Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

Been a bit slow in posting of late, lots going on. New book, radio documentary replaying, and lots of projects am late on as well as new ones starting up. That on top of life has been keeping me occupied. But need to catch up here and plan for the next wave. First up, a new journal piece for Current History, the oldest current affairs journal which have written a few times before though mostly focused on China and connectivity in Central and South Asia.

“Perpetrators no longer seemed to have a coherent motivation based on only one ideology (or any external direction), but often created highly idiosyncratic ideologies that pulled in ideas from a wide range of sources.”

The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe

Europe: March 2022

Two decades on from September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat in Europe has been almost entirely transformed. Far from mass casualty spectaculars like the public transportation attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the greater danger now is isolated individuals murdering politicians or stabbing random people in public places. Yet the dwindling scale of terrorism has only made plots harder to detect.

This was pointed out in the latest annual threat assessment by Europol (the European police coordinating agency), which noted that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted” during 2020, the last year of reporting. Though less directly lethal, these low-scale attacks pick at social divisions in a way that can be even more dangerous than the large-scale, spectacular attacks directed by al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS).

Europe has always seemed to be a secondary battlefield in the war on terrorism. But whereas the United States appears to have insulated itself from the threat at this point, Europe continues to confront a scenario that is noticeably more complicated and chronic. Terrorism’s evolving presence still poses a deep threat to European society.

POST-9/11 SPECTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on America, Europe became a key battlefield in the “Global War on Terrorism.” Revelations that a substantial part of the logistics, planning, and even recruitment for the al-Qaeda attacks had happened in Europe awakened the continent to a threat that it had inadvertently hosted. But only a few months later, Paris became a springboard for a follow-up attack on the United States. On December 22, as the world was just starting to return to normal, a radicalized young Briton, Richard Reid, unsuccessfully tried to bring down a transatlantic flight to Miami with a bomb concealed in the heel of his shoe. Reid was part of a two-man teamof Britons who had been sent by the al-Qaeda leader responsible for 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. His co-conspirator, Saajid Badat, had backed out at the last minute.

From a European perspective, these two failed attackers were in many ways even more terrifying than the 9/11 group, for which the blame could be laid on foreign shores. The notorious Hamburg cell that produced key 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah was, for the most part, made up of foreigners like them who were in Europe studying or seeking employment. Similarly, Europe was simply a backdrop for the planning meetings that took place in Spain, or the network in the United Kingdom that facilitated the dispatch of a pair of suicide bombers to Afghanistan to carry out the assassination of leading Taliban adversary Ahmed Shah Masood. In all these elements of the attack plan, Europe served as a convenient staging point for the conspirators, who drew on the continent’s Middle Eastern population.

These communities were the product of trends that had been playing out for some time. As authoritarian Arab countries cracked down on dissidents, many fled to Europe’s more liberal and protective environment, from where they could agitate for change back home. This diaspora was a constant source of tension between Arab and European governments. Arab authorities lobbied their European counterparts to crack down; Europeans pushed back, claiming that these dissidents were simply calling for legitimate political rights, in ways that were legally protected in Europe. The dissidents were often harbored in the former colonial powers that had once ruled their home countries, giving a historical resonance to the clash.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

Almost caught up with myself now, this time with a short piece for the Times Red Box which sought to highlight the rather ill-advised comments by the UK Foreign Secretary which seemed to actively encourage people to go and join the fighting in Ukraine. Considering what we have learned about foreign fighting, the legislation that has been passed and the people who have been prosecuted for doing it (not also forgetting the optics of a minister calling for vigilantism), it seemed particularly unfortunate comment to make, and in fact a number of other senior figures have now come out pushing back on the comment. Unfortunately, I keep seeing it being referred to by people who say they want to go and fight so the damage is likely done.

Encouraging Britons to fight in Ukraine is hypocritical

Two foreign fighters from the UK asked to be identified as “Scouser” and “Jacks” pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The foreign secretary’s seeming encouragement for Britons to go and fight alongside the Ukrainian armed forces is a comprehensible impulse given current tensions, but is the wrong message for a government minister to be sending. The commentary creates potential legal problems, risks fostering divisions at home, fans the flames of emotion when calm is needed and is unlikely to materially help the conflict on the ground.

This is not the first time a foreign conflict has generated an emotional call to arms. Famous foreign fighters from the past include authors like George Orwell or Lord Byron.

There were the famous international brigades mobilised to fight the Franco regime in Spain in the pre-war period. There were the international Mujahideen who went to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. During the civil wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, people mobilised from around the world to help the various governments that emerged.

More recently, however, we associate the phenomenon with those who went to fight in Syria, both alongside and against Islamic State, with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as well as other factions who were fighting against the cruel Assad regime.

