Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Taiwan and Ukraine, respectively, and their egos, collectively, threaten to spark a nuclear world war.
China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been relatively successful in their long-standing mission to centralize institutions, laws, and technologies in ways that maximize their political power and limit individual freedoms. But their one failure so far has been to secure the biggest object of their desire, the breakaway territories of Taiwan for Xi, and Ukraine for “P.”
In light of Russia’s recent military buildup near the Ukrainian border, one can almost imagine Xi Zooming with P a few months ago and saying, “Hey, this arms build-up around Taiwan is working for us, why not try it around Ukraine?”
Nothing unites these two autocrats more than the way their shared vision of national greatness is being undermined by the neuralgic sting of humiliation. As heads of former dominant regional powers, it is a rejection that they take personally.
Macho men never get over being jilted. Women who leave their husbands for no reason other than wanting to find their happier selves can often trigger a wave of embarrassment, hurt, and indignity in their exes. A former spouse’s newfound ability to live her own life is a constant reminder of their failure to sustain or re-create the union that was so central to their self-identity.
For Xi and P, the disintegration of their countries’ territorial integrity—the loss of Ukraine for Putin and of Taiwan for Xi—threatens to undermine their credibility.
For Xi and P, the disintegration of their countries’ territorial integrity—the loss of Ukraine for Putin and of Taiwan for Xi—threatens to undermine their credibility. Their “exes,” therefore, must have been unfairly taken away from them; Putin even goes so far as to say that Ukraine “has no right to exist.”
Russia’s investment into its buildup of forces near its border with Ukraine could reach 175,000 troops over the next few weeks, plus tanks, artillery, and equipment. For its part, China has undertaken a twenty-five-year military expansion around the Taiwan Straits, which includes precision missiles, fighter jets, a fleet of 360 warships, and nuclear submarines in the making. Each makes it clear to their opponents that, if challenged in their objective of an eventual reunion, there could be the risk of a nuke-driven world war.
As with the most painful family break-ups, this behavior sucks all those around them into their soul-sapping and life-wasting meddling, whether it is the need to counteract Russian efforts to leverage European gas pipelines to weaken Ukraine, or America’s and Japan’s efforts to deter China’s intrusions into Taiwan’s air space. Everything becomes a zero-win struggle to try to assuage Russia’s and China’s feelings of being wronged and to deter their counterproductive plans to rewrite the past and shape the future.
This brinkmanship forces western allies into a relationship of strategic ambiguity with the “renegades,” by providing them, in an incremental game of grandmother’s footsteps, with military training, equipment, economic support, and diplomatic engagement that in 2021 approximated $450 million of American security assistance to Ukraine. Bipartisan approval in the US Congress will spend up to a yearly $2 billion on Taiwan.
In the battle to reestablish their country’s collective identity and thereby cement their name in perpetuity, neither Xi nor P is ready to invade, yet. But Russia’s financial investment in fire and manpower on the Ukrainian border is a small price to pay if it becomes another step to its long-term goal. It has also amassed a $620 billion war chest to reinstate Putin’s spousal rights and global relevance.
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Because, so long as blood is not shed beyond an acceptable level of professional conscripts, then even a brief military conflagration can be an autocrat’s win-win, stoking nationalistic pride over shared history, familiar language, and nostalgic affinity, while using moral equivalence over the international community’s bullying strong shows of unity.
The greater worry during this new era of geopolitical tug-of-war is that millions of citizens become trapped inside concentric circles of big and expensive military weapons, cyber intrusions, information warfare, and neurosis. They will holiday in the last resorts of a Black Sea containing more naval fleets and nuclear submarines than fish, and in Asian coastal regions of barbed wire, missile launchers, naval mines, and amphibious craft.
Xi and P’s obsession with integral sovereignty is the galvanized steel of their legacy, which, in true egomaniacal style, will remain both at arm’s length and within reach of their cryogenic lifetimes. Wishful thinking may keep the world hopeful that these two macho men will not do the unthinkable, but Ukrainian membership of the EU or Taiwanese democracy are akin to allowing their ex-wives to move on and prosper, which, as many women know, means never.
Because, make no mistake, both men—one divorced, the other separated—want their spouses back, or broken, even if subsequent progeny have to endure their power-mad narcissism in repetitive cycles of environmentally-destructive behavior on a dying planet.