From Hybrid Tactics to Invasion – Lesson for China from Ukraine

As the Russian military build-up along the borders with Ukraine has yielded to a full-scale military invasion, media coverage has soared and unverified frontline information has proliferated. After weeks and months of speculation, claims and counterclaims of escalation, and shuttle diplomacy, the news of troops deployments and the beginning of combat operations was severely distressing if unsurprising. The international media has gone into overdrive with a plethora of analysis, speculation, and live coverage. Already in the weeks and month leading up to the invasion comparisons to the Second World War with its lexicon of events and characters were widespread. Images of military hardware, fleeing civilians, and destruction have begun to circulate on social media have reached a wide audience and are shaping public opinion.

As the shock of the initial invasion has begun to wear off, a rough tactical picture is beginning to reveal itself. The Russian armed forces have made a bid to capture Kyiv, while simultaneously advancing on key cities such as Kharkiv and pushing forward in the south of the country to consolidate positions around occupied Crimea and along the Black Sea. What is also clear is that the Ukrainian government, the Armed Forces and the population are mounting a determined resistance, dispelling any notion that Moscow could achieve an easy victory and galvanizing support in the rest of Europe.

Undoubtedly, the last week will mark a turning point not only for Ukraine and Russia, but for Europe and much of the rest of the world. However, much remains unclear and there are many open questions. One such question is the response to unfolding events in China. Interestingly in the tense weeks and days leading up to the invasion, Chinese state media had been comparatively quiet on the issue of Russian troop movements on the border of Ukraine. Xinhua, CGTN, and the People’s Daily had previously provided comparatively little coverage of the Russian invasion featuring only a few carefully worded articles and several that more or less ruled out a military invasion. Since then, the Chinese social internet has stood out for a pro-Russia and explicitly pro-Putin stance, suggesting an organized campaign. It seems that Beijing has been paying close attention to not only the tactical developments in Ukraine, but also to the diplomatic moves of the international community and to popular support for Kyiv.

For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the war in Ukraine throws up difficulties in reconciling the principle of non-intervention and respect for national sovereignty with the ambition to potentially force unification with democratic Taiwan and militarily and a deep-seated hostility to American objectives. It seems clear that the responses to Russian aggression, before and after the February 24th invasion, will provide Xi Jinping and the Chinese political and military leadership with some instructive lessons as well as some hard choices. It seems that an impulse to try and decouple Europe from the U.S. has apparently hit a snag.

Narrative Build-up

In the build up to the invasion competing narratives about the causes of tension vied with one another. While western media meticulously tracked the build-up of military forces, followed official visits to Kyiv and Moscow, and interviewed Ukrainians, Russian state media took a decidedly different tack. The TASS news agency ran headlines about purported explosions and foiled terror attacks in separatist controlled Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as occupied Crimea. The shelling of a Kindergarten in Donetsk last week was taken by some to be representative of the kind of false flag operation that US and UK intelligence have been warning about. This effort to craft a narrative of a clear and pressing threat to the Russian state and people was consistent with a tactic to shape the information sphere both domestically and abroad to the Kremlin’s advantage and forms part of the catalogue of strategies inherent to modern hybrid warfare.

The use of highly distorted propaganda in warfare is nothing new, but in recent decades Russian security doctrine has been keen to place an emphasis on using new media to project Moscow’s influence abroad and help to augment their tactical options. Outlets like RT and Sputnik have been progressively harnessed into the machinery of Moscow’s security establishment. In contrast to 2014, the Kremlin appears to have placed less emphasis on projecting an air of local support within Ukraine in the run up to the invasion. Operational security (OpSec) seems to have been surprisingly lax with journalists and individual citizens being able to photograph armaments being deployed to the border. Indeed, the apparent willingness of the Russian leadership to forego any attempt at concealing the massing of troops and assets along the borders, even while employing the pretext of military exercises, may even have been deliberate. While ostensibly engaging in dialogue and diplomatic maneuvering, the preparations for an escalation formed part of a choreographed campaign plan to project an image of Russian military power. Clear examples of this kind of “performance” were President Vladimir Putin’s rambling TV address which laid out a heavily revised and convenient version of Ukrainian history, or the placing of Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. Aside from the obvious goal of either winning support for an aggressive policy or scaring off potential opponents, the message is that Russia remains a great power and a force to be reckoned with.

