Will They Go?

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 12-19-2021
It seems that something is brewing. And it probably isn’t going to be pretty.

Putin wants more of Ukraine, Xi wants Taiwan, and the Mad Mullahs in Tehran want nuclear weapons. And has anyone heard from young Mr. Kim in Pyongyang lately?

About 10 months ago I asked the question “Will he go?” of Emperor Xi of China. The question, of course, echoes the question the pundits were asking of Hitler in the summer of 1939: Would he “Go,” would he invade Poland?

As noted last February, like Germany in 1939, the answer won’t be found in an objective analysis of risk versus return. Rather, the answer lies in the motivations of each of the key figures in the four capitals in question:
  • Putin wishes to reestablish the buffer zones of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union (Ukraine has been arguably part of Russia since the late 1600s).
  • Xi wants Taiwan, recognition as the equal of Mao, and recognition of establishing China as the world’s dominant power
  • Khamenei wants nuclear weapons, the elimination of Israel, and perhaps preeminence in the Muslim world
  • Kim wants survival and recognition from the West.
Xi, as noted last February, is looking to use the Olympics (Beijing, February 4 - 22, 2022), a la Putin and his seizing of Crimea after the Sochi Olympics, to further his vision. As part of his scheming, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently conducted amphibious landing exercises on Hainan Island. Air operations continue around Taiwan.

Arguably, Putin has already moved; according to the Ukrainian government, Russia has had “Little Green Men” inside south-eastern Ukraine since 2014. Russia  controls roughly 6,000 square miles of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an area roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The term Little Green Men refers to men in unmarked green utility uniforms (carrying Russian weapons) who worked to seize Crimea. Russia denied they were Russian troops, though General Breedlove, the senior US general in NATO at the time, stated they were. Later, a retired Russian general told a reporter they were Spetsnaz (Russian special operations forces). Ukraine now reports there are an estimated 10,000 Russian regular army in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as more than 40,000 pro Russian separatists militia.

Russia also has several corps worth of regular forces in various garrisons and lodgments within easy striking distance of Ukraine, as well as some additional forces deployed to Belarus. How long he can maintain them “at the ready” remains to be seen.

Which leaves Putin where? 

Putin has now had elements of his army out of garrison for more than a month, some of them probably for several months. That can be sustained only at a cost in wear and tear on equipment and in a steady reduction in readiness of the troops.

A particularly astute friend suggested that Putin and his generals are likely to have read the history of fighting in Ukraine over the last several hundred years and will recognize they don’t want to make the mistake of taking too big a “bite” at any one time.

They’d want to push soon, January or February, the depth of winter, when Europe is struggling to stay warm and is importing ever more gas from Russia.

And China?

Would China wait until Putin has acted and US forces are deployed to Europe? Would China and Russia coordinate? In fact, it might not even be necessary. Each of these four countries have leaders who are relatively adept at watching what the US is doing and then exploiting US inattention. 

And there is the Olympics option.

While it has been commonly held that if China were to do something they would wait until after the Olympics, a friend, Chris Melhuish, came up with a particularly interesting idea: What if China attacked Taiwan, not before the Olympics, and not after, but during. Consider the scene: 1 week into the games PLA forces land on Taiwan. TV coverage of Olympic Games and all the assorted hoopla that normally praises the host country, all played against the military action taking place 100 miles of China’s coast, a thousand miles or so south-south-east of Beijing.

Thousands of athletes, visiting dignitaries, international celebrities; the Beijing government assuring one and all they are safe, continuing with the games, announcing that the PLA has landed in Taiwan in response to some atrocious lie, asserting that the PLA needed to move to protect the people of Taiwan.

It gets more interesting as you chew on it: What would happen if the invasion rapidly turned sour and the People’s Liberation Army bogged down and the invasion became a war of attrition?

To add more onto the plate, might Tehran take this opportunity to announce they have nuclear weapons.

And North Korea launches an ICBM over Japan…

Whether these happen in rapid succession over the next few months, or not, the fact is that these things are brewing, as a direct result of bad policy decisions over the last 30 years, decisions that empowered authoritarian China, failed to understand or address Russia, and failed to develop meaningful strategies vis-a-vis Iran or North Korea, while squandering 3 decades, economic strength, and technical leadership.

Bad policy may be catching up finally.