A boy eats candy floss next to a destroyed Russian tank displayed on Khreshchatyk Street, in Kyiv, on August 23. The street was turned into an open-air military museum ahead of Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24. Photo: AFP
Nicholas Ross Smith
Nicholas Ross Smith

Russia’s struggles in Ukraine offer Beijing useful lessons on Taiwan

  • Much like the Soviet Union’s collapse reinforced China’s focus on economics at the end of the Cold War, Russia is again giving Beijing food for thought
  • Moscow’s overconfidence and underperformance in Ukraine are likely to weigh on Beijing’s thinking over reunifying Taiwan by force

In the course I teach on the Cold War, I invariably end proceedings with a debate about who won. Typically, students say it was the US. Once, though, a student from China argued that China actually won the Cold War.

Their reasoning went like this. After the Cold War, US hubris led to disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq. China, unlike the Soviet Union, managed to become more capitalist while keeping its society stable.
I am not here to debate the merits of that answer. However, the second aspect of the student’s reasoning – that China did not make the mistakes of the Soviet Union – is worth thinking about in the context of the current conflict in Ukraine and Beijing’s Taiwan predicament.

The source of the claim that China learned significant lessons from the demise of the Soviet Union stems from a quote from Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Zhifang. In 1990, he said “My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot”.

Both China and the Soviet Union undertook significant economic reform in the 1980s. While the Soviet Union’s perestroika economic policy was accompanied by glasnost – some political liberalisation – China focused on economics.

Both the Soviet Union and China experienced significant social upheaval in the late 1980s. Because China had not liberalised its politics like the Soviet Union, it was able to avoid the “Tocqueville paradox” – the tendency of an authoritarian state to experience rapid political destabilisation when undertaking political reform – and withstand the threat of popular revolution.

How end of Soviet Union still weighs on Chinese leaders’ minds

The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union not only entrenched a belief in China of the soundness of its focus on economic reform but also that it needed to learn the lessons of the collapse as a contingency for potential future challenges.

Six months after Russia invaded Ukraine, China is probably learning new lessons from its neighbour. It is clear Russia initiated the invasion based on the belief that victory would be swift. It seems the thought process was that the Russian army would quickly take Kyiv and force an overthrow of the Ukrainian government.

Now, though, Russia’s war efforts are best described as increasingly disastrous. First, their territorial gains have been rather modest. Ukrainian forces are now stifling any potential expansion and even seem poised to take the fight to Russia.
Second, Russia’s casualties in the invasion are estimated as high as 80,000, making it more costly than Afghanistan and Iraq were for the US. Even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, widely credited with helping hasten the former’s collapse, was far less catastrophic, and that conflict lasted nearly a decade.


‘Will never get down on our knees’: Ukrainians speak 6 months after Russia’s invasion

‘Will never get down on our knees’: Ukrainians speak 6 months after Russia’s invasion
Beyond the military costs, the economic costs are mounting as well. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has prevented economic collapse so far by implementing strict capital controls and leaning on relations with China, India and Türkiye, the long-term implications of sanctions are still significant and will hurt one of the Putin regime’s important sources of legitimacy: economic performance.

Whatever the outcome of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia will be a significantly weaker power afterwards. Putin’s decision to invade is likely to be another example of the “march of folly” in future assessments.

The invasion of Ukraine initially inspired fear that Beijing would follow suit and launch a military operation to reunify Taiwan. The island is an important part of President Xi Jinping’s leadership narrative, with reunification stated as a main goal of the Communist Party’s agenda in the lead-up to its next major milestone – a century in power in 2049.

When will Beijing’s patience with Taiwan run out?

Although a direct comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan is foolish, the idea that Beijing would be willing to launch a military assault on Taiwan should be viewed with significant scepticism, given Russia’s experience in the past six months.
Military success in Taiwan could be more difficult than in Ukraine. The island is mountainous and heavily forested. It also has significant security assurances from the US, though nothing as formal as Nato’s Article 5. Like Ukrainians, Taiwanese are likely to offer fierce resistance.
While US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taipei elicited a strong response from the mainland to show it is serious about reunifying by “all means necessary”, it is clear Beijing would prefer peaceful reunification. In a white paper published by Xinhua, the State Council said that “our ultimate goal is to ensure the prospects of China’s peaceful reunification”.


Mainland China white paper declares ‘greatest sincerity’ for peaceful reunification with Taiwan

Mainland China white paper declares ‘greatest sincerity’ for peaceful reunification with Taiwan
There are some concerning parallels between Beijing and Moscow. Xi, like Putin, is increasingly using history to justify his domestic and foreign policies and has leaned on “othering” the West to justify his tightening grip on power. Having a democratic, Western-facing Taiwan – like a democratic, Western-facing Ukraine for Russia – is seen as a threat to regime security.

However, the two should not be viewed as completely analogous. China has not shown anywhere near the level of ontological insecurity that led Russia to invade Ukraine.

While much has been made of the Sino-Russian friendship in recent months, given how the war in Ukraine has progressed, the greatest asset Russia brings to its friendship with China is not anything tangible but rather that it continues to be a “canary in the coal mine” for Beijing. As in the past, Russian missteps are likely to alter calculations in Beijing to avoid making the same mistakes as Moscow.

Nicholas Ross Smith is an adjunct fellow in the National Centre for Research on Europe, University of Canterbury