The Russian state’s preferred narrative has long held that the expansion of the NATO alliance into former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet Republics presents a violation of security guarantees presented after the end of the Cold War. Putin has repeatedly pointed to the 2008 Bucharest Summit as indicative of a desire to encircle Moscow and threatened Russian national security, an idea with echoes of the Cold War that has similarly shaped Chinese military thinking. Unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine was in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons and rocket systems that present a threat to Russian cities echoed and reinforced this near mythic interpretation of the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. The Kremlin’s rhetoric insisted that peace could only be maintained if a formal guarantee was made ruling out Ukrainian membership. Despite the often-repeated principle that the future orientation and security policy of Ukraine, a sovereign country, could only be determined by Kyiv itself, Putin and Kremlin-aligned commentary has sought to repeat and amplify unrealistic demands about security guarantees.

International Responses

The United States and European countries have responded to the invasion strongly, with some nations altering long held security policy positions seemingly over night, Sweden and Germany being the obvious examples. Tough economic sanctions have been imposed and Western leaders have called on the Russian government to cease hostilities and withdraw from Ukraine. A few corners of the international community have signaled support for Moscow. The Cuban government, for example, has blamed the United States for the escalation and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has endorsed Moscow’s recognition of the separatist controlled regions in Eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless the Russian government is becoming ever more internationally isolated.

China´s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine is therefore vital. This may not be the case in the immediate term, but in the middle to long-run Beijing’s perspectives and actions may prove decisive in the post-invasion world. The big question is whether and to what extent Beijing will support Moscow. So far, the CCP’s response has been cautious and comparatively measured, despite a trend of ever closer diplomatic, military, and economic ties between the two countries. In part, this is because Russia’s recognition of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (in effect de facto extensions of the Russian government) and the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty is diametrically opposed to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of others and the sacrosanct status of national sovereignty that feature so prominently in Chinese official rhetoric. Several moves by Beijing appear to be supportive of Moscow and China has, in line with Russian action and information campaigns used similar narratives and arguments in East Asia. China´s historic rights in the South China Sea, arguments on Taiwan and U.S. military action (FONOPS) provoking tension in the region, ultimately justifying Chinese military build-up . A joint press meeting between Putin and Xi during a state visit helped to amplify the message that Kyiv supposedly posed a threat to Russia and efforts by Washington to convince Beijing to dissuade Putin from launching an invasion were ignored.

At the recent Munich Security Conference Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi still projected the message that China always holds to the position that countries’ sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity should be respected and safeguarded, and stressed that Ukraine is no exception to this principle. He also added that Russia’s reasonable security concerns should be given respect and emphasis, confusing the message. Wang’s ambivalence may have been a deliberate attempt to either take credit for a de-escalation, or provide a smokescreen in the event of war. Going forward, however, such balancing acts will be more difficult to maintain overtime. Domestically the CCP is already trying to manipulate and control the internal discussion on Ukraine on social media platforms. Beyond the confines of the Great Chinese Firewall, the image of a democratic society being invaded by an authoritarian neighbor seeking to eradicate its liberal system may also be damaging.

For years, Beijing has been ratcheting pressure on Taiwan, maintaining that the self-ruling, democratic island is an inalienable part of its patrimony and enshrining what it calls “national reunification” in its rhetoric. Chinese officials have bristled at any mere suggestion of national governments building relationships with Taipei and furiously rejected any suggestion that the fate of the island’s governance should be left to the people of Taiwan. However, the highly visible “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” by which the CCP has sought to advance its core interests may have helped set the stage for an ideological parallel between Taiwan and Ukraine.

The sensitivity about Chinese sovereignty does not just apply to Taiwan, whose government is officially known as the Republic of China, but also to Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong. But what makes Taiwan different from the other cases is the island’s ability not only to control its territory but also defend itself and to potentially call on military support from the United States. Moreover, while largely excluded from the official diplomacy of the international community, Taiwan’s population is connected with the wider world, both through the social internet and personal ties. Taiwanese public opinion is clearly not in favor of unification with mainland China and the population would likely rally around the armed forces to resist an invasion. Beijing had long believed that time was on its side and that eventually economic factors would allow it to bring about a peaceful unification with the island through some kind of “One Country, Two Systems”-like modus vivendi, but the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the democratization of Taiwan have made this an untenable strategy. Indeed, in Taiwan there is a strong sense of solidarity with Ukraine and the government has made statements communicating unambiguous support for Kyiv.

