Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group photo during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. AFP via Getty / Dominique Jacovides

“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” lamented Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2005 state of the nation address.

“As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,” the Russian leader added, referring to the traumatic economic shocks following the USSR’s collapse. 

Back then, the Russian leader was full of resentment and his country’s military capabilities were in a state of destitution. As a Russian defense minister said in the 1990s, “no army in the world is in as wretched a state as ours.”

Fast forward 15 years, the Russian leader has effectively leveraged his country’s booming energy exports to steadily build up and modernize his armed forces, turning the nation into a major military power in Europe, Central Asia and beyond. 

Last December, Putin reverted to the same theme he raised in his early years in office by describing the fall of the Soviet Union as “the collapse of historical Russia,” which marked “a tragedy for the vast majority of the country’s citizens.”

The same year, the Russian leader wrote a long essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, which effectively denied the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation and signaled a new era of Russian expansionism. 

As Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy explained, “Ukraine has become the first testing ground” for Putin’s new model of nation-building, which “has switched its focus to the idea of forming a single Russian nation not divided into branches and unifying the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture.”

This could be precisely why Russia has amassed close to 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders has raised fears of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the near future.

Russian troops are camped on the border of Ukraine. Photo: Twitter / Fars News Agency

Russia’s last two major military offensives took place on the first day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – against Georgia – and toward the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – against Ukraine. 

For some experts, a Russian invasion is probable in the latter half of February, as China’s Winter Olympics winds down and the Ukrainian eastern regions turn muddy ahead of spring.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has reportedly asked Putin to postpone any potential invasion until after the finish of the ongoing Winter Olympics in China. 

Crucially, Russia’s latest maneuver came only months after the Biden administration’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has appeared to embolden America’s rivals.

With Europe bracing for a potential war, there are now growing concerns that China, perhaps Putin’s top ally, may contemplate a similar, if not simultaneous, move against Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing considers a renegade province. 

Xi and his top Chinese defense officials have also adopted similarly bellicose rhetoric on Taiwan in recent years, vowing to reintegrate the island into a Greater China by “all means necessary,” including a possible amphibious invasion.

With Putin and Xi displaying a common front in recent days amid deepening bilateral defense and economic ties, some fear the two authoritarian powers may simultaneously launch invasions against Ukraine and Taiwan.

Japanese defense officials have warned of a “Crimea-style” asymmetric, stealthy invasion of Taiwan by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the near future. Others have warned of a potential Chinese blockade, if not an all-out war, as early as 2024.

A Taiwanese Special Forces soldier during a drill. Photo: Agencies

Last year, rumors of an impending invasion of Taiwan triggered panic among Chinese citizens, who began stocking up on basic needs and survival gear. 

As the drumbeat of war in Europe intensifies, influential Chinese academic Jin Canrong fueled new concerns over China’s next move by suggesting Beijing eyes “armed reunification” with Taiwan by 2027.

The reality, of course, is that no one knows for sure what’s going on inside the heads of Putin and Xi, and what their decisions on high-stakes issues will be in the near future, never mind in the coming years. Indeed, it’s not clear that either leader has a clear vision of their next moves.

What’s certain, however, is that Ukraine and Taiwan face radically different circumstances despite their shared vulnerability to foreign invasion by an authoritarian power. 

For starters, the Ukrainian crisis is partly the product of naïve illusions that sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. On one hand, Ukraine agreed to give up its ultimate deterrence – nuclear weapons – under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in exchange for diplomatic guarantees from major powers.

Moreover, as prominent political scientists such as John Mearsheimer have argued, the West pressed ahead with the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) without anticipating blowback from Russia. 

In stark contrast to Europe, East Asia has largely preserved its Cold War security architecture, with the conflicts in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait remaining essentially frozen without any clear resolution.

In that realpolitik realm, Japan and South Korea maintain large-scale US bases, while Taiwan has steadily expanded its defensive military capabilities to deter any future aggression by China.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has expanded its defense cooperation with Australia as well as with new strategic partners such as Singapore. 

