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RUSSIA’S INVASION OF UKRAINE - A YEAR IN REVIEW: Webinar Chronicle

Updated: May 23, 2023


At European Guanxi we have organised a series of content to raise awareness on global implications on EU China relations in relation to around the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine, which reached its one-year mark on February 24, 2023. To do this we have offered special content and publications, including the culminating webinar event titled, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Year in Review on February 28. European Guanxi invited four distinguished scholars to discuss the geopolitical ramifications of the year-long war, not just for Ukraine, but also for the wider global context, with a particular focus on China and the EU. The four panellists were:


Ivana Káráskova: China Research Fellow and a China Projects Lead at the Association for International Affairs (AMO). In 2016, she founded and has been since coordinating two international projects on China: MapInfluenCE, which analyses China and Russia’s influence in Central Europe, and China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE), a networking platform bringing together more than 100 China researchers from 27 different countries, analysing China’s activities in Europe (and beyond).


Yurii Poita: Head of the Asia-Pacific section at Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS), and the Asian Section at the New Geopolitics Research Network (NGRN), Ukraine. His research focuses on regional security issues, the development of the socio-political situation in the countries of Central Asia, China's influence in the post-Soviet space, Ukrainian-Chinese relations, and hybrid methods of influence.


Marina Rudyak: Interim Professor for Chinese Society and Economy at the University of Göttingen and for Chinese Politics at Goethe University Frankfurt. Her research focuses on China's international development cooperation, China’s relations with Russia and Central Asia, and the international discourse system of the Chinese Communist Party.


Grzegorz Stec: Analyst at MERICS (Brussels office). His research focuses on EU-China relations, including their institutional framework, strategic discourse deployed by the two sides and the EU's common foreign policy building efforts. He also monitors Poland-China and wider Central and Eastern Europe-China relations.


All panellists are originally from Eastern European countries, and one of them is Ukrainian. This attests to European Guanxi’s commitment to elevate the voices from those regions more prominently affected by the war.


The event was presented and moderated by Lukian de Boni, President of European Guanxi. Alejandro Cordero, member of the Events team, was the moderator during the Q&A section.


This post is a brief chronicle of the event, which started with a quick round of first impressions on the 12-point plan released by China in February.


When asked about China’s position towards the war, Ivana Káráskova argued that China is attempting to portray itself as a responsible global stakeholder, while simultaneously blaming the West and especially the U.S. for the conflict. China’s 12-points paper does caution against nuclear war, but it provides no specific details on how that can be managed. Dr. Káráskova assessed that while understanding the geopolitics surrounding the war is crucial (with China and Russia both vying to shift the current global order), the personal chemistry between Putin and Xi cannot be ignored.


Building on Dr. Káráskova’s insights on the Sino-Russian partnership, Grzegorz Stec argued that the core of the glue uniting China and Russia is their anti-American and revisionist global agenda. On China’s paper, he stated that the Chinese 12-point plan is not really a peace plan, but rather a solution to what Beijing only considers a crisis, not a war. In this respect, the plan is used as a smokescreen in order to leave Russia and Ukraine to deal with the situation by themselves, which essentially leaves Kyiv even more vulnerable to Russia. This serves Beijing’s double objective to prop up Russia while also driving a wedge among Western countries. Examples of this broader strategy include approaching the BRICS and introducing Iran into the SCO.


According to Marina Rudyak, Beijing is also waiting to see how the conflict pans out in the future, and planning its strategy accordingly. Essentially, Beijing is trying to stabilise the Moscow regime while opposing what it perceives as Western encroachment against Russia, including in Ukraine. Dr. Rudyak argued that China uses its solution proposal as a way to position itself as the adult in the room, urging for parties to negotiate and bargain for peace. This is working quite effectively in terms of messaging before the Global South countries, which have felt neglected by the West, and which also prioritise ending the war.


Yurii Poita agreed that geopolitics is the main determinant of the war and its implications, and with it, the strategic competition between blocs and spheres of influence. Referring to Ukrainian domestic politics, Mr. Poita pointed out that President Zelenskyy was more conciliatory than most EU and Western leaders about China’s 12-point plan. This attests to Kyiv’s understanding that the present Chinese position could be more detrimental for Ukrainian interests, and avoids antagonising Beijing. The Ukrainian government realised that China, while not strictly neutral, has steered clear from having been seen as a belligerent party and has not provided material aid to Moscow. Mr. Poita also provided a summary of the diplomatic history between Ukraine and China, which shed light into the current state of affairs. China’s significant role as a commercial partner of Ukraine and as a driver in its development led to some hope among Kyiv’s policymakers that Beijing could take a more proactive stance against the invasion in 2022, but as of today, that expectation is largely gone.


The Central European perspective, with a shared history of necessary countering of Russian coercion is not much different. Dr. Káráskova noted that Central Europe is very much willing to look at the Russian and China challenges through Transatlantic lenses.