The impulse for most of those who go to fight in these campaigns is the same. A sense of injustice being committed and the world watching as nothing is being done. There are some who are simply drawn to the excitement and violence of conflict, seeking the thrill of fighting and killing. But most are drawn by romantic narratives imagining themselves as latter-day Che Guevaras.

Yet in the UK, the government has chosen to prosecute some of those who have gone to fight alongside these groups. A number of people have been jailed for having fought alongside Isis, other jihadist groups in Syria and even some who joined the Kurdish forces fighting Isis (whom the government was actively supporting).

The act of going to fight itself was not illegal but the decision to join a proscribed terrorist organisation was.

This may feel different to the context in Ukraine, but there are some worrying precedents there as well. An unknown number of British nationals have in fact already been to fight in Ukraine (and may still be). Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas, Ukraine has been a hotspot for radicalised westerners, mostly of an extreme right-wing inclination, seeking to join a battlefield.

In Italy, people have gone to fight on both sides. Some alongside the Russian-backed separatists and others alongside the Ukrainian side. An investigation into one of these networks in 2019 uncovered a cell in northern Italy who had accumulated a vast cache of weapons including an air-to-air missile.

In the UK, Britons linked to the proscribed terrorist group National Action are believed to have gone, while a number of North Americans linked to far-right groups have tried to join the fighting in the Donbas but were turned back by Ukrainian authorities.

Nowadays it is doubtful they would be rejected, but the issues raised by their travel remain. Battle-hardened extreme right-wing group members are clearly worrying people to have running around.

And the bigger narrative issues this raises need consideration. While there is no doubt that going to join Isis is different to going to fight in Ukraine (Isis has openly spoken of attacking the UK), there are some similarities in the motivations that drive individuals.

The danger becomes that a racial analysis is used to distinguish the two. Government is seen as being eager to prosecute people who go to fight Muslim conflicts, but when it comes to European wars, they encourage it. This is hardly going to soothe tensions between communities.

We are in the midst of a major security crisis in Europe whose peak has not yet come. This is exactly the moment emotions need to be calmed rather than inflamed. And it is exactly not the moment to start encouraging activity which until now has been prosecuted and which in other contexts we would never dream of countenancing.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

Another short catch-up post for the Telegraph, something they commissioned in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. It even managed to generate a response on their letters page which is always reassuring.

Western intelligence was mocked after Iraq. With Ukraine, it has redeemed itself

An explosion in Ukraine after Russia launched its invasion in the early hours of Feb 24 CREDIT: Zuma Press / eyevine

Intelligence tends to toil in silence. The only operations we usually hear about are ones that are leaked or when they go wrong. Successful terrorist attacks, for example, are reflections of intelligence failures. In the run up to the war in Iraq, the politicization of intelligence provided cover for an ill-judged conflict and has become a stick by which intelligence assessments are regularly brandished when they seem to threaten dire events. 

Yet on Ukraine, western intelligence can be judged to have been remarkably accurate from what we have seen so far. The only gap appeared to be an understanding of what would actually stop Vladimir Putin from making his move, something that reflects an inability to see inside one man’s head.

Information gathered by intelligence is never complete. It is usually a series of fragmentary images that provide a series of snapshots of a situation. Each piece comes from a different source and has a different level of reliability which needs consideration and evaluating alongside the actual information itself. This makes intelligence analysis and assessment more of an art than science. It also helps sometimes explain failures.

In a curious twist, the intelligence this time was visible for us all to see. The massive Russian troop accumulations on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and in Belarus, alongside the Russian provocations in supporting separatist forces in the Donbas were all reported and covered repeatedly on social media

Some even made it into the mainstream press. And as concern built about what Putin was planning, it was clear that western intelligence sought to brief out and share more of the information that they had to highlight the threat that they saw.

The goal was two-fold. First, to prepare the public for what was coming, and therefore the response that would follow. But more importantly to try to signal to Putin that the west was aware of what he was up to and that his repeated public pleas that he had no intention of invading Ukraine were lies.

 The hope being that this might deter him from carrying through on what they imagined he was planning on the basis of all the activity that was visible on the ground.

The only real missing part of the picture was what Putin himself was thinking and the moment of attack. US President Joe Biden and his administration started signalling a few weeks ago that they expected an attack any moment. They could judge from the forces on the ground that Russia was now able to launch an attack at any moment. But they did not know exactly when it was going to happen. Because this information was likely locked in one man’s head – Putin’s.

This ultimately is always the problem with intelligence information. It is dependent on knowing what people are thinking, and while external indicators can show a lot (and online behaviour in particular is a huge giveaway), intent and action are still dependent on choices people make. Sometimes this is based on logic and planning, other times on emotion.

