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Bridging the U.S.-China Perception Gap on Ukraine

May 19, 2022

A cursory comparison of U.S. and China television coverage of the war in Ukraine suggests that the U.S. is focused on battlefield developments, humanitarian tragedy and the provision of aid, while China’s coverage involves a mix of showing Russia’s geopolitical side of the story, while calling for negotiations and a restoration of economic stability. 

Jeffrey Sachs, esteemed economist at Columbia University, is among a handful of prominent American voices in sync with the current Chinese view, calling attention to the economic devastation and calling for immediate negotiation. He insists it’s better to push Ukraine towards talks with Russia and take Russian interests into account rather than cheer on Ukraine and face a war of attrition on the battlefield. Even if the U.S. stays out of the fighting, the destruction caused by continued war will be immense, for not just Ukraine, but for the whole world. 

This dovish view is very much out-of-sync with the popular groundswell of U.S. support for Ukraine to defeat Russia, in an epic clash that is being telecast in terms of a David-and-Goliath struggle. And it’s no secret the U.S. is rooting for the underdog, which is Ukraine in this case.

No stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to criticizing the U.S. and seeking out points of agreement with U.S. rivals, Sachs has earned the dubious title of “China’s Apologist in Chief” by the conservative National Review. 

Such opprobrium does not do justice to the subtlety of his arguments nor his stubborn willingness to call things as he sees them. 

As Sachs explains in his May 10, 2022, commentary on the war in Ukraine:

“Russia blundered badly by underestimating the resolve of Ukrainians to fight and the effectiveness of NATO-supplied weaponry. Yet Ukraine and NATO are also overestimating their capacity to defeat Russia on the battlefield.” 

Gao Yusheng, a former Chinese Ambassador to the Ukraine, recently observed that the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg followed by a quick victory signaled the beginning of Russian defeat. As he sees it, “every day the end of the war is delayed is a weighty burden,” especially for Russia. 

“Russian military and economic advantages have been offset by the resilience of Ukraine and the huge, sustained and effective aid provided to Ukraine.” 

Gao is acutely aware that both sides bring political baggage to the conflict. In this regard, he seems to understand Ukraine rather well, having served as ambassador there between 2005-2007, and he is right to credit the formidable courage and resilience Ukraine has shown in response to the incursion. 

“The central and overriding direction of the Putin regime’s foreign policy,” Gao goes on to say, “is to regard the former Soviet Union as its exclusive sphere of influence and to restore the empire through the mechanism of integration in all spheres of that area under Russian domination.” 

Charles Kupchan, professor of International Affairs at Georgetown, seems to concur that Russia suffers from its historic blinders. 

“It’s true that Moscow’s dismay at the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in NATO most likely is fed in part by nostalgia for the geopolitical heft of the Soviet days, Mr. Putin’s paranoia about a ‘color revolution’ arising in Russia, and mystical delusions about unbreakable civilizational links between Russia and Ukraine.” 

As he argues in his New York Times op-ed of April 11, 2022, Kupchan says “the West erred in dismissing Russia’s legitimate security concerns about NATO setting up shop on the other side of its 1,000-mile-plus border with Ukraine.” 

This view has been echoed on Chinese media as of late, which perhaps helps explain why Kupchan recently appeared on Chinese TV at a time when few American commentators are invited or willing to do so. 

Kupchan parses his words carefully, noting the difference between maintaining a situation and creating a situation. There’s a dialectic at play, he argues in the realist vein, that the U.S. should defend countries that are strategically important, but he cleverly adds that one should not “make countries strategically important by extending them security guarantees.” 

There’s a dialectic at play, a chicken-and-egg situation in which one thing begets another in a long chain of causation. If NATO wants Ukraine in NATO, it may well decide to join. 

Back to Sachs. Not at all cheered by the news of a tactical victory here or there, the kind of war-as-entertainment coverage now common in the populist press, Sachs sees the war as a quagmire, a vain struggle in which “both sides will lose.” 

In a recent interview with Countercurrents, published in Kerala, India, Jeffrey Sachs said: 

“We need to have a diplomatic track alongside the sanctions. It is possible to negotiate peace, based on Ukraine’s independence and no NATO membership. The big mistake of the Americans is to believe that the NATO alliance will defeat Russia. This is typical American hubris and shortsightedness. 

The question remains, what will the end of the war look like? 

In Gao Yusheng’s view, Russia can no longer decide when and how the war will end. He suspects that Russia is trying to end the war as soon as possible so it can hold on to what it has gained, but this gambit has failed. He concludes that Russia has lost its strategic leadership and initiative. 

It’s hard to imagine Ukraine granting any territory to Russia after being the victim of a war of invasion and losing many lives in the process. On the other hand, it’s equally unlikely that Putin will cede territory obtained by war, whether it be the Donbas, Mariupol or other besieged cities. 

The scholars and diplomats referenced above don’t necessarily have the answers, but they very much help to bridge the vast U.S.-China perception gap, illuminating nuanced realities and asking questions that need to be asked. 

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