SCSS#9, 17 May 2022: ‘China and Russia: Legal Gamesmanship and Rules-Based Order?’

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 17 May 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


China and Russia profess a “no limits” friendship in which both Beijing and Moscow aim to “strengthen strategic coordination” though ideological and geopolitical alignments are presented as “non-aligned, non-confrontational, and not targeted at third parties”.  In reality, China and Russia seek to provide a strategic counterweight to US “hegemony” within the current rules-based international order through the promotion of an alternative “reformed” non-liberal order. To that end, both reach out to states in the Global South to garner support for a new global order. China echoes both Moscow’s narratives around “color revolutions” and western destabilization, amplifying Russian propaganda regarding its invasion of Ukraine on Chinese social media and so mitigating against Russian isolation.  China also encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization, contrasting this to Western endeavors.

When we focus on legal norms promotion and suppression, to what extent are the efforts of each joint, shared or at least compatible?  Given China has committed itself to being a global power by 2049 and has its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm, while Russia appears mired in a protracted and debilitating war in Ukraine, we can expect to see differences.  Can we account for such differences through unique historical, cultural and ideological trajectories?  What are the implications of such legal gamesmanship for the current rules-based order? 

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine

There is evidence that Russia instrumentalizes the law in medium term campaigns, not least in its long running legal preparation of the battlefield prior to the invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.  On 28 February 2022, Russia presented its “special military operation” in Ukraine as an act of self-defense, citing Article 51 on the UN Charter and referencing “genocide” perpetrated by Ukraine against the population of the Donbas.  On 26 February, Ukraine submitted arguments to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) refuting allegations it had perpetrated genocide against the Luhansk and Donetsk so called “People’s Republics”, arguing that the Russian government planned acts of genocide in Ukraine.  On 1 March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) addressed Russian attacks against civilians and civilian objects in Ukraine.  On 2 March a UN General Assembly resolution called for Russia to end its military operation in Ukraine and on the same day the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. By 10 March, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia no longer would participate in the Council of Europe (CoE) and, on 16 March, the CoE confirmed this.  In this period the OSCE sought evidence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 4 April, the ICC stated that it was trying to engage Russian war crimes investigations in Ukraine.  On 14 April, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened criminal cases against Ukrainian servicemen.    

China’s “Legal Gamesmanship”

“Legal Gamesmanship” refers to actions by a state or attributable to a state that aim to leverage or exploit the structural, normative, or instrumental functions of law to achieve national objectives in a competitive environment. These instruments can apply in contexts broader than war, including the full spectrum of peace, gray zone, and conflict, and broader than the military context, including the use of all instruments of national power.  “Legal gamesmanship” is not a pejorative, most if not all state actors engage in legal gamesmanship from time to time.  Not all legal gamesmanship constitute violations of law; not all violations of law are legal gamesmanship.

For China, “forced” and “unequal treaties” in which more powerful Western actors imposed humiliating concessions on late imperial China provided a spur for the Republic of China (post-1911) to leverage international law to undo these treaties.  After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the PRC did not have a seat in the UN Security Council until 1971.  As a result, international law (such as Law on the Sea, the Chicago Convention) had already been formulated either without the PRC’s input as it was not “present at the creation” or was negotiated when the PRC was significantly less powerful in the international system than it is today.  For these reasons, during the early years of the post-World World II international order, PRC referred to this international rule sets as “bourgeois international law”.  Today, however, a more powerful PRC does not intend on destroying the existing rules-based order, but rather seeks accommodations in those rules for its interests and games the rules for its advantage.     

In the 21st century, we can identify three phases in China’s approach to the role of international law.  The first is the pre-2003 Rhetoric Phase, where the law is referenced as a “weapon” to be used to defend national interests.  The second Doctrine Phase runs from 2003 to the present.  In this phase the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) applies the concept “legal warfare”, as evidenced the Political Works Regulation guidance given to the PLA – that is, instruction on what to focus its efforts on, as well as military textbooks on legal warfare and science of military strategy (where we can note a transition from “legal warfare” to “legal struggle”).  The third Dogma Phase was initiated by Xi’s “Thought on the Rule of Law” (2019) in which Xi exhorts the CCP and PLA to use law as a means in international “struggle” and international “competition”.  There are differences in tone/content for internal and external audiences, with the statements “take up legal weapons” in the “struggle against foreign powers” and “use the method of rule of law” directed at domestic audiences.  The Political and Legal Committee of CCP’s Central Committee held a “reading class” (a conference with senior members) in 2021 where the senior party members discussed the “competition of systems and rules” and the need to “make better use of legal tools” to protect China’s interests.

Deeds can be understood as “revealed preference”. When examining Chinese legal actions, we can identify three ways in which China leverages and exploits the function of international law: 1) its structural function (PLA proxy “maritime militia” uses in the South China Sea); 2) its normative function (norms govern actions and expectations); and 3) the instrumental function of law (both expanding its maritime zones and restricting activity therein, and creating legal pretexts for potential future actions, such as the 2005 Anti-Secession Law). 

Conclusions: Normative splits?