Moving on to the aggressor, Russia, the speakers also opined on Chinese motivations behind its foreign policy. Dr. Rudyak posited that China is first and foremost preoccupied with its territorial integrity and the stability of the international system, especially in its vicinity. In this context, China is concerned with turmoil potentially happening in Central Asia, either due to Russian aggressiveness, or conversely, due to its perceived weakness - indeed, if Putin is toppled, China fears that the situation could worsen, as Putin is seen as a more predictable leader, whereas his replacements could be much worse (such as Chechen leader Kadyrov). This regional dynamic is severely ignored when discussing the Ukraine War, but it is crucial to understanding the motivations of Beijing, fearful that turmoil in Central Asia could spill over to Xinjiang.


For similar reasons, Mr. Stec stated that the answer to the question of whether the war could be a “net positive” for Beijing (due it being a distraction for the United States), would be no, because of its impact on NATO and the Transatlantic alliance’s increased cohesion. Looking further East, the Chinese fear of NATO moving into the Asia Pacific is viewed as a top Chinese foreign policy consensus. Therefore, right now, while the Chinese position on the war remains very important to EU policymakers, there is what he believes to be a short-lived moment of EU-China diplomatic stabilisation, as Beijing adopts a rather conciliatory approach to the EU and attempts to compartmentalise their bilateral relations, putting the war aside from the day-to-day issues.


From the European standpoint, the High Representative Josep Borrell’s comments as well as Macron’s upcoming visit to Beijing hint that the EU, or at least Western European governments, are still trying to salvage the economic relations with China in a delicate moment for most EU states. Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, however, are more likely to view the relations with China primarily through the lens of security.

Picking on this thread, Dr. Káráskova added that for CEE countries, this war is not only about Russia but also China. Until 1999, their economic involvement with Germany was of the utmost importance for these countries, and this helped define their relations with China. However, nowadays security trumps economy, and when the war started, CEE governments (with a few exceptions) were very wary of China’s backing of Russian talking points. Their rising hostility towards China is clearly seen in the collapse of the 14+1 Forum (previously 17+1), which is now comatose. However, Dr. Káráskova also posited that, were China to offer opportunities for CEE countries to relieve their economic problems (driven by high inflation as a result of the war), maybe the forum could be reinvigorated.


A point on information warfare dimensions highlighted by Dr. Káráskova is that even though the EU has blocked Russian propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe, Chinese state media has made its way, essentially parroting Russian talking points and strategies. The synergy between the far left and the far right and Chinese state media manipulation is clear. However, Chinese state media does not deliberately wish to sow distrust towards their own governments as sharply as Russia does as a psychological weapon, even though the alignment of their propaganda in turning people against the “liberal west” is apparent.


On the issue of Chinese economic support to Russia and sanctions relief, Dr. Rudyak stated that China is officially condemning the Western economic sanctions on Moscow as their primary rhetorical point. At the same time, Chinese industries are replacing Western products now out of Russia, and thus seizing their opportunity to increase its weight in Russia. This economic engagement with Russia is repackaged as China aiding the impoverished Russian population.


Still on the issue of foreign policy rhetoric, Mr. Stec tackled the issue of the language used by Chinese academic spaces. Unsurprisingly, blaming NATO is at the core of the message stemming from China. One key message is that once the West is done with Russian it will come for China in its own backyard, the Indo-Pacific. China also clumsily attempts to promote the EUS’ strategic autonomy, though it arguably interprets this concept much differently than the EU itself. China also aims to stabilise its economic relations with the EU and ensure access to its internal market as well as managing that the EU is further away from the US.


From the Taiwanese perspective, this has created a general atmosphere in Taiwan to see the Ukraine situation as something to unify on and show empathy for, as well as an example to build their security strategy around, modelling their asymmetric warfare capabilities and strategies, including people’s defence forces. The Ukraine war has awakened a spirit and realisation in Taiwan that the worst could indeed come to pass, and that they need to develop their immediate self-defence capabilities in both the physical and psychological and morale warfare space, especially since it is uncertain when US forces will arrive. Taiwan has also learned lessons on arms storage, logistics, protection of critical infrastructure from drones, keeping morale up, or drawing international support against a larger adversary.


Q&A

Spectators asked questions about Central Asian countries and their shifting loyalties from Russia to China; and about the French policy towards Russia and the conflict in Ukraine, and its implications for Trans-Atlantic unity. Marina stated that there is a diversity of countries and perspectives in Central Asia, but assessment of them is broadly realistic. Despite all movements to strengthen national identity, there is still strong Russian cultural influence, also despite strong Chinese economic power. There is intensifying competition between Russia and China in Central Asia but the topic is so sensitive that neither are mentioning it. It is an unpredictable situation, and still unfolding. On France, Mr. Stec (on French “independent” foreign policy) stated that Paris’ independent foreign policy brings up grievances towards Americans and Britons, but could not answer questions on why France specifically is so vulnerable relative to Russian narratives within the entirety of Western Europe, and recommends speaking to a French cultural expert to answer such a question.

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