On Ukraine there is no doubt that intelligence collection was accurate. The troop numbers, the plan and the path of action was largely predicted. And what they expected has come to pass. 

The fear now is that they were entirely right. In which case, the grim plan that was revealed which spoke of lists of Ukrainians to target, incarcerate and execute, and a puppet regime to be put in place instead is also accurate. 

This may be a very public vindication of western intelligence capabilities and a rebuff to those still stuck on the failures of Iraq, but it comes at a heavy cost to Ukraine and the world.

A different kind of post this time, to highlight a radio series that I worked on for BBC Radio 4 with excellent and patient producer Richard Fenton-Smith. We worked for some time on the series, with much of it remotely which was an interesting experience. Spoke to lots of interesting people as part of it, including practitioners, experts, offenders and family members. The idea was to try to dig into the question of how mental health intersects with the terrorist threat and to explore what is being done to try to mitigate threat. We ended up spending a lot of time looking into autism spectrum disorders in the end, and it feels like there might be more on this topic out there in the future. It is a complicated edge of the current threat picture which touches on a number of bigger issues. Many thanks to all of those who spoke to us as part of it, including the various family members of offenders who were willing to tell their stories. Anyway, the first of two big projects to land this year, and doubtless more on this particular topic to come. Download, listen and enjoy!

The series webpage can be found here: Terrorism and the Mind

While the three episodes can be found here:

The Mental Health Frontline: which looks in particular at the Vulnerability Hubs which have been developed to try to work alongside the UK’s Prevent counter-terrorism policy to steer people away and address mental health issues amongst some of those flagged to Prevent.

Talking to Terrorists: which tries to look at the history of the question of mental health and terrorism, trying to unpick the research which underpins thinking into how the two issues intersect.

Getting the Balance Right: which focuses on what is actually being done at the prosecutorial end, and spends a lot of time looking at questions around autism spectrum disorders in particular which appear to be a major part of the caseload that authorities (in the UK at least) find themselves dealing with.

Catch up posting which appears a bit incongruous with current events, with a title which was certainly not one I suggested, though in the interests of consistency I have kept it as the title of this post. In any case, a piece commissioned by the Telegraph in the wake of the death of the ISIS leader.

Strange though it sounds, America may come to regret killing the leader of ISIS

There is a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will compete to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown

The death of Isis leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi is unlikely to be the end of the group. Terrorist group decapitation can sometimes generate a new series of problems as groups fragment, face internal competition and feel the need to prove themselves with even more dramatic attacks. Which raises the long-standing question about the actual value of eliminating terrorist leaders. 

Historically, there are very few groups that can be found where the removal of a leader led to the group’s disintegration. The one analysts most frequently point to is the Shining Path in Peru which largely shrank away after its leader was jailed. But it is exceptional with most other cases groups continuing on with someone new in charge.

This is not to say that leaders are not significant. In rising to the top they will establish a web of contacts and plans which will potentially fall apart with their removal. Funding contacts, plans in train, and grand visions will be sharply stopped, and will require picking up by whoever comes next.

But there is an interesting theory which suggests that in fact a more effective way of managing a terrorist leader is to find a way of cutting him off from his organisation. By making it hard for him (or her) to lead will potentially leave the group stymied and blocked. There is some evidence that the protective measures put between Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda actually may have led to group stasis. 

Hidden in his compound in Abbotabad, only able to get messages in and out through a complicated courier system, meant it was very difficult to get rapid decisions passed down. This in turn made it hard to direct a global organisation like al Qaeda but also meant that the organisation had to wait for the leader to answer when they made inquiries to him. And Osama was a hesitant leader who it appears was often blocking plans his fighters were eager to advance. Yet, the method of communications meant it was difficult to debate and discuss.

None of this of course eradicated the group, but it made it much harder to function. And likely played a role in its decline in the late 2010s. The leader who replaced him Ayman al Zawahiri seems equally aloof, but has the additional problem of suffering from a notable lack of charisma, creating a lethal combination for al Qaeda.

A danger in removing leaders is they become martyrs to their cause. But it also potentially creates an internal dynamic within the organisation as various factions vie for the top job. Given terrorist organisations ways of showing off is by launching large scale attacks, this presents a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will push themselves forwards with great violence to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown.

It is not clear how internally fragmented Isis in Syria and Iraq is these days. The organisation has in recent days launched some notable large-scale incidents, including a mass prison break. While it is hard to link this uptick in activity with the death of the group’s leader, it does suggest a dynamism within the group which is quite menacing. 

What is unlikely is that any upward trajectory is going to be stopped with Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi’s death. Rather, it may be accelerated in an attempt to avenge him, or as different groups seek to push themselves forwards at a moment of flux. Isis in Syria and Iraq will undoubtedly come out of this stronger than it was before.