Russia’s way of war in Ukraine has the potential to create friction with China, but the bar for Russian actions is set high.  Russian “war crimes”, for example, have not caused a breach and China can always oppose any investigative process.  Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons would be undeniable and force China to abandon Putin as the costs of support would become too high.  Were China to aid Russia through the transfer of substantial military materiel, it is likely China would justify this in terms of stabilizing the conflict and the act of a responsible actor. In addressing its relationship with Russia in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, China has a costs/benefits analysis to make, one that changes as the Ukrainian conflict evolves:

  • China needs the axis with Russia to provide a strategic counterweight to the US and its allies;
  • Structural geo-economic realities matter – China trade with the political West in 2021 was 7 times more than with Russia – $1.6 trillion vs $243 bn.
  • Euro-Atlantic divisions – China’s preference is for a transatlantic divorce and a non-aligned “trading” Europe seeking equidistance between the US and China, not greater Western unity;
  • China does not want to be tied to a “loser” but would want to avoid the eventuality that the collapse of the Putin regime could lead to a post-Putin democratic break-through (“color revolution”) or a weak, nuclear, nationalist and unpredictable China-dependent and difficult to manage “second DPRK”.

For these reasons, we can posit that China may seek to create an off-ramp that takes a Ukrainian protracted conflict into one that is frozen. A frozen conflict better stress-tests Western unity.  It can allow Russia to reconstitute its military strength while maintaining its strategic autonomy.  A weaker Russia may compensate by taking greater risk in the international system, becoming a useful subordinated Chinese battering ram and spoiler to existing international order, while not opposing China’s alternative vision, or being strong enough to propose its own.  Such a functionally differentiated division of labor is workable: Russia seeks to destroy, paralyze or spoil the old liberal international rules-based order (driven also by the belief that the hallmark of a Great Power is the ability to ignore “the rules”); China builds the new order in line with its global vision of future order by 2049 and its role within it.

From a Chinese perspective, the trick in Ukraine would be to provide legal support to an off-ramp for Putin in the shape of a frozen conflict codification, while ensuring such an off-ramp has no ramifications for potential future CCP and PLA actions in Taiwan.  Such an outcome would underscore a general trend: China’s use of legal gamesmanship is more systematic, planned and long-term in its conception and execution; Russia’s legal gamesmanship by comparison appears more ad hoc and sporadic.

GCMC, 18 May 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Kriz, Jonathan Odom, Rodrigo Vazquez Benitez and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

The Moscow Kremlin. Russia’s fortified heart

Although it came out this spring, I realise to my chagrin that I didn’t post anything about this, my latest Osprey book. Here’s the blurb:

An illustrated study of the history of the Moscow Kremlin, a metaphor for Russia, a symbol for its government and an enduring icon of the country.

A fortified complex covering 70 acres at the heart of Moscow, behind walls up to 18m high and watched over by 20 towers, the Kremlin houses everything from Russia’s seat of political power to glittering churches. This is a fortress that has evolved over time, from the original wooden guard tower built in the 11th century to the current stone and brick complex, over the years having been built, burnt, besieged and rebuilt.

Starting with the initial building of a wooden watch tower on the banks of the Moskva river in the 11th century, this book follows the Kremlin’s tumultuous history through rises and falls and various iterations to today, supported by photographs, specially commissioned artwork and maps. In the process, it tells a story of Russia, and also unveils a range of mysteries around the fortress, from the 14th-century underground tunnels built to permit spies to enter and leave it covertly through to today’s invisible defences such as it GPS spoofing field (switch on your phone inside the walls and it may well tell you you’re at Vnukovo airport, 30km away) and drone jammers.

Very nicely illustrated by Donato Spedaliere, this was quite a fun book to write and research, and I’d hope a nice little complement to Catherine Merridale’s brilliant Red Fortress.

SCSS#8, 19 April 2022: Russia, China and Ukraine?

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 19 April 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


On April 18 2022 Russia’s war in Ukraine moved to a new phase, with President Volodymyr Zelensky stating that: “Russian troops have begun the battle for Donbas”.  Russia now focuses on a single front and seeks to establish full control over the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  That same day China’s Executive Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng gave assurances to Moscow that “China will, as always, strengthen strategic coordination with Russia no matter how the international situation evolves” while Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to the US, defended Beijing’s ties with Moscow, noting that such ties were “non-aligned, non-confrontational, and not targeted at third parties”. On 19 April Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the Ukraine conflict has wider ramifications, impacting as it does Russia-China ties and so affecting US-China relations.

The war, its nature and length stress tests the Sino-Russian “no limits” axis, in which both parties seek to maximize the benefits of the relationship while minimizing the costs of their “strategic partnership”.  The war highlights the ideological and geopolitical alignments between Russia and China.  The axis needs both to function as a strategic counterweight to US and promote an alternative non-liberal international order.  The war also brings into focus the importance of structural geo-economic realities, differing national priorities and the personal ties between Putin and Xi.  It stress tests inherent tensions in the relationship, based on increasing asymmetries and dependencies and the need for China to balance different considerations, not least to ensure internal stability in China itself.  For China, although the circumstances and contexts between Taiwan and Ukraine differ greatly (e.g. amphibious vs land warfare), there are some lessons in Russian and Ukrainian conduct that China identifies and likely seeks to learn. 


