Beijing is learning from Russia’s attack on Ukraine, some novel lessons. If Beijing aims to attack contiguous countries, and indications are Taiwan, India, and less powerful nations are at risk, Communist China will not parrot Russia. Why?
Russia, which China declared a stout ally weeks ago, is stumbling badly. The lessons are many, continue to mount, and are creating a geopolitical backdraft, searing what seemed untouchable, teaching what seemed lessons not worth learning.
First, the so-called Modern Russian Army was supposed to be quick on its feet, nimble in ways the old Soviet Army and Navy were not. It was supposed to be well equipped, supplied, and manned, with the ability to move on orders with speed.
That has proved a fiction, happy self-delusion that, in time of war, appears not only untrue, but an embarrassment. Yes, Russia has superior firepower, numbers, and stamina. Russia is Russia, but the counterforce, power, and spirit of resistance have proved more than competent.
The resistance has proved it can win on the battlefield, inflicting serious damage. It can also win in the world of public relations, drawing hearts and minds to the cause. This, in turn, ramps up support. Russia seems to have miscalculated the odds of a swift battlefield win, and the impact of losing the storyline.
Second, China is witnessing – with all of us – a seemingly enormous failure of Russian intelligence. Sometimes intelligence failures are predictable. When the target is closed, information thin, human intelligence vital, and national technical means limited, things go sideways.
When the US sought to assess and act on what intelligence we had from Iraq in the early 2000s, knowing sources and methods were limited, inferences many, more unknown than known, the odds were even, we might get it wrong, and we did.
On the other hand, when sources are open, penetrated, battlefield conditions are obvious to the point of transparency, and wrong questions get asked, right questions never asked, and the outcome is presumed to be positive when a little research might reveal even odds, the intelligence community has failed. Not to see that Ukrainians, like Poles in the 1980s, would fight to the death was a Russian Intel failure.
Third, as China gathers data from this conflict, unseen factors – the shadow of history, often ignored – can be powerful. Unseen historical factors can be so powerful they overwhelm what seemed facts.
An example from the past: When World War II began, Nazi Germany had 60 divisions, battle-hardened. The US had one. Missing from early analyses by Germany was the spirit that animated Americans, the power that resides in defenders of freedom, democracy, the right – and its power never quit.
Missing from Russian analysis was an appreciation for the history of those in Ukraine who resented Soviet domination, who resist a reshaping of history that fails their life experience is off base. Even is many Russians consider Ukraine some kind of birthright, many Ukrainians do not subscribe to that story.
Fourth, Russia – and China will take stock of this – underestimated the power of diffuse, seemingly disconnected, feuding democratic governments – and their corporate sectors – to come together when the chips are down when what made them who they are is put at risk.
Europe, America, and much of the world indulge in economic and political sword crossing – when indulging comes with few costs, some economic, some prestige-oriented, nothing existential. But when a communist, autocratic, pseudo-fascist country decides to go “medieval” and attack, they come together.
This, too, seems lost on Russia and yet will be understood now by China. If you attack a free nation, assuming the rest of the world is amoral, immoral, or indifferent – watch your six because the power of unity can be deafening.
Fifth, Russia’s cyber prowess has somehow vanished. They were expected to coordinate attacks in the physical and cyber worlds, but they have failed. The failure is glaring. If China has adventurist ambitions – which it plainly does – they are rethinking the cyber-physical connection.
The failure is remarkable. While some US defense contractors, LNG suppliers, and exporters, and Ukrainian companies, government institutions, and personnel have been targets, the impact has been modest, and the counterforce – state and non-state actors attacking Russia – has been real.
Rather than expected coordination, “significant cyberattacks in Ukraine, shutting down the country’s electrical grid for example … large-scale operations have not materialized.” See, Where is Russia’s cyber blitzkrieg?.
If “cyberattacks and disinformation are definitely a part of Russia’s overall strategy to stoke chaos and inspire fear,” coordination has been hard to see or track, leading many to think the art is undeveloped. See, e.g., Tracking Cyber Operations and Actors in the Russia-Ukraine War; Hackers Targeted U.S. LNG Producers in Run-Up to Ukraine War.
What China will draw from all this might be – caution. The early thinking was that China would root for Russia, knowing the invasion was coming. Their recent “security pact” would be the first stage of a multi-faceted, mutually reinforcing confrontation with the free world, Western territory to ideals.
However, what this invasion is showing cannot be missed by China. Military modernization, effective intelligence, applicable history, Western unity, and cyber-physical coordination all matter. You get them wrong, even one of them wrong – let alone all of them – and you will stumble, start sucking air, and have to change on the fly – with no clear outcome.
China may draw lessons from this conflict no one thought in the cards. Russia is demonstrating how not to attack a free country, how not to be a senseless aggressor, how not to conduct short war, what happens when you get big pieces wrong – capability, supply lines, morale, intelligence, history lessons, Western resolve, cyber coordination, and motivation of free people to fight.
China is learning – or they should be. The lesson is sobering might encourage future stability.