Russia’s debacle gives China pause for thought

| May 6, 2022

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was fashionable to suggest that his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, would approvingly scrutinise Russia’s military performance and its implications for a Chinese military attack on Taiwan. Now, Beijing must face up to the fact that Russia has performed poorly and the West has been surprisingly cohesive in enforcing crippling financial sanctions on Moscow.

There are at least five military lessons for Xi to learn from Russia’s campaign so far.

First, Russia’s military planning has displayed an abysmally poor attitude to tactical coordination, including applying military force in battalion-sized penny packets instead of building up overwhelming, coordinated force on the key strategic object of occupying Kyiv. There appears to have been a serious breakdown in joint operations and overall command and control. And authoritarian countries like Russia run militaries where personal initiative is denied.

The architect of Russia’s approach to hybrid warfare, the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, enunciated a new doctrine of Russian warfare in 2013. Gerasimov saw conventional war between armies as a thing of the past. Instead, he called for ‘long distance, contactless actions against the enemy’, arguing that ‘the information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy’. He talked about an enemy’s ‘perfectly thriving state’ sinking into ‘a web of chaos’ under such an attack.

So, why has Gerasimov’s military philosophy gone missing? Rather than conventional war between armies being outdated, what today’s Russian military planning in Ukraine has confirmed is its reliance on crude conventional warfare. Most of us expected that the opening Russian campaign would be a massive cyberattack on Ukraine’s military command and control, intelligence networks and air-defence systems, as well as its air traffic control and electricity generation. None of this seems to have happened.

Second, Moscow’s logistics coordination and resupply planning seems to have been based on the expectation that Kyiv would be occupied within 48 to 72 hours. Instead, tanks have run out of fuel and troops have ransacked supermarkets for food. After nine weeks of uncoordinated urban warfare, the Russian army pulled out of Kyiv to focus on what it now claims is its primary military aim—the occupation of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Third, the intelligence advice about the likely attitudes of the invaded Ukrainian people was dangerously misinformed. The director of the Fifth Service, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service responsible for Ukraine, has been relieved of his command and sent to Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo prison. Apparently, his advice to Putin was that the Russian invasion force would be greeted with open arms and flowers by the Ukrainians.

Fourth, Russia still depends on conscripts for about 30% of its fighting force, and many of them are teenagers who were told that they were just going on a military exercise. Their morale is at rock bottom. Senior generals are being sent to lead Russian troops, resulting in eight or nine of them being killed (and even Gerasimov himself has reportedly been wounded).

The smart Ukrainian approach to Russian army prisoners of war is to confiscate their mobile phones, ring their mothers and invite them to come into Ukraine and pick up their sons. What a brilliant tactic for undermining the morale of Russian conscripts!

But it’s not only the conscripts who are performing poorly. Some of Russia’s elite troops—including some members of the renowned 76th Guards Air Assault Division—are refusing to continue fighting.

Last, there is ample evidence of the mediocre performance of many of Russia’s tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and missile brigades. Much of this appears to be down to poor maintenance. There’s also a problem of equipment suffering from an absence of critical components, because they were never installed or were stolen for sale on the black market.

Xi will want to reassure himself that these sorts of fundamental military deficiencies do not exist in the People’s Liberation Army. But the fact is that a great many of them are indeed deeply embedded in China’s corrupt communist system.

In addition, there are broader strategic policy challenges that confront Beijing in the post-Ukraine-invasion world. First, it has just been demonstrated by Russia that invading another country is not an easy task when there’s strong local resistance.

It’s difficult enough when crossing a land border, but invasion would be an entirely different task for China when crossing the 160 kilometres of the Taiwan Strait. Throughout history, amphibious assaults have been among the most challenging and potentially perilous of military endeavours.

There is the further fact that the inhabitants of an invaded state rarely welcome the foreign military occupiers. Putin claims that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people—a single whole’ unified by their common history, culture and spiritual space. That demonstrably has proven not to be the case and Ukrainians now see the Russians as a violent and cruel occupying force.

In the case of Taiwan, more than 70% of the population of 24 million identify themselves as being Taiwanese and not Chinese. That percentage is likely to grow as the years go by and those who identify themselves as of Chinese origin diminishes.

Xi presumably now looks with dismay at Russia’s military experience of occupying Ukraine and the disastrous intelligence provided by Russian agencies. He should be taking urgent steps to ensure he is better advised than his ‘best friend’ Putin.

The second strategic challenge for Beijing is the way in which the European Union and the broader Western community of democratic states agreed so rapidly to serious punitive economic sanctions against Russia.

These have not been just the usual trade and commodity sanctions, but—more importantly—a dramatic focus on comprehensive financial measures that include sanctioning trade in roubles and bank transactions with Russia, and sanctioning Moscow’s access to its large reserves of foreign currencies—amounting to more than US$700 billion.

Any such future financial sanctions against China by the West would be more difficult to sustain because of the enormous difference in size between Russia’s economic interrelationships with the West and those of China. Even so, this is not an issue that Beijing can just dismiss as being a totally implausible possibility.

The third strategic challenge for Beijing is that, unlike Russia, China has no recent first-hand experience of military conflict. Moscow’s experience includes the occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 for nine years, the Chechen wars in the 1990s, the attack on Georgia in 2008 and the occupation of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014, as well as its involvement in Syria since 2015.

The last time the PLA fired any shots in anger was in 1979 when Beijing decided that it would ‘teach Vietnam a lesson’ over its occupation of Cambodia. In fact, the PLA struggled to assert itself against battle-hardened Vietnamese forces, which had only a few years before defeated America in the Vietnam War.

Apart from some borders skirmishes in Siberia with the USSR in 1968, the PLA’s other experience of war was in the Korean War, where it relied on mass attacks by its poorly trained peasant forces. This lack of combat experience will be a crucial vulnerability of the PLA in a high-intensity conflict involving Taiwan.

All of these factors combined should give Xi pause for serious reflection on the need for extreme caution in mounting an invasion of Taiwan.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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