  • Bilateral Security Arrangements: Russia and China stand back-to-back and secure each other’s strategic rear.  This has enabled Russia to strip the Eastern Military District of troops to fight in Ukraine.  The notion that the axis is not always together but never opposed proves apposite, for now. Though both view each other as useful strategic partners they are both are determined to uphold their own strategic autonomy in decision-making and military operations. 
  • Diplomatic Support: China’s abstentions in UN General Assembly votes on 2 and 24 March 2022 formally upheld China’s professed “neutrality” with regards to the war.  However, China will likely seek to support Russia by influencing other states to abstain in future votes. Russia views its diplomatic relationship with China since the start of the war through the prism of continuity with interactions before the war rather than change. Russia’s “peace negotiations” provide Chinese diplomatic cover for support.
  • Narrative Support: Before the war China echoed Russian narratives around “color revolutions” and western destabilization.  Chinese state media now supports and amplifies Russia’s discursive power, particularly on Chinese social media at state and local level: the Bucha massacres are “fake”; Biden is criticized for labelling Russia’s actions in Ukraine a “genocide”;  NATO could launch missile attacks from Kharkiv to Moscow in 7-8 minutes; NATO “expansion” to Sweden and Finland would be “destabilizing”; Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva missile cruiser sunk in stormy seas following an earlier “detonation of munitions” on board and the West’s “economic blitzkrieg” of sanctions on Russia had failed.
  • International Order: China’s interests with Russia are more aligned than with either Ukraine or the ‘political West’.  Russia can act as a self-destructive and aggressive battering ram against the rules-based international order.  China increasingly joins Russia in challenging the Western dominated liberal international order, calling for a reformed new order to replace the current and an end to US hegemony.  To that end both China and Russia reach out to states in the Global South to garner support for a new global order and avoid the perception of their isolation. China has committed itself to being a global power by 2049. China encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization, contrasting this to Western endeavors. However, unlike China, Russia lacks its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm.

Inherent Tensions:

  • Structural economic realities are evident given Sino-Russian bilateral trade amounts to $147 billion in 2021, with a 28% ($38.2 billion) increase through the first quarter of 2022, but China’s trade with the EU and US amounts to $1.6 trillion.
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) privileges its own survival and internal stability over foreign policy concerns, particularly on the eve of its 20th Party Congress (November 2022), where Xi is likely to be reelected for an unprecedented third term.  The CCP identifies the primary contradiction (in accordance with the logic of dialectical materialism) in China as inequality, imbalances and uneven development. Would greater Chinese support for Russia result in lower prices for Russian natural resources, better enabling China to address and manage this contradiction?  Or might such support come at too high a price: secondary sanctioning and the loss of US and EU markets means that China’s economy becomes less modernized (China does not itself produce semi-conductors) and China is less able to both counterbalance the US and address its primary contradiction?
  • Currently China has suspended some operations and new investments in Russia, concerned with the effects of secondary sanctions.  From a Russian perspective, a slowdown in China’s economy would reduce Russia’s oil and gas exports to China, as well as potential Chinese investments in Russia.  As it is, even under ideal circumstances, China is unable to replace Russia’s lost EU energy markets.  By 2023 if the EU stops Russian oil and gas purchases Russia must find new markets.  
  • Far from winning the war in Ukraine, Russia’s military tactical, operational and strategic incompetence are on full display. China had viewed Russia as a major conventional military power, which went some way to balancing out other asymmetries in the relationship. Russia’s military conduct gives pause for Chinese reassessments. An economically weaker Russia becomes a more dependent partner – but also a potential liability for China. 
  • Red-lines:  Although the communique released after the Xi-Putin 4th February 2022 Summit referenced the “no limits” nature of the Russian-Chinese relationship, limits do exist.  Xi will reduce support for Putin if the costs for China are too high – but this would only happen in the case of a significant escalation that makes supporting Russia too costly.
    • China’s response to “vertical escalation” in Ukraine may be ambivalent: China could find a way to overlook Russia’s use of chemical or biological weapons, but the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be too difficult to deny and result in both China and India distancing themselves from Russia. 
    • The prolongation of the war and its escalation of the war from Russia-Ukraine to Russia and NATO would be a major concern for China.  These circumstances would likely unify the West further.
    • The collapse of Putin’s regime would be a very negative outcome for China: China’s fear would be twofold: first, a post-Putin regime may democratize or more likely an economically weak, China-dependent and difficult to manage “second DPRK” emerges – nuclear, nationalist and unpredictable; second, a united West may now look to address Chinese malign strategic behavior.
    • From a Russian perspective, if China purchases less energy from Russia or does not help economically, then this would be viewed as breaking the spirit of the partnership.

Conclusions: Ukraine and Taiwan – Lessons Identified?

