AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, the cost in both lives and material for the Russian military has been staggering. While exact figures are difficult to obtain, experts assess that Russia had lost as many as 15,000 men by the end of March, in addition to thousands of armored vehicles and pieces of military equipment. Those figures today are likely far higher. But while these numbers are tragic in terms of the unnecessary waste of human life they represent, they also highlight how devastating Putin’s war has been both for Russian morale at home and Russian prestige abroad. The world has been watching the unfolding Russian disaster but nowhere more closely than in Beijing. What they have been seeing helps explain why Chinese communist angst has been growing.
Russia’s diminishing status was made all too clear last month with the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea. While Russia has largely been silent on the exact cause of the sinking, Odessa Oblast Governor Maksym Marchenko alleges that the Russian cruiser was damaged and ultimately destroyed by Ukrainian-built Neptune anti-ship missiles. Reports from American, Turkish, and Romanian military officials seemed to confirm Ukraine’s version of events. Casualty numbers are unknown, but the ship had nearly 500 crew members on board at the time, including 66 officers.
In an ironic twist, Ukrainian officials say that Moskva was the same ship that demanded the surrender of Ukrainian forces on Snake Island earlier in the invasion. While that moment marked a low point for Ukraine, the sinking of Moskva seemed to reinvigorate Ukrainian resolve and deliver a devastating blow to Russian morale.
In addition to the damage this event must have done to Putin’s image at home, the Moskva disaster also appears to have Russia’s newfound friends in Beijing growing more skeptical of Russian military prowess – and concerned about their own warfighting capabilities. At least one ship in the Chinese Navy, the aircraft carrier Liaoning, has similar armament to the Moskva and was built in the same Ukrainian shipyard, meaning that it too is likely vulnerable to anti-ship missiles like the Ukrainian Neptune system – which is similar to another anti-ship missile that is currently in use by Taiwan. The Liaoning routinely sails through the Taiwan Strait in a blatant provocation of the island nation.
Chinese officials were thus reportedly shaken by the Moskva incident, particularly as China and Russia work to develop closer military ties. While China has relied heavily on Russian military technology to bolster its own forces with an eye toward Taiwan, Taiwan has in turn closely watched Ukraine to see how it fares against its larger and more powerful neighbor. The defeat of the Moskva was undoubtedly a positive sign for Taiwan and a concerning setback for China.
Typically, Chinese propaganda doesn’t dissent from the official Russian narrative, but this time was different. Instead of repeating the Kremlin’s line that the Moskva sinking was simply the result of mechanical issues and storm damage, Chinese Communist Party leaders instead focused on the supposed superiority of Chinese ship armor in defending against missile attacks, a tacit acknowledgment of the Ukrainian claims.
Chinese experts who discussed the incident on Weibo noted that it appeared that the Russian ship’s air defense system did not activate, nor did the weather radar detect the threat. Others even explicitly pointed out the fact that the Liaoning contains similar defense systems to the Moskva, suggesting it might not fare any better than the Russian cruiser against anti-ship missiles.
While this type of open speculation about the failings of another country’s military is not out of the ordinary in a country like the U.S., they are unusual for an authoritarian regime like China that seeks to stamp out all speech that does not line up with the CCP’s official narrative. The fact that Chinese officials are allowing so much questioning of their allies to spread on state-run social media platforms could suggest that the CCP itself is having second thoughts about its partnership with Moscow.
In addition to uniting the West against him and devastating his country’s economy, Putin’s invasion may thus have also dealt a significant setback to Russian-Chinese relations. China wants a partner that will help challenge the West, while Russia appears to be unable to even handle its much smaller and militarily inferior neighbor in Ukraine. This could prove to be Putin’s ultimate miscalculation and the one that deals a fatal blow to Russia’s dreams of regaining great power status.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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