A World Historical Perspective on the War in Ukraine and the China-Taiwan Standoff

As the world faces a protracted war in Ukraine with no clear end in sight and a tense standoff in the Taiwan Strait with potential for catastrophic escalation, the time is ripe for a world historical perspective on these conflicts, which may provide help in formulating effective policy responses.

It is important to start by realizing that what happened to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was truly revolutionary and an aberration from the universal norm. No ruler, in Russia or anywhere else, becomes popular among their people by presiding over the breakup of their nation and mass economic dislocation. Although Gorbachev sought to improve—not dismantle—the Soviet Union and lift living standards via his reforms, his reforms had those unintended consequences.

Gorbachev was truly an anomaly in Russian and world history. Russia, for much of its history since the Mongol domination, was expansionist. As the Mongol Empire disintegrated, Russian lands under the leadership of the princes of Moscow expanded to fill the ensuing power vacuum and became the de facto successor state to the Mongol Empire. Russian rulers, almost without exception, sought to expand Russian territory and rule; the wars Russia fought against the Ottomans and the Persians, for example, demonstrate this pattern.

With the blessing of the Russian Orthodox church, Russia even developed an imperial ideology, such as the Third Rome theory, that justified Russian autocratic imperialism. In this ideology, Moscow was the Third Rome: the successor to the Roman Empire following the collapse of Rome and Constantinople and the defender of the true, orthodox Christian civilization. Even Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, though criticized for their despotic rule, receive approbation from many Russians and Russian historians for expanding Russian power and rule over new territories.

Therefore, what Gorbachev did was without precedent in Russian history. When people in the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe expressed their desire for independence, he did not crush their dissent with tanks but respected their right to self-determination. Gorbachev chose to withdraw Soviet troops stationed in Eastern Europe, and the Cold War ended peacefully in Eastern Europe.

Gorbachev became deeply unpopular among the Russian people for presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the collapse of the Soviet economy. As the Russian people suffered economic hardships and the psychological shock of their nation’s sudden collapse, they became susceptible to conspiracy theories denouncing Gorbachev and other leaders as traitors who sold out Russia to the West.

It was only a matter of time before a leader arose in Russia to exploit this mass distress and resentment. Like Germany after World War I, which witnessed economic distress and popular resentment against perceived unjust peace terms imposed on the nation by the Allied Powers, many Russians also seethed with resentment against what was seen as unjust peace following the Cold War and the mass economic dislocation.

As Germany saw the rise of Adolf Hitler after World War I, Russia saw the rise of Vladimir Putin after the Cold War. To Russians disenchanted with Boris Yeltsin and the chaos associated with his rule, Putin seemed a better choice. Unlike Yeltsin, who was old and alcoholic, Putin was young and seemed sober and competent. A widespread view among Russians at the time was that the only force in Russia capable of curbing the power of the oligarchs dominating the economy was the siloviki, the people with backgrounds in security services. Putin, a former KGB officer, seemed to fit this bill of a silovik who could restore stability to Russia and bring the oligarchs and the mafiosi, or Russian Mafia, under control.

It helped Putin that the price of oil rose steeply after he came into power. With the economy improving under his rule, Putin’s popularity soared. As the Russian oil industry and the Russian military were modernized and revitalized, Putin proclaimed that Russia was back as a Great Power. He became territorially acquisitive and took over Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. The Russian people applauded these moves.

Emboldened by his successes in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, as well as his success in Georgia, Putin mobilized his military for a major invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s speeches before the invasion illustrate his view and abuse of Russian history. In Putin’s view, Ukraine was not a legitimate country and had always been an integral part of Russia. In his view, what he was doing was rallying historically Russian lands under Moscow’s leadership, the “gathering of Russian lands” similar to that done by the princes of Moscow after the Mongol domination.

With the blessings of the Russian Orthodox church, Putin set out to undo the alleged mistakes made by Soviet leaders, including Gorbachev, and make Russia great again, as a Great Power claiming its rightful place under the sun. The Russian Orthodox church blessed the Russian troops going to war in Ukraine as they had blessed the Russian troops under the Romanovs.

Putin’s narrative justifying his invasion of Ukraine is not unlike the narratives of previous Russian rulers justifying their territorial expansionism. In seeking territorial expansion, Putin fits the traditional pattern of Russian history, namely, autocratic imperialism. In this sense, the aberration of the Gorbachev era has now given way to the traditional pattern in Russian and world history: Great Power imperialism and conflict.

Therefore, the period of relative global peace and stability following the end of World War II is now under a grave threat from the forces of autocracy that want to return the world to the age-old pattern of Great Power imperialism and power politics. If allowed to succeed, these forces will undermine and destroy the postwar rules based international order. Forces of democracy must rally together and form a united firewall around the forces of autocracy.

It needs to be pointed out that Xi Jinping’s China now finds itself in a situation similar to Putin’s Russia. Like Russia under Putin, China under Xi is now back to its roots as an imperial autocracy. Like Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China wants to claim its rightful place under the sun. As Putin claims Russia is back as a Great Power after the recent humiliations it suffered, Xi claims that China is back as a Great Power after the so-called “century of humiliation” it suffered at the hands of the Western and Japanese imperialists since the Opium Wars.

As Putin claims Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, Xi claims Taiwan is an integral part of China. Taiwan matters for Xi and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leadership because it is a very visible reminder of China’s humiliations at the hands of the Western and Japanese imperialists. Colonized by Japan after China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and taken over by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists after the Chinese Civil War, Taiwan is, in the eyes of Xi and the Beijing leadership, the last remaining obstacle to China’s reunification after the return of Hong Kong and Macao to China.

Moscow and Beijing, therefore, both have grievances against the present rules based international order. They both view the present order as unjust and biased against them. They claim that the West wants to deny their rightful claims—Moscow’s claim on Ukraine and Beijing’s claim on Taiwan—and their rightful place under the sun. They seek to subvert and undermine the present rules based order by distorting history and propagating conspiracy theories against the West.

In their abuse of history, they fuel nationalistic paranoia. In painting NATO as Russia’s mortal enemy, Putin exploits Russians’ historic memory of invasions from the West—such as Napoleon and Hitler—and their sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West. In painting Western objections to Beijing’s threats against Taiwan as interference in China’s internal affairs, PRC leaders exploit the Chinese memory of their humiliations at the hands of the Western imperialists, proclaiming the West wants to contain China’s peaceful rise.

As Russia and China increasingly become aligned with each other and other autocracies such as North Korea in seeking to undermine the rules based international order, the nations around the world that subscribe to values of freedom, democracy and rule of law must forge a united front and construct a global firewall around these autocracies.

NATO, in particular, must evolve to become a global alliance, linking up with partners in the Indo Pacific and elsewhere. NATO must realize that it cannot effectively address the threat from Russia without also effectively addressing the threat from China. It must realize that Euro-Atlantic security is now one and the same as Indo Pacific security because what happens in one region affects what happens in the other region.

The recent NATO Vilnius summit marks a step in the right direction, as the summit addressed China and noted the importance of the Indo-Pacific to NATO’s security. Although this shows that NATO’s conception of security is changing in the right direction, a lot more needs to be done if the forces of democracy are to develop an effective counterforce vis-à-vis the forces of autocracy.


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Jongsoo Lee
Jongsoo Lee

Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also Adjunct Fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum and Contributing Editor at The Diplomat. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004