  • Diplomatic: Russia argues that it does not fight Ukraine but rather the US and its allies in Ukraine.  China will likely also adopt this narrative: China will fight US and its allies in the region in Taiwan. The need to control messaging and have countries echo and amplify it or at least remain neutral is paramount.  China will seek to secure regional allies in East Asia, oppose the QUAD and plans to jointly develop nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles under the AUKUS alliance as part of their perceived effort to create an “Asia-Pacific NATO” to serve US interests.  
  • Intelligence: China’s need for accurate intelligence gathering, especially regarding Taiwan’s willingness to fight and resist “liberation” is evident, given Russia’s failures in this regard.  China also adopts a new core operational concept – intelligentized warfare – which involves the use of AI to intimidate/control the enemy’s decision-makers cognition and manipulate public opinion. This requires sifting through large amounts of data to identify influential individuals.
  • Military: China needs Taiwan intact as its eastern coast allow for strategic (nuclear) submarine launches – the first island chain marks the end of continental shelf and deep water.  This suggests China may adopt an approach based on covert, cyber, and information war and an awareness of the dangers of overconfidence in technological superiority, in Command, Control and Communications (C3), and combat management systems.
  • Economic: While Russia and China may be politically aligned they are both more economically dependent on the West than with each other.  China will appreciate the need to mitigate its vulnerabilities and enhance resilience through sanctions-proofing the Chinese economy and currency. China will seek to prevent Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen adopting a political, digitally resilient and cognitive warfare strategy akin to President Zelensky and prevent the “Sea Fortress” from receiving support from abroad.

GCMC, 20 April 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Helena Legarda, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

How Russia conceives and prepares for war… and how Ukraine doesn’t fit

cc 4.0,

Many months ago, I agreed to speak to the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre about Russian thinking – not just within the military but also the spook/civilian national security establishment – about war and conflict. Then came the invasion, and the growing realisation that what the Russians were actually doing was rather different from what, according to their own strictures, they ought to have been doing. So, my presentation ended up being a rather more impromptu attempt to explore not just the latter but also the former, and to try and understand the mismatch.

They have now posted an audio recording (so-so sound quality at times, I’m afraid), here:

That was in the especially confused first couple of weeks of the war. Since then we have a little greater clarity as to what is happening, even if still largely conjecture as to why. My belief about the late standing up of a Combat Management Unit (GBU) within the National Defence Management Centre (which is a crucial hub for coordinating everything from logistics to endstate goals – I talk a bit more about it in this episode of my podcast) seems to have been confirmed. We still do not seem to have a single field commander, but instead separate (and thus inherently competing) operational commanders to north, east and south. The generals are trying to reassert their control over the situation, but clearly (too?) late, and with, for the Russians, devastating consequences.

RSS#5, 21 March 2022: “Russia and Ukraine: Negotiated Settlement and End State?” 

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on 21 March 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears stalled, giving space for political negotiations. However, there are two wars that need to be addressed: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s war with the West.  In the first war, the issues include: 1) “neutrality”; 2) “security guarantees”; 3) de-militarization; 4) “de-nazification”; and 5) the nature of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  Russia’s combat operations have stalled.  Forceful breakthrough in several directions are unsuccessful.  The siege of Kyiv incomplete, as the visit by three European prime ministers demonstrated.  On 21 March President Zelensky stated that Ukraine will not bow to ultimatums from Russia and that Ukrainian cities under attack will not accept occupation. At the same time he urged direct talks with President Putin, saying:Without this meeting it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war.”  As a Ukrainian Jew whose relatives died in the Holocaust, his address to the Israeli Knesset compared Russian actions with that of the Nazi’s. Russian propaganda asserting the opposite fails to gain traction outside of Russia.

Russia’s ultimata to the US and NATO in December 2021 in the guise of diplomacy prefigured a recasting of the war in Ukraine as one between the “collective West” (‘Empire of lies’) and Russia (‘Truth and Justice’).  In this telling, articulated by Putin at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 18 March 2022, the West carries out “total war” against Russia using a “fifth column” consisting of “national traitors” with “slave consciousness”, as well as information warfare and economic sanctions. According to this understanding, Ukraine is a puppet, under “external control on the part of the West”. For President Putin, Russia is in an existential struggle for its sovereignty, its right to be itself, and so fights a necessary and heroic war of defense. Such military-patriotic mobilization through “total war” propaganda makes up for lost time: Putin had continuously asserted that Russia did not seek war and Russian society was not therefore mobilized to support war prior to the invasion. 

Ukraine-Russia Political Settlement

Russia insists that Ukraine adopts a neutral military status, with Russia’s lead negotiator Vladimir Medinsky stating that Russia desires a: “peaceful, free, independent Ukraine that is neutral and not a member of a military bloc, not a member of NATO.” President Zelensky accepts non-NATO membership as a reality: NATO is “not ready to accept Ukraine for at least 15 more years”. The question then is which neutrality model does Ukraine adopt – the Swiss model of armed neutrality and territorial defence – or the non-aligned Finnish and Swedish models, that include EU membership, with its increasingly meaningful Common Foreign and Security Policy. Although the EU as a regulatory and normative geo-economic superpower united in sanctions against Russia poses the greatest danger for rent-based patronal ‘Putinism’, Putin himself may not understand this reality. 

