It may just be coincidence that Russia was piling military pressure on Ukraine last week at the same time as China noisily rattled sabres around Taiwan. Spring, to mangle Tennyson, is when a young man’s fancy turns to war – and that twisted maxim may even apply to ageing thugs such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
Russia and China are moving into ever closer alliance. While there is no evidence of direct collusion over Ukraine and Taiwan, presidents Putin and Xi are doubtless fully aware of each other’s actions, which have an identical, mutually reinforcing effect: putting the wind up Joe Biden’s untested US administration.
What’s now unfolding could be portrayed as the ultimate fulfilment of George Orwell’s nightmarish vision, in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a world divided geographically, politically and militarily into three rival super-states: Oceania (North America plus Britain), Eurasia (Russia and Europe), and Eastasia (China).
Publication of Orwell’s book in 1949 coincided with the formation of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the emergence of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union as a nuclear-armed power. It also saw the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong. Yet these were early days.
Orwell’s prediction of an endless, three-way global confrontation proved premature. China needed time to develop. The Soviet Union eventually imploded. The US, declaring a unipolar moment, claimed victory. Yet today, by some measures, Orwell’s tripartite world is finally coming into being. 2021 is the new 1984.
If China and Russia are presently ganging up on the US and its satraps, that’s par for the course in a world where no one superpower is allowed to dominate the other two. In 1972, Richard Nixon sought China’s help against the Soviets. Maybe the US and Russia will one day combine against Beijing. As Meat Loaf sings it, two out of three ain’t bad.
Advocates of a multipolar world will say this is too simplistic, and that the strategic balance is more subtle and complex. Tell that to people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and occupied Crimea, who face a deeply unsubtle Russian military build-up along the “line of contact”.
The consensus among analysts is that Putin is not about to invade. So what is he up to? Apologists suggest he was provoked by a Ukrainian decree last month declaring the re-taking of Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, to be an official government objective – and by renewed talk of Ukraine joining Nato.
A more banal explanation is that Moscow is pressurising Kiev to break the stalemate in the so-called Minsk peace process – after the latest Donbas ceasefire collapsed. Putin enjoyed a big, but fleeting, ratings boost after Crimea’s annexation. Last month, he used a lavish televised rally marking its seventh anniversary to recapture lost popularity.
It seems he failed. Russians are preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic (and the incompetent official response), falling incomes, and a worsening socio-economic outlook. More than ever, Putin’s Soviet empire restoration project appears irrelevant, especially to younger people.
Putin is under fire at home from supporters of the much-persecuted opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, and over corruption allegations. Only 32% of Russians trust their president, according to a recent Levada Center poll. Seen this way, the Ukraine build-up looks like a calculated distraction for domestic political purposes.
Yet Putin may also be deliberately testing US and European resolve. He will not have forgotten how George W Bush pledged undying support to Georgia’s newly democratic government in 2005, then ducked out when war erupted with Russia in 2008.
As analyst Ted Galen Carpenter noted last week, Biden’s White House has likewise affirmed “unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea”. This looks, at best, like a hostage to fortune, and at worst, a cruel deception.
“The parallels between Washington’s excessive encouragement of Ukraine and Bush’s blunder with respect to Georgia are eerie and alarming,” Carpenter wrote. The US and Nato would no more go to war with Russia over eastern Ukraine than they would to save South Ossetia, he suggested. And if they did, well, that’s world war three right there.
This is where truly global danger lies – in the hazy gap between words and deeds in the intensifying trilateral struggle between superpowers. Will Putin, goaded by Biden’s “killer” insult and numerous intractable disputes, call the US president’s bluff? On the other side of the world, will Xi?
China’s surly leader looks like a man prone to brooding. He has suffered many slights at the hands of the west, including accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, brutality in Hong Kong, and aggression in the seas around China. What drives him now as his forces besiege Taiwan?
One answer is that Xi may also hope to divert attention from domestic problems. Maybe he faces unseen challenges within China’s communist party. More probably, he would like to mark July’s centenary of the founding of the CCP by finally conquering what was the last redoubt of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists.
Taiwan reunification would seal Xi’s legacy. Ever closer personal, strategic and military ties with Putin’s Russia mean that he would face no pushback from that quarter, and some applause. The Taiwanese vow to fight, but cannot prevail alone. Only the Americans really stand in his way.
Is Xi simply trolling the Washington proles? Or will he defy them and make a move on Taiwan soon? The Orwellian nightmare for Biden and the west would be a simultaneous Russian invasion of Ukraine and a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Oceania’s choice: a war on two fronts, or humiliation all round. Welcome to Winston’s world.