Strategic Similarities with some Chinese Perspectives

Propaganda and information play an increasingly important role in conflict and warfare. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Russian state media initially sought to amplify the Ministry of Defense’s claims that resistance was collapsing, almost certainly part of a strategy to attempt to discourage organized resistance. This is indicative both of a desire by Moscow to achieve a quick victory and a serious underestimation of both Ukrainian resistance and the popularity of the war within Russia. Despite Ukrainian government institutions and media being subject to major and ongoing cyber-attacks and physical attacks, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration continued to coordinate and communicate with the outside worlds. Social media had played a major role in this, and despite the potential for misinformation being compounded the overall message is clear: the people of Ukraine are defiant and the elected state remains intact.

Roskomnadzor, the Russian State authority for communications and media, has sought to limit the media’s ability to cover the war and called on all media outlets to only publish information from Russian official sources. Any journalist that violates the ban risk being prosecuted or worse. And yet large demonstrations have taken place throughout Russian cities, with thousands taking to the streets to show their displeasure and reject the Kremlin’s narratives. The scope of dissent within Russia is difficult to determine, but a host of videos and anecdotal evidence indicates that the morale of the armed forces is low and there is little appetite to fight against a determined opponent with a very similar, if not identical, cultural background. Whether true or not, rumors of portions of the Russian armed forces being unwilling to prosecute such a war should be alarming to the CCP and leaders of the Chinese People Liberation Army (PLA).

In July 2021, Putin published an article on the supposed historic relations between Ukrainians and Russians in which he claims both are part of a ‘single spiritual and political sphere’. In China the idea that Taiwan is an indivisible part of the nation, despite at no point in modern Chinese history sharing the same government, has been enshrined in political rhetoric for decades. Xi has in reference to Taiwan stated, that “unification [is] an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” tying the fate of the island closely to his own political ambitions and the trajectory of the CCP. Beijing has also been using a combination of military provocations, a political disinformation campaign, economic coercion, and diplomatic maneuvering to isolate and pressure Taiwan. The situation in and around Taiwan could be described as a “war of attrition”.

The Kremlin has repeatedly criticized NATO enlargement and described the overall security situation in Eastern Europe, as disregarding Moscow’s security interest and infringing on its legitimate security concerns. Such rhetoric echoes claims made by Chinese officials regarding not only Taiwan but other countries in East Asia. Nationalistic invocations of the horrors of the Second World War have become interwoven with the notion of historical victimhood at the hands of imperial powers and fuel an apparent enthusiasm for Chinese security aspiration on social media channels. Such narratives have helped fuel aggressive moves in the South and East China Seas, and an engrained hostility to the American-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. From a more immediate doctrinal perspective, the security establishments of both China and Russia have identified and developed new aspects of “warfare,” such as China´s “Three warfares” principle and in Russia General Gerasimov´s thoughts on “Total Warfare,” which draw heavily on psychological operations and the manipulation of public opinion and international legal regimes.

Given some of the similarities in their tactical objectives, Russia and China have both been incentivized to develop these new hybrid strategies to offset some of the risk of military operations. By aligning their tactical operational approach with their economic capabilities, diplomatic clout, as well as their ability to control cyberspace and manipulate media, leaders in Moscow and Beijing have attempted to devise comprehensive campaign plans that maximize their coercive potential. In a general sense the goal of such plans is to bring about favorable conditions to achieve political objectives, preferably with as little force, risk, as possible. These hybrid strategies also center around real or perceived vulnerabilities inherent to their opponents, largely liberal democracies. One such vulnerability or weakness exposed by Russian pressure on Ukraine in the lead-up to the invasion was the evident unwillingness, particularly in Europe, to respond to aggressive posturing with coercive measures. These hybrid strategies do not aim at excluding traditional military power, however, and in its invasion of Ukraine Moscow has clearly decided massive military force could be used to overwhelm resistance and force about a favorable outcome. Prior to the invasion, the combined deterrent effect of sanctions, economic and political isolation and general diplomatic condemnation that had already been in place did not prove enough.

Assuming that Moscow’s decision making is guided by rational thought, it would appear as if a major miscalculation has been made in the Kremlin. The PLA, and the Chinese establishment more broadly will be following the events unfolding in Ukraine very closely and likely already have begun to draw conclusions about what mistakes to potentially avoid. Although modern China has never pursued traditional military alliances, and there were outright clashes between China and the Soviet Union, the two countries have had close contact in security terms. Over the past decade there has again been a trend of closer security cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, despite the long history of mutual distrust. In 2016 Chinese vessels took part in Russian naval drills in the Baltic Sea, and in 2018 for the first time Chinese troops took part in the Russian Vostok exercises. This cooperation has also been extended to the realm of energy security, key to Moscow’s security agenda, with a pipeline deal between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) signed earlier this month.