A second focus in the discussions is on security guarantees “for all participants in this process”.  Thus a neutral Ukraine would seek guarantees for the “complete security for Ukraine for the time that NATO is not ready to accept us”. Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator, notes that this: “suggests that there will be no bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine, but rather a multilateral agreement, a package agreement that a number of countries will take part in — their number is still being discussed. [But it will be] five to seven countries.”States mentioned as guarantors include nuclear power states – UK, France and US – as well as Turkey, Poland, and Israel.  However, how these guarantors punish potential future violators have yet to be defined, and given the failure of the generic Budapest guarantees, identifying specific responses for specific violations may help make the process more credible and reconcile Kyiv to it. Russia itself would need “security guarantees” – but guarantees of what and by whom?  This factor does underscore that two peace processes are interlinked.

Russia seeks “demilitarisation” of Ukraine so that “no threats to the Russian Federation ever come from its territory”.  The size and capability of Ukraine’s military is a topic for discussion.  If Ukraine adopts armed neutrality with security guarantees, this suggests that Ukraine would be armed to the extent that it could defend itself from and so deter future aggressors. This in turn implies a range of air-land-battle capabilities and integrated air-defense systems in place.  Limited and symbolic third party border monitoring missions might also ensure demilitarization and act as a security guarantee.  All Russian military forces would withdraw from the territory of Ukraine, raising questions regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and borders.  Ukraine’s post-settlement model may well be Israel.  That is, heavily militarized, with a sense of self based on military vulnerability, but with strong external guarantees.

President Putin continues to speak of “denazification” which supports his framing in terms of the Great Patriotic War, while Foreign Minister Lavrov referenced the “termination of nazification policy” in Ukraine.  “Denazification” suggests regime change, with ‘regime’ understood in terms of current political and military leadership in Ukraine as well as policies.  The “termination of nazification policy” may be understood in terms of alegal regime and refer to “discriminatory legislation” and restrictions on Russian language, education, culture, and mass media in Ukraine. Russia’s narrative around a “special military operation” to “protect the Russian-speaking population” against a Ukrainian Nazi regime encompasses both interpretations. 

Territorial issues may be subject to de facto and de jure recognition compromises with regards to Donbas and Crimea but not ‘the South’.  For Donbas, Russia has rrecognized both Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states according to their de jure 2014 administrative borders.  Ukraine will likely insist on the de facto borders of 22 February 2022.  Will it settle for the de facto borders by time of settlement?  With Crimea, Russia would likely insist on the official recognition of Crimea a permanent part of Russia either immediately or through another referendum, this time with international recognition?  President Zelensky has referenced a “Crimea compromise” which suggests that de jure the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (the ARK) is still legally part of Ukraine but de facto Ukraine would work with the current reality.  However, in ‘the South’ Russia will seek to maintain the seized North Crimea canal (water security for Crimea) and the land corridor to Donbas, making the Sea of Azov a Russian lake. Russia has begun moves on creating a Kherson Peoples Republic and Mariupol Peoples Republic.  For Ukraine trading Mariupol for a wider peace may be a bridge too far. 

Culmination Points

  • Progress in the war has an effect on the respective strengths and confidence of both sides.  We can look to the culmination of Russian military and diplomatic tracks regarding its aggression in Ukraine and the knock-on effects for Russia’s economy and popular and “inner circle” support for Putin.  Does Russia meet an impasse or stalemate where continuation forward is no longer possible?  Does this then allow for an operational pause and regroup and provide time to mobilize support for a wider war?
  • If Russia suffered the isolation and destruction of several battalion tactical groups due to over extended supply lines, encirclement and annihilation, might this tactical defeat resonate on other Russian fronts, leading to collapse, compounded by steady military losses, exhaustion and low morale (as evidenced in the Kostroma 331st Guards Airborne Regiment and 138th motorized rifle brigade)? Alternatively, might Russia escalate to negotiate from a position of greater strength, seeking the formal capitulation of Mariupol or capture of Kharkiv, Sumy, or Mykolaiv as bargaining chips in the negotiations?  Might an unexpected Russian break through lead to the belief that “just one more push” leads to victory? This mindset that brought ruin to the Russian army in World War I.
  • In Ukraine, 2020-2021 sociological surveys demonstrated public opinion leaning towards integration with the EU and NATO. War has increased Ukrainian support for pro-Western policies and the Ukrainian language, identity, self-belief.  On 18 March 2022 Rating sociology group carried out a survey via Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews with 1,000 respondents above the age of 18 in all regions of Ukraine except those currently occupied: 96% believe that Ukraine will repel Russia’s attack.  On 21 March President Zelensky stated that the final format for compromises on “security guarantees” and the temporarily occupied territories in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia may be put to an all-Ukrainian referendum.  This mechanism may also facilitate implied changes to Ukraine’s constitution.    
  • Might vertical escalation through the use of a non-strategic nuclear weapon(s) be used to break the impasse and improve Putin/Russia’s negotiation position?  Russia appears unlikely to escalate in this manner for a number of reasons: 1) the impossibility for NATO allies not to have a direct military response and actively consider regime change; 2) the technical difficulties involved in the delivery; 3) a pragmatic Putin fearing his orders might not be carried out chooses not to; 4) the loss of external support – China being critical – as Russia moves from pariah to isolated rogue state status; 5) a staged nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya after withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would have the same escalatory signally effect without the risks associated with Ukraine. 
  • The spring 2021 conscription draft represents a tipping point.  As Russia dragoons a new wave of conscripts, draft dodging may prove an indirect indicator of popular support for the war, or lack of it.  In addition, once conscripts complete their one year service they are released into society as live witnesses of the realities in Ukraine.  Might Russia be tempted to extend conscription and undertake “national mobilization of personnel and industry”?  Would this emergency move cause societal backlash and unrest, as well as damage the narrative of a “special military operation” going “according to plan”? Does the deployment of Rosgvardiya for controlling the occupied territories leave too little capacity for managing anti-war movements in Russia itself?
  • Deficiencies in Russia’s way of war are evident. The Russian military was unprepared for a multi-axis attack against determined resistance.  The centrality of Putin to Putin’s war is highlighted by his portrayal as a popular war leader, though this popularity may be Potemkin-like. Putin is selling “victory” to the Russian public and his “inner circle”, but are they buying?  If so, at what price?  Putin sought to restore Slavic unity.  He breaks it, loses Ukraine and returns Russia to a 1970s “Brezhnev 2.0” construct, with differences: Russia is in open confrontation with the West not competition, is more ideological, weaker and less stable.  Coups in Russia – Khrushchev in 1964 or Gorbachev in August 1991 – occur when there is a confluence of opinion in Russian military, KGB and political elites.  Has Putin ensured through elite surveillance and a lack of collective institutions that this terminal culmination point is not reached? For now elite opposition manifests itself as passivity and lack of support rather than the active determination to be first mover in the removal of a paranoid and isolated but not yet a fully Potemkin-Putin: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. (King Richard IV, Part 2, Act 3, Scene 1).

