Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine relied on two key determinations – one of which was a serious misstep, and the other which was spot on.
Putin and his advisors miscalculated the tenacity and determination of the Ukrainian people, and the level of resistance they would mount against one of the world’s largest military forces. Kyiv was expected to fall within weeks.
But there was another reaction Putin and his top advisors correctly anticipated, and it was absolutely key to executing a successful operation: the lack of direct intervention by the U.S. and its allies if Russia were to invade Ukraine.
In 1994, the U.S. and U.K. pressured Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons, in exchange for the assurance of security. A third country joined the Americans and British in their assurances — the Russian Federation. It was five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and three years after the Cold War was officially over. Russia was embracing capitalism, and its leader, Boris Yeltsin, had become fast friends with U.S. President Bill Clinton since their initial meeting a year prior.
Known as the Budapest Memorandum, the language specifically provided security ‘assurances’ – not guarantees – in the event Ukraine was attacked with nuclear weapons. The document also required Russia to “respect … Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders,” as well as refrain from the use of force against the European nation.
While there has been no known application of nuclear weapons in the current conflict, Russia has no doubt breached its obligations under the memorandum — its second time doing so since its troops attempted to take the Crimea region in 2014. Nearly three decades after the Budapest Memorandum, Russia correctly assumed the United States would be unwilling to engage with it in any serious manner in Ukraine. Uncle Sam sent guns and money but was not prepared to enter into a hot war, potentially triggering World War III.
While any American intervention in Ukraine would more than likely have led to a devastating world war, on the opposite side of the globe, it’s the presence of U.S. armed forces in Australia and its neighbors that acts as the greatest deterrence for potential Chinese aggression in the region.
President Joe Biden’s recent declaration that the United States would intervene in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has been widely treated as a gaffe, with The White House attempting to walk back the comments.
Some have put it down as a misstep from the 79-year-old leader, but the comments may actually have been a carefully calculated shot across the bow. A revelation that the United States is prepared to go to war to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty — for the ears of those on the island nation, as well as those in Beijing — leaving White House staff to pour cold water on the idea, for the sake of continuing diplomacy and the express desire for peace
In recent weeks, President Biden traveled to Tokyo to meet with his counterparts from the ‘Quad’ – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. These are the leaders of countries that rely heavily on their friendship with the United States of America and its mighty military to ensure that peace remains in the Asia-Pacific.
Many in the region believe the only thing stopping China from steamrolling across the sea and the mountains, swallowing Taiwan and taking whatever it pleases, is the military superiority the United States currently holds over the world’s most populous nation.
But even that may not be enough. Hayman Capital Management Chief Investment Officer Kyle Bass says, from a financial perspective, the People’s Republic of China is currently positioning itself for war and is using lessons learned from the Ukraine invasion to better prepare its people. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a test — a way for China to witness the West’s tactics and adjust its own strategy to be more effective, and less exposed.
In late May, the Chinese Communist Party issued instructions to its senior members to divest their overseas assets. The explosion of capitalism and new money in China over the past few decades prompted its citizens to seek protection for their newfound wealth in overseas property markets. The recent sanctions against Russia have shown that foreign investors have fewer rights, and money is no longer safe in western houses and apartments. But it’s not purely about protecting the party elite. If the likes of Australia and Canada face a mass selling off of property — countries where Chinese foreign-owned property has helped create huge housing bubbles — it could supercharge a housing collapse, right at a time when interest rate increases are already applying pressure on the housing sector. Not only would the Chinese get to reap the astronomical profits, but they would also destabilize the economies of those who seek to oppose them.
These are lessons the Chinese have learned from watching Russian oligarchs being stripped of their prized possessions across the world. But China’s wealth is more distributed, both among its citizenry, as well as geographically. If its growing upper classes were to lose their riches in any significant way, the sentiment of the people would no doubt turn against the country’s leadership, and create cracks in the resolve of its military.
But it’s not just financial measures the Chinese are studying. In April, a college professor named Dr. Yi Li told students at the Chaoyang District Party School in Beijing: “With powerful troops and firepower, we should use as short a time as possible to quickly unify Taiwan Province of China.
“The practice of the Russian-Ukrainian war has proved that, as I said in December last year, the campaign to liberate Taiwan requires the rapid elimination of Taiwan’s air force, navy, missile forces, and armored forces, while simultaneously cutting off water, electricity, and mobile phones throughout Taiwan,” Yi said.
“Wherever the liberation goes, electricity, water, and mobile phones can be connected to them. In places where the PLA has not liberated, water, electricity, and mobile phones must not be connected, especially mobile phones.”
Professor Yi, who is understood to have received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Illinois, also suggested China could withdraw its $60 billion of gold and sell $3 trillion worth of US bonds in order to cause weakness in the U.S. economy prior to a Taiwan invasion. China and its people are thinking, preparing, and implementing plans.
But while its strategists study the world’s response to immoral aggression in Ukraine, what China cannot — and should not — count on, is for the United States to do nothing as Taiwan is invaded, despite the mixed messages emanating from The White House. If the Russia-Ukraine war has taught us anything, it is that the United States must remain steadfast in its commitments to its allies. In this, there must be no doubt.
Ben Zachariah is an Australian journalist and public relations practitioner with more than 15 years of experience. He holds an MBA and has interests in macroeconomics, geopolitics, and strategic public affairs. When he’s not behind a laptop, you can find Ben either out in the bush, in a rally car, or ignoring one of his many project cars.