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Putin and Xi: Look to Beijing for the real reason behind the Ukraine invasion

Many observers explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nostalgic desire to reconstitute the boundaries of the Soviet Empire. We believe such an explanation is straightforward, consistent with Russian history — and completely wrong. This “Hot Tub Time Machine” take on Putin’s motivation is as erroneous as it may be comforting to the many Cold War-era policymakers who still populate think tanks in Washington.

In their 2012 debate, former President Obama famously dismissed now-Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) concern about Russia as “the 1980s calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Obama was, of course, as wrong as he was snarky, but understanding what’s driving Russia’s strategic threat today is even more important than Romney’s vindication that Moscow is indeed a menace. And for that we would direct everyone’s attention to China, its business model and its interest in Taiwan.

Russia and China have an overlapping strategic interest in taking down the United States, as well as complementary business needs. China’s simple business model is to buy and import commodities and then to make and sell mass-produced goods, which it exports to the world. In other words, China seeks to import every commodity traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and manufacture every good sold at every retail store in the Mall of America.

China is the world’s biggest exporter of mobile phones, computers, electronic integrated circuits, solar power diodes, semiconductors and automotive parts. Conversely, China is the world’s biggest importer of commodity food products and natural resources, including oil and strategic minerals, which are produced in abundance in Russia (and Ukraine).

Importantly, this business model demands that commodities be sourced globally without disruption or significant friction to feed both the assembly lines inside China’s manufacturing plants and the workers staffing them. The slightest hiccup on the conveyor belt and Chinese leader Xi Jinping becomes Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory. Replace the slapstick comedy with a likely coup and you can understand that Xi probably lives in a constant state of anxiety.

Xi wakes up every day with a lengthy grocery list of food products and natural resources he needs to keep the populace employed and the manufacturing plants humming — and most of this grocery list arrives by sea. The second-largest economy in the world has over 60 percent of its trade traveling by water.

China’s economic security is highly dependent on freedom of movement for cargo traveling through the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea and, by extension, the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean.

Now enter Beijing’s own political objective: Taiwan. Any military adventure that Xi deploys in an effort to unify the “breakaway province” of Taiwan with China likely would be met with an almost immediate sea blockade. Such dependence on the sea is an unacceptable vulnerability for China’s business model; hence, Xi’s desire to create a land bridge for food products and natural resources.

But how to pivot from the sea to the land? That’s where Putin comes in. The former KGB agent is a man of special operations and dark arts, with the sentimentality of a crime syndicate boss, which in reality is what he is. Think of Putin not as the leader of a country, but more of a mob enforcer for his country’s organized criminals (oligarchs) and now for Xi, a fellow autocrat with his own near-abroad target in Taiwan.

Putin has exhibited a willingness to make the Russian military an enforcement arm for bad actors. For years Russian troops have supported Bashar Assad in Syria and, just a couple of months ago, Putin’s soldiers also acted forcefully in Kazakhstan to quash a movement to overthrow the government.

It is best to see Putin not as some nostalgic madmen seeking to reconstitute the Soviet Empire, but as a clear-eyed mobster using his military might to expand his crime syndicate’s business relationships by cozying up to the growing economic powerhouse that is Xi’s China. Note also that China has enormous investments in Ukraine and would benefit from an even greater stake there.

So, Putin controls enough petroleum resources, minerals and wheat to guarantee Xi’s conveyor belts can keep humming. At the same time, even a Chinese feint toward Taiwan may be enough to cause the United States and NATO to falter in Ukraine and relieve pressure on Putin’s forces there or be able to yield a negotiated settlement that is favorable to Moscow.

This Russia-China relationship marries China’s mercantile business model with Putin’s mercenary military — a marriage of convenience and commerce. Xi is happy to outsource the messiness of a war and the social ostracism to Putin, and the mobster of Moscow is happy to oblige. This time it’s not the 1980s calling; it’s “The Godfather.”

Marc Ross is the founder of Caracal, a global political communications firm. He was communications director for the U.S.-China Business Council. Follow him on Twitter @marcaross.

Michael Keane is an adjunct professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy teaching foreign policy. He is the author of “The Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics.”

Tags Barack Obama China China–Russia relations Mitt Romney Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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