GCMC, March 22, 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

SCSS#7, 15 March 2022: “Russia-China Axis: Polar Power-Plays?”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on March 15, 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


Russia is an Arctic superpower by virtue of the length of its Arctic frontier (over 50% of the Arctic Ocean is Russian coastline), size and scope of military, civil population and economic presence. With its icebreaker and capability gap and North Pole floating station, it is not just second to none, but more than the others combined. China’s Arctic Strategy (2018) defines itself as having Arctic stakeholder status, in contravention of its 2013 Arctic Council observer commitments.  China is a strategic power in the Antarctic. 

When we look to both poles, to what extent do we see convergence in terms of goals of Russia and China?  Where are points of alignment, convergent interests and divergence?  In particular, how might the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact on Russia’s military buildup, modernization and securitization agenda in the Arctic, trade along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which is enabled by conflict free, stable and predictable operating environment and its willingness to uphold the international legal architecture of the Arctic, as agreed by stakeholders? Are the rules of the Sino-Russian relationship now to be written in Chinese characters and not Cyrillic?


The 1959 Antarctic Treaty and related agreements designates the Antarctic as the area south of 60 degrees latitude.  The treaty itself has 14 articles and is in force indefinitely. The continent is declared a politically neutral territory, with the sovereignty claims of seven claimant states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) set aside.  All 12 signatories of the Antarctic Treaty and the 29 consultative parties (those with substantive research programs in the continent who can vote at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting) agreed that the Antarctic can be only be used for scientific and peaceful purposes.  Military bases and activities are expressly forbidden and no party can enhance their own or diminish the territorial claims of others.  The US and Russia have not made a territorial claim but reserve the right to do so. The Antarctic Treatyallows for a review conference if a majority of signatories agree to open it and consensus of all parties to create a new regulatory framework.  Both Russia and China continue to plant the seed that the treaty is not “future proof” and should be discarded and rewritten.

China is a major player on the continent.  It has four Antarctic research stations: Great Wall, Zhongshan, Taishan and Kunlun (4,093 meters’ elevation above sea level, second-southernmost research base in Antarctica), with a fifth station being built on the Ross Sea Ice Shelf, to be completed in 2022.  Kunlun has never been inspected.  China pushes the notion of a “specially managed area” around its research stations over which foreigners should fly over or enter, particularly near Kunlun in an area called Dome A (Dome Argus).  Other parties resist this normative change, as well as criticize Chinese non-compliance with rules, for example, pertaining to the submission of environmental and planning documents. China utilizes two icebreakers, the first built (MV Xue Long – ‘Snow Dragon’) was built by Ukraine and has been in service since 1994, the second (MV Xue Long 2) in China.    

Russia has been present in the Antarctic longer than China and has ten research bases or stations.  Five of these are seasonal bases (Molodezhnaya, Bunger Oasis, Russkaya, Leningradskaya and Druzhnaya-4), and five are operational year-round: Mirniy (founded 1956), Vostok (1957, currently being upgraded to accommodate 35 people during the season and 15 people during the winter period, with a two-year supply of fuel/food), Progress, Novolazarevskaya and Bellingshausen.  The Admiral Vladimirsky and Yantar oceanographic research ships, operated by the Russian Navy and help service its bases on the continent.  Russia operates six nuclear-powered and 40 diesel icebreakers but these are used in the Arctic.

