This is the first of a two-part series. For two countries that have drawn ever closer together, it’s quite remarkable how different China and Russia see themselves and the world at large. Learning how nations understand themselves and justify their actions is essential to passing judgments on them. Given the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine, it’s worth considering how Russia and China differ or even compete in their world views. They should be considered and examined before making unwarranted comparisons and issuing irresponsible warnings, such as claiming an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan. There are, of course, many ways to approach such a huge topic, depending on the depths of your knowledge or ignorance. I propose considering two fundamental self-conceptions, respectively of China and Russia, that show some superficial similarities but are at heart opposites: Russkiy Mir and Tianxia . We can see that one has led to repeated wars and military conflicts; the other has not. During the 1990s and the 2000s, the intelligentsia in both countries began to develop the respective concepts. Both ideas draw on historical and cultural resources of their premodern antecedents to explain, justify and legitimise their current national projects and ambitions. Russkiy Mir A well-crafted Russian Matryoshka doll can contain many smaller iterations of themselves. Likewise, Russkiy Mir, as a general idea, contains conceptual layers, with a grand vision, a strategic and diplomatic doctrine to direct it, and a military doctrine to implement it. Literally, it means the Russian world, but it also extends its meaning to cover Russian civilisation and the Russian sphere of influence. Does its geographic extent coincide with the boundaries of the former Soviet Union or the historic Russian Tsarist empire? Presumably, Russian leaders would want that left vague, to leave options open. The unity of the Russian world includes all Russian speakers, not just Russian citizens. But as understood by President Vladimir Putin , as he himself has said repeatedly, that unity was fractured since the end of the Cold War. That event, celebrated by the Western victors, is understandably considered an unmitigated catastrophe by the losers. Given what happened to Russia and ordinary Russians in the two decades thereafter, who could blame them? History didn’t end for them; it merely intensified their suffering and humiliation. Mr Putin, please give peace a chance It is Putin’s self-declared historical mission to restore that unity and secure its existence and continuation against external threats. The eastward expansions of Nato and the ideological shift of former Soviet satellite states towards western Europe and the United States are certainly such threats. Strategically and militarily, Ukraine embodies both threats. According to Wilfried Jilge, a Ukraine expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, there is also the dimension of the “sacred” Slavic orthodox community of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians that evokes the historic tradition of “Holy Russia”. That traditional unity was spelt out in a long essay penned by Putin himself, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, first published in July last year. The same theme was repeated as a justification for war when he announced on television the start of the current invasion. While Russkiy Mir is no doubt open to a more benign and peaceful interpretation, Putin has clearly given it an aggressive and militant spin. Russkiy Mir, wrote Jilge, received a political update with the concept Novorossiya (New Russia), especially after Russia’s takeover of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But how do you realise a vision? You need actual strategic, diplomatic and military doctrines which serve as mental road maps, with military hardware and computer software to back them up. The Primakov doctrine, named after former foreign and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, provides the diplomatic and strategic rationale. By his analysis, the end of the Cold War established the unipolar world dominated by the US. Unipolarity is and will always be a direct threat to the security of Russia and “the Russian world”. The decline and/or erosion of US hegemony is to be encouraged by helping to bring about a multipolar world, with the emergence of great powers such as China and India, perhaps even Japan and Germany. While global primacy is out of reach and perhaps not even desirable for Russia, Moscow needs to re-establish dominance within its own sphere of influence, especially in Central Europe and the Baltics; and to roll back Nato influence in those regions. Ukraine is the West’s fight, not China’s To that end, a robust and modernised military is needed, not the one at the end of the Cold War or that which fought to a pyrrhic victory in Chechnya. Russia needed a military with capabilities and reach as articulated under the Gerasimov doctrine, named after Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who was appointed by Putin himself. As argued by Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Gerasimov doctrine is the outcome of the Primakov doctrine. On this military doctrine, hybrid warfare involves a whole-of-government commitment that fuses hard and soft power across both military and civilian domains against an enemy. This ranges from information warfare that interfered with the US presidential election in 2016; military intervention in Syria (to re-establish Russia’s lost influence in the region) and Georgia in 2008 and annexation/occupation of the Ukrainian Crimea and the most recent linkage with the breakaway Donbas region. Does the current outright invasion of Ukraine qualify as a legitimate goal of the Gerasimov and Primakov doctrines? It would seem not. Many experts and critics, including Russian ones, have argued the threat of invasion could have achieved more advantages and goals than carrying out the threat itself, which could turn out to be counterproductive, if not self-defeating. Clearly, Ukraine is being invaded not only because it’s a means (for Putin the rationalist) but an end in itself (for Putin the “Holy Russia” nationalist). Those doctrines precisely counsel actions that carry low or at least calculated costs for reasonable prizes. They are precisely calibrated against the proverbial “betting the ranch”, to which Putin has now irreversibly committed with the full-scale invasion. On Ukraine, China is the adult in the room Power, of course, tends to be self-aggrandising, and rarely self-limiting. All the doctrines and programmatic visions have served Putin well, until now. But he seems to have abandoned their rationale, rationality and self-discipline; the latest invasion is indisputably a strategic overreach. A run of luck/skills makes a gambler feel invincible. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. It’s hard not to see a certain parallel with another grand adventurer from the 1930s. The annexation of Austria, rearmament, reoccupation of the Rhineland, and seizure of Czechoslovakia (on the excuse of protecting Sudeten Germans) – these were undeniably diplomatic and military successes, without a shot fired. If Donald Trump had been born in that era, he would no doubt have shouted, “Genius!” Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Crimea, and Donetsk and Luhansk (on the excuse of protecting Russians there from an imaginary genocide) in Ukraine … Putin got away with them, mostly, until now. But history does not repeat itself. This time, in an act of supreme humanity, Poland has opened its borders to all Ukrainians who need to escape; and Ukraine is led by a resolute leader who is Jewish. Who says humankind doesn’t improve, sometimes? Tianxia I ask you, does China seem remotely interested in pursuing actions, rationales and methods similar to those of Russia under Putin? Apologies. This section will have to wait till tomorrow, but see my column, “How to rule under the heaven” , on September 10, 2020. Despite being online only, my editors get upset if I write too long.