use of artillery and long-range fires rockets and missiles—to soften up defenses for the battalion tactical groups that would then smash Ukraine's mechanized forces.
Moscow instead seemed to hope that thunder runs” and airborne operations by small, specialized units could quickly penetrate Ukrainian defenses and decapitate Zelensky's government in Kyiv. These high-risk operations have failed, with units bogged down and destroyed by highly motivated, well-trained and well-armed Ukrainian defenders.
The Russian military has since fallen back on more established tactics. Massed armored columns are now snaking their way toward Kyiv and other major objectives. But this means slower progress, more strain on Russian logistics and more opportunity for Ukrainian counterattacks and asymmetric harassment, all while Western sanctions strangle Russia's economy.
Also noteworthy to Chinese observers: There's no indication that the Ukrainian people would accept a leader appointed by the Kremlin, or that their post-2014 shift to the West would be moved by Moscow's coercion and the destruction wrought upon their cities. This is only likely to become more protracted. Russia's slow progress is giving way to frustration. Russian bombardments are becoming more indiscriminate, killing and wounding more civilians while destroying homes and vital civilian infrastructure. Ukrainians already had little interest in living under the Russian yoke. The brutality of the invaders will only have deepened the animosity.
A Russian military victory would inevitably be followed by an entrenched and potent guerrilla resistance, likely financed, armed and trained by Western militaries and intelligence agencies. The shock to Europe's system appears to have united NATO and the European Union, although both blocs have been criticized by their Ukrainian partners for not doing enough to cow Moscow.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
'Division of the World Is Inevitable'
Countries need to choose whether to align with autocrats or democracies, says a former NATO Secretary-General
Big Tech's Great Reckoning
A spate of new laws in Europe and the U.S. Foreshadow What Could Be the End of dominance for Google, Facebook and Amazon
Sustainable Cabin Vacations
Everyone needs to get away from it all sometimes. But not everyone's idea of the ideal vacation is the same.
Summer Music Festivals to Get Your Groove On
What seemed a relic of the past amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing precautions are now back in full force. This summer promises a music festival resurgence, with events taking place all over the world. Across festivals, lineups are both highlighting international talent and championing local artists. From Afro Nation on the pristine Portuguese seaside to Glastonbury in rural England to Fuji Rock in a Japanese forest, live music lovers of every genre have a lot to anticipate. Let the music play!
Crypto In Your 401(k)?
Just because you may soon be able to buy Bitcoin in your workplace retirement plan doesn’t mean you should.
BANS OFF OUR BODIES
MoveOn and Abortion Access activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3 after the leak of a draft opinion overturning the Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
CITY OF WATER
As climate change triggers sea-level rise and extreme weather, even New York, one of the world's best-prepared cities, may not be doing enough
How to Shop Green
Customers seeking sustainable merch are a big deal these days. But which products actually deliver on their environmental promises?
Blue -or Bluer
In Pennsylvania and Texas, democratic voters face clear ideological choices that could signal the party's direction
Nigerian Projects Stall as Chinese Loans Dry Up
President Buhari's legacy could be marred by Beijing's waning appetite for costly public works abroad
The End of China's Bulk-Buying Boom
A distinctive form of e-commerce is in free fall after a shift in attitude in Beijing
China's Stimulus Won't Bail Out the World
The drag from lockdowns will largely cancel any boost from new spending
ON JAPAN'S FRONT LINES
Dispatches from Asia's new Cold War
The Cost of Covid Zero Keeps Rising
China's economy hasn't been in this bad a shape since the start of the pandemic
THE PANDEMIC KILLED DISSENT IN HONG KONG
WHEN GREAT BRITAIN returned control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, a condition of the transfer was that Beijing would allow the territory to maintain its own government until 2047. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never liked this agreement, and the COVID-19 pandemic provided the excuse to all but erase the “one country, two systems” distinction.
THE INSIDE MAN
Meet JOSEPH KAHN, the new, old-school editor of the Times.
Sorry, iPhone 6 Plus users, your phone probably can't be repaired anymore
Apple moves two older devices to 'vintage' status.
CHINA USED TV, TIKTOK STARS IN DISCREET OLYMPICS CAMPAIGN
A “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” TV star, a Paralympic swimmer and a self-described “brand king” were among the Instagram and TikTok influencers who were paid by Chinese officials for a discreet campaign that promoted the Beijing Winter Olympics, new Justice Department documents reveal.
How Uniqlo Became A Favorite in China
In addition to making popular styles, it's kept quiet about the country's human-rights record