The Antarctic is mined for its resources. Chinese fishing flotillas currently harvests about 30,000 tons of Antarctic krill annually, the building block of the earth’s food chain.  The Soviet Union and then Russia were the main krill harvester, accounting for over 95% of the global volume of krill fishing, but its industry now stagnates and its fishing fleet is in a deteriorated state.  The continent is rich in coal deposits and the Southern Ocean rich in gas and the Antarctic ice-cap holds 90% of the earth’s fresh water.  At annual meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which comprises 25 nations and the European Union, both Russia and China in the name of “resource security” cooperate to block proposals to create the world’s largest sanctuary in Antarctica, protecting penguins, reefs, seabirds and ecosystems, as well as initiatives aimed at tackling climate change in Antarctica. However, differences are apparent: while China seeks to exploit the continents resources in 15-20 years, Russia’s goal is to lock them up and avoid alternative supplies of energy entering the market. 

Both Russia and China share an interest in projecting Polar Great Power identities in the Antarctic. On the 27 January 1820 the first confirmed sighting of the mainland Antarctic was by a Russian expedition, led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.  They were commissioned by Tsar Aleksandr I to explore the southern seas in search of the Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”).  In 2020 to be the “Year of Antarctica” and in Russia a stress is placed on Russia’s historical links with Antarctica, with President Putin in 2018 seeking to “restore historical justice” by putting original Russian names of many locations in Antarctica back on the map: “With the most active participation of the Russian Geographical Society, it is proposed to prepare a new Russian Atlas of the World, in which all such cases [of renaming toponyms that bore Russian names] will be correctly interpreted.” 

 Logistically China tends to be more self-sufficient, though it does rely on Russian facilities in Antarctica, most notably aerodromes, though China seeks to build its own.  Russia has two aerodromes, one with India and another temporary one and works with South Africa for resupply. The Chinese company CEIEC (China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation) cooperated with Brazil to build its new Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station between 2016 and 2020.

The continent is strategically important and both Russia and China have a shared interest in leveraging their presence to compete with Washington. China undertakes dual use “scientific research” which mask military-security ends and erode a rules-based order.  From the Antarctic submarines can be launched into three of the world’s oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.  The EU, US, Russia and China can use Antarctic bases for GPS satellites. China launched its first polar-observing satellite in September 2019 – the ‘Ice Pathfinder’ (Code: BNU-1) – which carriers out “satellite-drone-ground” synchronous scientific experiments in the Antarctic. Russia’s ZALA Aero company (part of the Kalashnikov group within the Rostec state corporation) tests light drones in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, operating the drones at minus 52 degrees Celsius.  China has yet to table an Antarctic policy, Russia’s was published in 2001 (before its Arctic) and this was revised in 2021.


The Arctic Council’s 2021 Strategic Plan was celebrated for its forward-thinking ambitions. Members envisioned an Arctic in 2030 to be a “region of peace, stability and constructive cooperation”. The permanent member states of the Arctic Council consists of Canada, Finland, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the United States and Russia, which holds the rotating Chair between June 2021 and May 2023.  However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russia’s “partners” suspended Russia from the Northern Dimension (the European Union, Iceland and Norway) on 8 March and on 9 March the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) members (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden) and the EU followed suit.  Seven of the eight permanent member states of the Arctic Council voted to ‘pausing’ Arctic Council engagement. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused its partners, who Russia had designated “hostile states” of being “Blinded by the anti-Russia hysteria”.

This ‘pause’ in effect places addressing any issue inside the Arctic on hold. The Arctic Council no longer represents a robust, operational mechanism for Russia-West dialogue and cooperation. It is hard to envisage the resumption of ties in the near term. The Arctic Council could seek to function without Russia in order to address environmental and other issues that cannot wait for the end of hostilities in Ukraine.  Russia’s acceptance of greater risk regarding civil aircraft maintenance standards, spills over into oil and gas production in the Arctic, where sophisticated technology needed for offshore Arctic exploration can easily break down, inviting environmental disasters.  For these offshore fields to be profitable global demand needs to price oil at $160 pb over a sustained period.

The economic impact of sanctions, unexpected in scale and scope, is profound. Beijing’s share in the Yamal LNG venture is 29.9%, Russia’s Novatek holds 50.1% and France’s Total holds 20%. Arctic-2 LNG project, China holds 20%, Novatek holds 60%, Total accounts for 10% and the remaining 10% is held by a Japanese consortium.  Sanctions mean that external investment should cease.  Russia’s ability to limits new Chinese investments in for example Russian ports, will be harder to maintain.  

However, Russia may seek to turn the crisis into an opportunity to bring ‘new’ non-Arctic stakeholders partners into the theater: China, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Vietnam, and Bangladesh – the future power houses.  The UAE apart, these countries abstained in United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In addition, while Shell may pull out, BP has a 19.7% stake and it remains to be seen if France’s Total walks away from Russia’s trans-shipment hubs.  What is clear is that Russia’s Arctic stakeholders will all be impacted by the Ukraine invasion.  These include corporations such as Rosatom, Novatek, and Rosneft; defense and security heavy-hitters, such as Defense Minister Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Patrushev; and, the General Staff (in particular its nuclear lobby) and the Defense Industrial Complex (VPK). 

