There is a significant chance that the war in Ukraine will continue escalating over the upcoming months. There are several reasons for this. The oft-repeated argument is that neither Russia nor Ukraine – and the respective forces and interest groups that the parties represent – sees an active reason for ceasefire; indeed, both view victory in Kherkov, Donbas (and, increasingly) Crimea as integral to the fundamental narratives underpinning their regime legitimacy. Ukrainians view this war as a defense of Ukraine’s soul and identity; select forces in the Russian political establishment seem to view this as an existential struggle for Russia’s interests in face of threats from the West – though the extent to which this rationale holds in face of Putin’s clearly irredentist nationalism, remains questionable.
What is neglected, however, are the three latent forces that render such escalation a path that the Kremlin would even contemplate in the first place. The first, is that the Russian army has faced a series of devastating setbacks over recent weeks, especially in Kharkiv and Kherson. The combination of antiquated Cold War-era military apparatus, poor leadership, and the well-equipped nature of the Ukrainian army have left the Russian military campaign a dwindling runway as to potential options (short of total withdrawal from Ukraine). Putin is well-cognizant that he needs a quick win to rejuvenate military morale and to buy time till the winter.
The second, is the growing uneasiness and resentment amongst Russian citizens for Putin’s military campaign. The ‘partial’ mobilization and effective conscription of able-bodied men for the battlefields have compounded public discomfort concerning the decision to unilaterally invade one of Russia’s largest and most politically prominent neighbors. Historical animosities aside, the resurgence of hot war – in the aftermath of the Cold War – is a terrifying prospect of which the full implications have begun surfacing over recent weeks.
The third, is that on the contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations, Ukraine has not been particularly receptive towards the notion of negotiations and dialogue that would culminate at favorable terms for Russia. The original plan, of forcing Kyiv to come to the negotiation table, has backfired. NATO is expanding, as Finland and Sweden are in the process of entering into NATO. The European Union has arguably become more unified in face of Russian aggression. The Russian leadership is well aware that it needs to act swiftly in ramping up the costs of non-negotiation and non-compliance.
All three factors point towards likely escalation. Such escalation is likely to be substantial in scale and intensity, and may feature the crossing of a qualitative threshold – that is, a transition from large-scale, artillery-based confrontations into a nuclear or biochemical war. The absolute probabilities remain low enough for us to not become alarmed, but certainly too high for us to ignore the prospects of Russia deploying a small tactical nuclear weapon. There is nothing ‘limited’ about such weapons.
The fallout would be substantial. Setting aside the immediate, visceral impacts of nuclear weapons – the tragic legacy of the detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes to mind – it is apparent that the economic and financial fallout would not only compound the escalating macroeconomic crisis that is unfurling across the world, but also render post-COVID recovery in nations such as China most difficult. Additionally, Russia’s hypothetical nuclearisation would truly symbolize the end to the post-Cold War order of globalized peace – a move that threatens to escalate the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to a global level.
More substantially, there is absolutely no guarantee that Putin’s detonation of a nuclear weapon would not be matched by a symmetric detonation of a nuclear weapon of a similar, or slightly greater, magnitude by NATO and its allies. Once that happens, then the mechanics for progressively accelerating and spiraling nuclear exchanges would be well and truly set into motion – there would be no going back. For humanitarian reasons, but also for reasons pertaining to China’s economic robustness and strategic autonomy, Beijing has every reason to want to step in and up its efforts.
There are three steps to China’s much-needed intervention. Now, to demand that Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine would neither be feasible nor helpful from China’s perspective, given that it has repeatedly affirmed and maintains an official stance of neutrality over the conflict. Putin is unlikely to comply with the ask, and the further isolation of Russia as it withdraws into itself in that scenario, would give rise to greater erratic and unpredictable actions. China must maintain constructive communication channels with Russia that acknowledge the constraints of political action and reason.
A more plausible first step, then, is for Beijing to issue in private clear and unambiguous signals warning against nuclear escalation to the Kremlin, whilst affirming that China would be ready to step in in providing liaison and support for the brokering of a peaceful solution. The emphasis must be non-escalation – as opposed to anything else; only by targeting the message on this objective, could the gravity of China’s concerns be fully registered with Russia.
The second step is for China to work actively with its European counterparts in establishing a resilient framework of guardrails for both Ukraine and Russia. Whilst the conflicts cannot be halted, they can certainly be contained. Both sides should reduce the degree of mobilization and militarisation, and commit firmly to the principles that certain weapons and arms should be off-bounds and taken off the table for both sides.
This is obviously easier said than done. Both Kyiv and Moscow have every reason to want the other side to be deterred by their prospective advantages – the quality and intensity of military capital for the former, and the nuclear arsenal that Russia possesses for the latter. Yet games of chicken and brinkmanship do not often yield productive results for either of the parties involved – indeed, the downside costs and risks of such psychological warfare are far too vast, and both sides should have this fact made clear to them by China and Europe. Beijing and Brussels must, in turn, set aside the ongoing fissures in their relationships, in laying out a clear roadmap to containment and anti-escalation.
The final and third step, then, is for China and Europe to reach out to Ukraine and Russia, in establishing ‘pre-negotiations’ – that is, negotiations over prospective terms of negotiations. The ongoing war in Ukraine requires comprehensive solutions that are sensitive to the needs of the Ukrainian people, but that are also politically practicable and feasible. Arriving at these requires commonsense and pragmatism on the part of external third parties, who must prioritize the amelioration and cessation of violence, and ensure that international norms against nuclear aggression are truly upheld. China need not take sides – it has not taken sides thus far, and it would be erroneous to posit that it should do so now. If anything, the side the world must take now, is the side of peace. China has a clear stake and capacity to play a role.