It is conceivable that Putin decided to delay the deployment of troops into Ukraine by a week in deference to Xi’s request not to have the Beijing Winter Olympics overshadowed by a full-scale war in Europe. While some diplomatic statements by the Chinese leadership such as those by Wang in Munich can be viewed as cautioning the Kremlin to exercise restraint, they could also easily be viewed as an effort to make Chinese support for Russia less overt. Indeed, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying clearly stopped short of referring to the Russian attack on Ukraine as an invasion, citing a “complex historical context” to allude to a position that broke with Beijing avowed principle of non-interference in a recent press statement. Tellingly in the same interview Hua rejected comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, but also referred to the “indisputable legal and historical fact” that Taiwan is a part of China. 

Lessons from the Invasion

It is difficult to say how the invasion of Ukraine will affect Sino-Russian relations going forward. One possibility is that an internationally isolated regime in Russia will seek to foster closer ties between Moscow and Beijing, but with a lesser leverage on the Chinese. A controllable Sino-Russian partnership might precipitate a risky PLA attack on Taiwan, or conversely the ability of the liberal Ukrainian state to withstand aggression and rally foreign support might blunt the CCP’s enthusiasm for an attack on the island. What is clear is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the response to it, bring with it several crucial lessons about the strategic and political balance.

One such lesson is that countries without formal security alliances with Western countries, should not expect to receive direct military support and must look to their own defenses if attacked. So far, the determined resistance of the Ukrainian military, and the civilian population, should at least dispel the notion that small and medium states are incapable of fighting a conventional defensive war.  In addition, the effectiveness of long-term efforts to degrade the ability of the West to respond decisively through economic incentives and political influence, may have to be re-calculated. The response by the EU and individual nations to the invasion, which has included unprecedented developments in security policy such as the German decision to supply Kyiv with arms, indicates that both the Union and NATO has been galvanized by the war. Beijing will likely face hard choice between tacit support for Moscow and distancing itself from Putin, as indicated by the Chinese abstention from a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

Assessing a potential military operation, intelligence officials often focus on three essential factors: intent, capability, and opportunity.  Undoubtedly the preparations for the assault on Ukraine had observers all around the world carefully assessing whether the political, diplomatic, economic, and strategic machinery of the Kremlin provided the means and reflected the willingness to invade. Against this backdrop a shift to Taiwan paints an unsettling picture. To unite the island with mainland China is a clearly stated and often repeated objective of Beijing and Xi. The massive build-up and modernization of the PLA over the last 10 to 15 years may now provide China the military capability to successfully attack Taiwan, assuming that Taipei does not receive immediate support from the U.S., and possibly other partners such as Australia or Japan. Certainly, there is likely to have been the calculation that should American forces become committed in Europe then Taiwan is more vulnerable to a planned invasion, raising the question whether this is the opportunity. However, the ability of the Ukrainian population to stand up to the massive Russian military, a strong response from the international community, and signs of an unwillingness in Russia to accept an unpopular war may prove a deterrent to the CCP’s military ambitions.

From a military point of view, it is still too early to conclude what doctrinal lessons can be drawn from the invasion. The Russian military is operating in several different regions and adapting its strategies as the tactical and political landscape changes. But one development which stands out are the difficulties and risks inherent in air assaults against a determined but moderately trained and equipped defensive force. Another more politically focused potential lesson is the reluctance of western democratic states to commit to using force or tough economic measures pre-emptively. The Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the adjoining crises it is unleashing, did not come as a surprise, even if its scope may have been unexpected. The massing of Russian forces and the ever more bellicose rhetoric has been intensifying for nearly a year, if not longer. Efforts to explore every possible diplomatic avenue and not take any significant military or economic action meanwhile, did not prevent Putin’s military aspirations.

The deterrent strategy used by Brussels and Washington simply did not work in this case and exposed the difficulties for liberal democracies to act against authoritarian leaders. However, the ongoing response and more long-term reactions to the invasion is vitally important. Clearly many closely held beliefs about security policy are being rethought in Europe and leaders both in authoritarian and democratic countries would be wise to take note. As China mulls its future role on the global stage and how best to achieve its political, social, and military aspirations, its leaders will be following events as they unfold with a view towards how best to secure their core interests. For better or worse, Beijing will be watching Russia, Ukraine, and the West closely in the coming days, weeks and years, and the lessons drawn from current events will likely cast long shadows.