Prior to the invasion the Russian media had reported heavily on Russia’s Northern Fleet exercise in the Barents Sea involving 20 warships, submarines and support vessels including the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky and the frigate Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov, as well as around ten aircraft and helicopters from the fleet’s Air Force and Air Defence Army. This exercise foreshadowed NATO’s “Cold Response 2022” exercise, seeking to reassure and deter, the largest in the High North since the Cold War. 

Russia’s military agenda in the Arctic is reshaped by the Ukraine invasion.  The Russian General Staff now fear NATO escalation in the Arctic. In three weeks of fighting in Ukraine Russia has consumed three years of military hardware production, with money and capabilities designated for the Arctic being expended in Ukraine.  Moreover, the Northern Fleet deployed some of its assets, including the Marshal Ustinov cruiser and two amphibious ships to the Eastern Mediterranean in February 2022, so its combat order is rather reduced, while the “Cold Response 2022” is the largest ever. Remarkably, Russia’s state-controlled media in lock-step over the necessity of “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, does not make any reference to this NATO exercise, which involves two air-craft carriers, 35 countries and 35,000 troops. 

As a result, grey zone or hybrid scenarios involving Svalbard (Spitsbergen) and Bear Island are now much less likely.  In the past Russia has accepted risk as a competitive strategic advantage and for example, conducted live-fire missile launches in NATO exercise areas and undertaken GPS jamming.  Such spoiler and disruptive conduct is no longer in evidence. Most of Russian’s land forces are fully deployed in Ukraine and an exit strategy short of “declare victory” and leave is not in evidence.  The Bering Strait remains the world’s most overlooked emerging global transport choke point. Russia is unable to protect its strategic nuclear submarines on the Kamchatka Peninsula, as it cannot organize a “naval bastion” or uses an A2AD “bubble” in the Sea of Okhotsk. Limited U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to the west of the Bering Strait might reinforce the common benefit that flows from denying Russia the exclusive control over this maritime route.  While conventional escalation or provocation scenarios are put on hold, Russia might still look to carry out nuclear testing on Novaya Zemlya, undertaking vertical escalation to demonstrate its nuclear might. Undertaking chemical, biological or radiological attacks in Ukraine itself, risks literal blow-back into Crimea or the Russian cities of Belgorod or Rostov-na-Donu.


  • In the Arctic, Russia and China have a converging interest in the NSR. However, here the situation is very fluid.  Climate change creates new borders and brings into question the continental shelf, with overlapping claims from Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Canada.  Might a decision be made that rejects Russian claims? Ukraine demonstrates that Russia is prepared to suffer reputational damage to achieve its ends.  Might Russia apply the same logic to the Arctic and seek to nationalize the NSR and thereby control access to transport lines and Arctic resources?  Alternatively, might the US Senate ratify UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), allowing for consensus and adding strength to the Arctic Council and UN stances?  Is the Arctic considered a global commons? UNCLOS is not very precise and leaves too much room for interpretation, as evidenced by the behavior of both China and Russia. 
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stress-tests the China-Russia axis. Does China decide that it cannot let Russia fail too badly, as this sets a poor precedent and strengths NATO/the ‘political West’ and leaves China exposed as a “near peer” competitor?  Thus, the invasion of Ukraine deepens the functional axis and widens it: China supplies Russia with military materiel; Russia becomes more dependent on Chinesetechnology, finance and trade; the relationship becomes more asymmetric and in China’s favor.  Indeed, the invasion of Ukraine is understood as a global inflection point, one that marks the death of the rules-based order, with Russia, China, India and ASEAN states breaking with the past.
  • Or, alternatively, does China decide that Russia now constitutes a serious liability, one that could threaten China’s own strategic autonomy and longer term goals? The challenge to the rules-based order posed by Russia is considered too disruptive: it impacts on China’s own conception of world order; China’s role within it in too detrimental a manner; and constrains Xi Jinping’s ability to address destabilizing inequalities in China itself. China therefore decides to highlight its global leadership role and pressure Russia into a political settlement.  In either case, how might we see this contract manifest itself in the Arctic and Antarctic?
  • Russia’s inability to unilaterally impose its regulatory scheme on the NSR, requiring permission to enter it, not providing an exception for sovereign immune vessels, and insisting China abides by Russian transit laws (vessels must be piloted by Russian pilots, tolls are charged, and Russia must be pre-warned about trips) would be a clear indicator of change.
  • But ultimately, the answer to the question may lie in Moscow and the shelf-life of the Putin regime.  For Russia an inability to secure a victory in Ukraine is a defeat. If this is the case, is the parallel 1905 (Russo-Japanese War) or 1917: in other words, does it involve regime/leadership change and reform, or regime and political system change and chaos?

GCMC, March 16, 2022.   

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Elizabeth Buchanan and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

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