Dear China: Which side are you on in Ukraine?

By Thomas L. Friedman © 2022 The New York Times

With each passing day, the war in Ukraine becomes a greater tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but also a greater threat to the future of Europe and the world in general. There’s only one country that might have the power to stop him now, and it’s not the United States. It’s China.

If China announces that, instead of remaining neutral, it is joining Russia’s economic boycott – or even strongly condemning its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and demanding that it withdraw – it could shake Vladimir Putin enough to stop this vicious war. At a minimum, it would give him pause, as he currently has no other significant allies besides India in the world.

Why would Chinese President Xi Jinping take such a stance, which would seemingly undermine his dream of taking over Taiwan the same way Putin is trying to take over Ukraine? The short answer is that the past eight decades of relative peace between the great powers has led to the rapid globalization that has been key to China’s rapid economic rise and lifting some 800 million Chinese out of poverty since then. 1980. Peace has been very good for China. Its continued growth depends on China’s ability to export and learn from this world of ever-integrating and modernizing free markets.

The entire Faustian bargain between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese citizens – the CCP getting to govern while the people improve economically – depends to a large extent on the stability of the global economy and trading system.

To Chinese strategists caught up in the old thinking – that any war that weakens modern China’s two main rivals, America and Russia, must be a good thing – I would say this: every war brings with it innovations (new ways to fight, win and survive), and the war in Ukraine is no exception.

We’ve already seen three “weapons” deployed in ways we’ve never seen before or haven’t seen in a long time, and China would be well advised to study them all. Because if China doesn’t help stop Russia now, these weapons will eventually force Putin into submission – meaning they could be used against China one day, should it take over Taiwan – or damage so much Russia that the economic effects would radiate everywhere. These weapons could even spur Putin to do the unthinkable with his nuclear weapons, which could destabilize and even destroy the global foundations upon which China’s future rests.

The most important innovation in this war is the use of the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb, deployed simultaneously by a superpower and superpowered people. The United States, along with the European Union and the United Kingdom, have imposed sanctions on Russia that are crippling its economy, seriously threatening businesses and wiping out the savings of millions of Russians at an unprecedented speed and scale that reminiscent of a nuclear explosion.

Putin has now understood – and said so explicitly on Saturday: the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU amount to “a declaration of war”. (Vladimir, you haven’t felt half of it yet.)

Second, because the world is now so wired, overpowered individuals, corporations, and social activist groups can pile up their own sanctions and boycotts, without any orders from the government, amplifying Russia’s isolation and economic strangulation. beyond what nation states are likely to do. These new players – a kind of global ad hoc pro-Ukrainian resistance-solidarity movement – ​​collectively nullify Putin and Russia. Rarely, if ever, has a country so large and powerful been politically nullified and economically crippled so quickly.

The third weapon is both new and old, and it is a spiritual and emotional weapon: the West has regained its voice. Faced with Russia’s brutal and primitive assault on a flawed but aspiring democracy like Ukraine, the free world has woken up. America and liberal societies in general can often look and act stupid and divided – until it isn’t. Ask Adolf Hitler.

These three weapons should be enough to attract China’s attention. So let’s take a closer look at how they work in practice.

The Biden administration, in an effort to deter Putin, assembled a potent set of deep and broad economic sanctions and warned the Russian leader that if he invaded Ukraine, he would bet his whole farm – his country’s economic viability. and his diet. Tragically, Putin bet the farm, and the results were quick and unforgiving.

Russia’s rouble-based stock market has been closed since major Russian financial institutions were either placed under sanctions or barred from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system, Barron’s reported, but “secondary dollar-denominated listings Russian companies in London are still trading. The destruction of market value is amazing. He added that shares of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, “have collapsed more than 99% since mid-February, when its stock was trading at around $14.” Last Wednesday in London, Barron’s noted that “stocks hit a low of 1 cent.”

On Thursday, ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s “downgraded Russia six notches to ‘junk’ status, saying Western sanctions undermined its ability to service debt and would weaken the economy”, reported Reuters.

Since Putin faced sanctions in 2014 for annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in eastern Ukraine, he has amassed reserves of foreign currency and gold – some $630 billion – to try to insulate Russia from more global sanctions by giving its central bank all the ammunition. the value of the ruble had to be protected. Or so he thought.

“It turns out that Russia’s foreign reserve strategy had a major flaw: about half of the money was held abroad in foreign banks – and now Russia can’t access it” because of the sanctions, Fortune noted. Thus, the ruble savings of many Russians are devastated.

Now add sanctions, boycotts and pressure points from superpowered non-state actors. My favorite is Jack Sweeney, a 19-year-old University of Central Florida student who created a Twitter account – @RUOligarchJets, or Russian Oligar Jets – that tracks the private jets of Russian billionaires close to Putin. “While the 19-year-old isn’t the only person offering such services,” Bloomberg noted, what makes his account different is “its easy accessibility and the engaging window” it offers into people’s lives. Putin’s buddies.

The account attracted 53,000 followers in just a few days, and it now has nearly 400,000; a single individual, Sweeney makes it harder for Putin’s friends to hide their often ill-gotten wealth.

It’s the globalization of moral outrage: from watching a short video online showing Russian soldiers firing on a Ukrainian nuclear facility, to an employee posting the video on his Facebook page, to a group of employees sending a emailing their boss or going to Slack. — not to tell their CEOs to do something, but to tell them they have to do something or they will lose workers and customers.

This is happening in businesses all over the world. Shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, BP, on its own, said it was quitting its operations in Russia after working with an oil company there for about 30 years. For Russia, losing BP’s oil engineering talent is a blow.

Russia and Russians are now being canceled on all sides – from ballerinas to football teams to corporations and orchestras – and this is increasingly being led by superpowered individuals and small groups. And when the cancellation juggernaut turns on globally, it acts ruthlessly. As The New York Times reported last week, “One day after Paralympic Winter Games organizers announced they would allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, the board made a stunning reversal and banned athletes from both countries on the eve. of the opening ceremony.

There are, however, two great dangers with these innovations. If the economic nuclear bomb that the United States and its allies have just detonated in Russia crushes its economy as quickly and deeply as I suspect, there is a danger, however remote, that Putin will go to greater extremes. great, even unthinkable, like launching a real nuclear weapon.

The second danger – and China, in particular, should bear this in mind – is that while nation states may choose to lift their sanctions at some point for hard realpolitik reasons, non-state actors may not do it. They are very decentralized organizations.

When Anonymous, the global hacker consortium, announced it was trying to take down Russian websites, it wasn’t on government orders; he just acted on his own. Who is Russia calling for Anonymous to agree to a ceasefire?

Putin was a complete ignorant of the world he lived in, and so he bet the farm in the casino of 21st century globalization, where, in the end, the house always wins – or there is no more house.

There are signs that China is acknowledging some of these new realities – that no country is too big to be written off in the wired world. But his initial instinct seems to be to try to insulate himself from that reality, rather than step in to help reverse Putin’s aggression. To which I say: Good luck with that. China cannot be connected and disconnected at the same time.

I therefore not only hope that the Chinese leaders will not bet their firm on a quick takeover of Taiwan. I hope Beijing instead joins the West and much of the rest of the world in opposing Putin. If it did, China would become a true world leader. If he chooses to ride with the outlaws instead, the world will be less stable and less prosperous as far as the eye can see – especially China.

What will it be, Xi?

Jerry B. Hatch