In Russia’s Ukraine setbacks, China sees lessons for its future

As Russia faces setback after setback in its invasion of Ukraine, China is taking notes. China’s President Xi Jinping might be reworking his expansionist aims, especially related to Taiwan, as a small, outnumbered country foils Russia’s army a world away.

Andy Wong/AP/File
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews an honor guard at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2019. As Russia’s military failings in Ukraine mount, China is paying close attention.

With its ground troops forced to pull back in Ukraine and regroup, and its Black Sea flagship sunk, Russia’s military failings are mounting. No country is paying closer attention than China to how a smaller and outgunned force has held its ground against what was thought to be one of the world’s most powerful armies.

China, like Russia, has been ambitiously reforming its Soviet-style military, and experts say leader Xi Jinping will be carefully parsing the weaknesses exposed by the invasion of Ukraine as they might apply to his own People’s Liberation Army and his designs on the self-governing island of Taiwan.

“The big question Xi and the PLA leadership must be asking in light of Russian operations in Ukraine is whether a military that has undergone extensive reform and modernization will be able to execute operations that are far more complex than those Russia has undertaken during its invasion of Ukraine,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Russia’s armed forces have undergone an extensive process of reform and investment for more than a decade, with lessons learned in combat in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, and its annexation of Crimea helping guide the process. The Ukrainian invasion, however, has exposed weaknesses from the top down.

Experts have been collectively stunned that Russia invaded Ukraine with seemingly little preparation and lack of focus – a campaign along multiple, poorly-coordinated axes that has failed to effectively combine air and land operations.

Soldiers have been running out of food, and vehicles have been breaking down. With losses mounting, Moscow has pulled its forces away from the capital, Kyiv, to regroup. Last week, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva sank after Ukraine said it hit the ship with missiles; Russia blamed the sinking on a fire on board.

“It’s very hard to see success at any level in the way that Russia has prosecuted the campaign,” said Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Singapore.

President Vladimir Putin, who has been closely involved in Russia’s military reform, did not even appoint an overall commander for the operation until about a week ago, apparently expecting a quick victory and grossly misjudging Ukrainian resistance, Mr. Graham said.

“It’s a very personal war on his part,” Mr. Graham said. “And I think the expectation that this would be a cakewalk is obviously the biggest single failure.”

Mr. Putin’s decisions raise the question of whether he was given accurate assessments of the progress of military reform and Ukrainian abilities, or was just told what he wanted to hear.

Mr. Xi, also an authoritarian leader who has taken a personal role in China’s military reform, could now be wondering the same, Mr. Fravel said.

“Xi specifically may also wonder whether he is receiving accurate reports about the PLA’s likely effectiveness in a high intensity conflict,” he said.

China has had no recent major conflict by which to gauge its military prowess, having fought its last significant engagement in 1979 against Vietnam, said David Chen, a senior consultant with CENTRA Technology, a U.S.-based government services firm.

“The wakeup call for [China’s] Central Military Commission is that there are more unknown factors involved in any such campaign than they may have anticipated,” Mr. Chen said.

“Russia’s experience in Ukraine has shown that what may seem plausible on paper at the Academy of Military Science or National Defense University becomes much more complicated in the real world.”

Mr. Xi, the son of a revolutionary commander who spent time in uniform himself, began undertaking military reforms in 2015, three years after assuming leadership of the Central Military Commission.

Total troop strength was reduced by 300,000 to just under 2 million, the number of officers cut by a third, and a greater emphasis was given to non-commissioned officers to lead in the field.

China’s military has a tradition of respect for initiative from lower-ranking soldiers dating from its revolutionary origins, said Yue Gang, a Beijing-based military analyst. By contrast, Russian forces in Ukraine have shown weaknesses where decisions have had to be made on the front lines, he said.

“Chinese soldiers are encouraged to put forward their thoughts and views when discussing how to fight,” Mr. Yue said.

China’s seven military districts have been reorganized into five theater commands, the number of group armies reduced and the logistics system reorganized to boost efficiency. The ratio of support to combat units was increased and a greater emphasis was placed on more mobile and amphibious units.

Mr. Xi has also sought to end rampant corruption in the military, going after two former top generals shortly after taking power. One was sentenced to life in prison and the other died before his case was concluded.

China’s military is highly opaque and outside the purview of civilian judges and corruption investigators, so it’s difficult to know how thoroughly the organization has been exorcised of practices such as the selling of commissions and kickbacks on defense contracts.

For Mr. Xi, the military’s primary mission remains to protect the ruling Communist Party, and he has followed his predecessors in fighting back hard against efforts to have the military shift its ultimate loyalty to the nation.

Mr. Xi’s overriding political focus could mean the lessons he draws from the Ukraine conflict are off base, Mr. Graham said.

“Xi Jinping will always apply a political solution because he’s not a military specialist or an economic specialist,” Mr. Graham said. “I think the military lessons have to go through a political filter, so I’m not sure that China will take the lessons that are abundant and on show for everyone to see.”

The stated goal of China’s military reform is to “fight and win wars” against a “strong enemy” – a euphemism widely understood to refer to the United States.

China has pumped huge amounts of money into new equipment, has initiated more realistic training exercises with force-on-force scenarios, and sought to reform its fighting doctrine by studying American engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said in a forum in Australia last week that Beijing would be watching the Ukraine conflict closely.

“I don’t know what lessons they will learn but ... they’re focused on learning, without a doubt, because they’ve been doing that for the last 15 years,” he said.

General Berger stressed the need for strong coalitions in the Pacific as a way to keep China’s ambitions toward Taiwan in check.

China claims Taiwan as its own, and controlling the island is a key component of Beijing’s political and military thinking. In October, Mr. Xi again reiterated that “reunification of the nation must be realized, and will definitely be realized.”

Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support for Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack.

Like Mr. Putin’s assessment of Ukraine, Mr. Xi’s China does not appear to believe that Taiwan would try to put up much of a fight. Beijing routinely blames its problems with the island on a small group of hardcore independence advocates and their American supporters.

The entirely state-controlled Chinese media, meanwhile, draws on the imagined narrative that Taiwan would not willingly go to battle against what it describes as their fellow Chinese.

Now, the quick response by many nations to impose tough, coordinated sanctions on Russia after its attack on Ukraine, and the willingness to supply Ukraine with high-tech weaponry could make Mr. Xi rethink his approach to Taiwan, Mr. Fravel said.

With “the rapid response by advanced industrialized states, and the unity they have demonstrated, Xi is likely to be more cautious over Taiwan and less emboldened,” he said.

Conversely, the Ukraine experience could prompt China to accelerate its timetable on Taiwan with a more limited attack, such as seizing an outlying island, as a real-world test of its own military, Mr. Chen said.

“A sensible course would be to mature the PLA’s joint institutions and procedures through ever more rigorous exercises,” Mr. Chen said.

“But as the world has witnessed, a central leader with a specific ambition and a shortening timeline may short-circuit the process in reckless fashion.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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