Events over the past two months have flipped the perception of the geopolitical world on its head, says CJ Werleman

When Russian President Vladimir Putin stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 4 February to announce their relationship had entered a “new era”, the fate of global democracy and the Western rules-based international order had reached its low water mark. Authoritarianism was on a seemingly unstoppable march.

‘Russia and China are playing chess, while the West is playing checkers’ was the common snipe hurled towards Washington D.C. and Brussels – a jibe echoed by former US President Donald Trump who routinely lauded Putin as a “genius” and praised Xi Jinping for his “toughness”.

With the United States and Europe divided and in disarray, President-for-life Putin plotted to restore the Russian Empire, while President-for-life Xi Jinping set his eyes on conquering the Western Pacific, starting with Taiwan.

Knowing that the US and NATO cannot fight and win a war on two fronts, the pair set in motion their plot to divide and rule the world, starting with the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.

Four weeks later, military analysts are calling Putin’s war the “greatest military disaster since the Second World War” – an accusation supported by a number of data points, including the death of 15,000 Russian soldiers and the loss of 500 tanks, 1,500 armoured personnel carriers, 100 aircraft, 120 helicopters, 35 operational and tactical UAVs, 250 artillery systems, 80 multiple launch rocket systems, 1,000 vehicles of various types, 45 anti-aircraft warfare systems, and 15 special equipment units, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence.

Russia has lost more military personnel and equipment in a neighbouring country in four weeks than the US lost in Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of two decades. An assessment by the head of the UK’s cyber spy agency has said that intelligence shows Russian soldiers are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment, and that Putin has “massively misjudged the capabilities of his own military”.

These losses on the battlefield are paired with the economic destruction that US and European sanctions have wrought on the Russian economy. The consequences will last a generation or longer, with Putin marginalised on the world stage and Russia branded a bona fide pariah state.

Europe is more united than ever before. NATO membership has never looked so appealing. There’s now even talk of an EU Army.

Six weeks ago, Beijing described its relationship with Moscow as an alliance “without limits”, but now it is pretending like it has never heard of Vladimir Putin, even forcing the Russian Foreign Minister’s airplane to turn around midway on its flight to the Chinese capital on 17 March – a signal of growing diplomatic distance between the two countries.

With Putin and Russia on the nose, China is suddenly trying to sell itself as an impartial mediator and facilitator for peace talks. Its state-controlled media outlets have even broken away from their initial pro-Russia talking points to air US Government accusations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Beijing now views both Putin and the Russian armed forces through the lens of a popular German expression: ‘Close the lid, the monkey is dead’.

According to Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, “the problem for China’s leaders, which they must now realise, is that one must be careful about the company one keeps”.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not produce more grain to feed the Chinese after the poor harvest predicted for their country this year,” he has said. “Nor will it replace the markets that China now risks losing in Europe and elsewhere because of its perceived closeness to the Kremlin. Instead, Putin’s war risks irreparably damaging China’s global image and its prospects of being a potential leader in international affairs.”

Two months ago, Xi Jinping, on the back of the Beijing Olympic Games, was riding a wave of unbridled national enthusiasm towards his reappointment in 2022. But not only has his siding with Putin damaged China’s global reputation, the Chinese economy finds itself in a tailspin, having set its lowest economic growth target in more than three decades. This is against a backdrop of the Coronavirus spreading like wildfire, forcing tens of millions of residents in Chinese cities – including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – into lockdown and cutting off travel between cities and production lines, shutting down shopping malls and technology hubs, as reported by The New York Times.

Worse still, China relied on its own vaccines to fight the Coronavirus, but they appear to have been almost useless against the Omicron variant. Because Beijing adopted a ‘zero COVID’ policy, using strict quarantine and lockdown measures, it has left the population with little immunity from prior infections. The pandemic is now an albatross around Xi Jinping’s neck.

His concerns are no doubt heightened by an “unprecedented” crash in China’s property market – which accounts for 25% of the country’s gross domestic product and 40% of bank assets – and an “unprecedented” flight of foreign capital from Chinese markets since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to a study by the Institute of International Finance. It found no similar outflows from other emerging markets, “adding insult to injury”.

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These changing economic and political realties have made China more vulnerable to international sanctions and isolation, leaving Beijing with little choice other than to put greater diplomatic distance between itself and Moscow, and less distance between itself and the Western hemisphere.

Taiwan’s National Security Bureau Director-General, Chen Ming-tong, said that the war in Ukraine is likely to improve China-US relations, in the same way the two rival powers established closer ties after the 9/11 attacks.

This was not the seismic shift in the international order many had predicted when Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping issued their joint statement on 4 February, but it is seismic nevertheless. Just not in the way Moscow and Beijing had hoped for.

As Russia scholar Stephen Kotkin has noted, Putin’s invasion “disproves all the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multi-polar world and the rise of China… all of that turned out to be bunk”.

The West is playing chess, while Putin and Xi Jinping are playing checkers. It’s been a long time since global democracy felt so reinvigorated.

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