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) was one of two US Navy warships that passed through the Taiwan Strait on October 22, 2018. The ship is pictured pulling into port at the Republic of Korea Navy base in Jeju, South Korea, on October 12, 2018.  Photo: AFP / William Carlisle, US Navy
The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam was one of two US Navy warships that passed through the Taiwan Strait on October 22, 2018. Photo: AFP / William Carlisle / US Navy

That raises a second key issue, namely the institutionalized and robust defense cooperation between the US and Taiwan over the decades.

Unlike Ukraine, which has no significant history of defense cooperation with the West, Taiwan used to enjoy a mutual defense treaty with Washington, which militarily intervened on the island’s behalf on at least three occasions throughout the post-war period. 

Even when the US adopted a “One China policy,” it maintained a bipartisan commitment to defending Taiwan against forced integration with China under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

During the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration underscored that commitment by deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups to dissuade Beijing from any further military threats against Taipei. 

From the Bush and Obama to the Trump administration, multiple US governments have successively backed the transfer of large-scale and advanced weaponry to Taiwan over the past two decades, despite Beijing’s strong opposition.

In contrast, Ukraine has struggled to secure even rudimentary lethal weapons from key European nations such as Germany, which has tried to maintain warm economic ties with Russia. 

Third, Taiwan boasts well-organized and modern armed forces, which in terms of size are among the biggest in Asia. The self-governing island is also a thriving democracy and a major technological powerhouse, which has made it increasingly vital to the West for key supplies amid a rising tech war with China. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Taiwan also flexed its manufacturing power by becoming one of the world’s largest exporters and donors of masks and basic medical equipment.

Crucially, Taiwan has also dominated the global semiconductor industry, which has become pivotal to next-generation technological innovations and armed conflicts. The island was responsible for more than 60% of global foundry revenue in 2020, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) accounting for 54% of total global revenue. 

Cognizant of the importance of the semiconductor industry, which the US has recently identified as a national security concern, Taiwan has consciously presented itself as a vital element of supply-chain resilience amid the escalating tech war with China. 

Given Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and outsized geopolitical and geo-economic relevance, US President Joe Biden has emphasized on multiple occasions that Washington has defense treaty obligations to the self-governing island, even if such commitments aren’t clearly spelled out in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. 

Finally, Taiwan’s fate is also dependent on China’s strategic calculus too. In the case of Ukraine, Putin’s Russia is largely acting from a position of diminishing strength, given the country’s growing economic isolation and demographic decline. Despite robust energy exports, Russia’s economy is still smaller than Italy’s. 

Throughout his two decades in power, Putin helplessly watched NATO expand from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary (1999) to Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states (2004), to Croatia and Albania (2009), to Montenegro (2017) and most recently to North Macedonia (2020). 

US President Joe Biden has tried to reassure NATO allies. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

Drawing a red line around Ukraine, which has been rapidly drifting towards the West, has become an existential issue to the aging Russian leader, who has warily watched pro-democracy protests erupt across Central Asia and Belarus in recent years.

Russia’s calculus on Ukraine is thus largely driven by insecurity and some say paranoia, which reflects its structural weakness in a NATO-dominated Europe.

China’s situation vis-a-vis Taiwan, on the other hand, could be any more different. Over the past two decades, China has become the largest trading partner of practically all its neighbors. Between 1990 to 2014, its share of regional GDP expanded from only 8% to 51%, while its share of regional trade similarly boomed from only 8% to 39%. 

At the same time, via its Belt and Road Initiative, China has also become a major source of public infrastructure investments in a host of neighboring countries, reaching from Central Asia to Southeast Asia to the Middle East.

Fueled by an economic boom, China has rapidly modernized its armed forces, which now boast the world’s largest maritime fleet, multiple fifth-generation fighter programs, cutting-edge hypersonic missiles and “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS) which have radically altered the balance of military power in Asia. 

Over the next decade, China is largely expected to become the world’s largest economy, further enhancing the Asian powerhouse’s influence and military capabilities. As such, China and Xi can bide their time on Taiwan, just as Putin panics over the possibility of a post-Soviet Ukraine slipping from Russia’s long-term grip.