This Q&A features excerpts from a Carnegie live event, moderated by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, on the global fallout of the Ukraine crisis. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. See more Carnegie events here.
Mary Louise Kelly: What is your sense of communication at this moment between Beijing and Russia? To what extent are they sharing information?
Alexander Gabuev: They don’t. I think that the Chinese contacts I talk to are as shocked as many people are. They read the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community in the media. The U.S. government shared some intelligence assessments with the Chinese, but the move is just so irrational, and going so much against the core national interests of Russia, that the Chinese had until the last moment really never believed that this would happen. So they pretend like they are keeping some communication line.
There is Western pressure for China to play a mediation role or to put pressure on Russia, which they don’t want to do. So they will keep in contact with the Russians, but there is zero meaningful coordination. They know that the Russians don’t need them to win this war, as ugly as it is.
Rose Gottemoeller: There was an op-ed in the Washington Post about how China stands for sovereignty and territorial integrity and all these lies about China knowing in advance about the invasion. I’m curious about what you make of that.
Alexander Gabuev: China has had a very well-developed narrative and talking points since at least the 2014 annexation of Crimea. These talking points include support for peace and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, mild criticism toward unilateral sanctions that don’t help the problem, and now criticism toward the expansion of U.S.-led alliances, meaning both NATO and AUKUS. And depending on the audience, the Chinese cherry-pick the parts of this message.
So it’s only normal that Ambassador Qin Gang went out to a major U.S. paper and underlined these parts. I totally believe that there was no discussion between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] on what’s likely to happen. . . . [In] the meeting of the Russian National Security Council, the closest members of Putin’s war cabinet were visibly shaken and shocked because they had only realized what had happened. So I don’t believe that Putin had shared this with a foreign leader in the presence of other diplomats.
China is a very selfish power. It really cares about its own interest. It doesn’t care about Ukraine or Russia, for that matter. And just underscoring the parts of the message and talking to the West are really an imperative for them.
Mary Louise Kelly: To what extent do you see parallels or total dissimilarities between China’s designs for Taiwan in Russia’s designs for Ukraine?
Alexander Gabuev: I think they’re different, and they are not synchronized. It’s not that Putin made this reckless and terrible move on Ukraine that will make China believe that U.S. attention is somewhere else and will jump on Taiwan. In order to enforce observation of Taiwan into the People’s Republic on Chinese terms and put the gun on the table, you first need to make this gun really big and scary. And for that, China needs a nuclear deterrent on par with the United States. That’s what they are busy doing right now. They need about a decade to do this. And then are the conventional elements.
I think the lesson they’ve learned watching the fallout of the Russian operation is that the Russians believe their economy is sanctions-proof, when in fact it’s not. So if you want to do something like Putin did or if you want to take Taiwan by force, you really need to sanction-proof your economy much better. It’s basically a live simulation going in front of their eyes. I imagine that they will double down on indigenous innovation, double down on creating an economy that makes it really much easier to cut ties with the rest of the global economy. I think that’s where the focus will be for the next ten to fifteen years.
Mary Louise Kelly: [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky has so successfully framed the Ukrainian resistance as a fight for democratic values, and I’ve been trying to figure out how that resonates in India. As I have tracked India’s role, it has struck me as a kind of hedging its bets. But what you described [earlier in the event] sounds more like India is stuck, trying to figure out, from the department of not really any good options, how it navigates this. Does that sound fair?
Ashley J. Tellis: I think that’s an accurate description. I don’t think it’s hedging its bets in the sense that India has chosen its interests over the competition with values. They appreciate what the values in contention are, including the destruction of the liberal, rules-based order. But they are so dependent on the Russians in so many ways, and they’re so afraid of the prospect of an even tighter Russian-China embrace, that they are hoping that sitting on the sidelines will give them continued leverage with Moscow. [They are hoping] that Moscow will remember when a crisis with China comes down the line that India did not set out to censure the Russians, as many other states have done.
Mary Louise Kelly: What of Turkey’s relationship with the West and with Russia at this moment?
Karim Sadjadpour: I think for me what’s been most notable is this Turkish drone, the Bayraktar—I see Ukrainian women on social media saying they’re going to name their sons Bayraktar—has played the same role in this war that the Stinger played in the war against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. So Turkey and Russia (historic rivals) and the Turkish military role here (the drone aid to Ukraine) have played seminal roles.
Turkey and Russia have also been obvious rivals in the Syria conflict. But both Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan have managed for many years now having geopolitical rivalries with countries while not severing ties with them. So it seems that there is a level of dialogue between Turkey and Russia, even though, as I said, the Turkish drone has really been one of the military stars of this conflict.
Rose Gottemoeller: I’ve been watching with amazement how Turkey, as one of the bad boys of NATO, has been playing these positive roles in this current invasion—not only providing the drones but also trying to facilitate some diplomacy. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met [recently] in Turkey.
It’s much different from when I was NATO deputy secretary general and Turkey had just bought the S-400 [missile defense system from Russia]. The United States and NATO were cutting Turkey out of the F-35 program as a result, and they seemed to be much in some senses closer to Moscow at that point than to NATO headquarters—at least that’s what a lot of people thought. Now it all seems to be healing. The United States apparently has offered Turkey upgraded F-16s in return for the better behavior. It’s no longer the bad boy it was, and we’ll see where it goes from here.
I’ll end by noting that all the bad boys of NATO—Poland, Hungary, and Turkey—have been performing spectacularly in this horrible crisis. Hungary itself had terrible differences with Ukraine over the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, which again was the top issue for Hungary and Ukraine while I was at NATO. But all is forgiven now it seems.
Mary Louise Kelly: The “bad boys of NATO” is a phrase I’m not going to be able to get out of my mind.
Rose Gottemoeller: The bad boys of the EU too—at least Hungary and Poland.
Mary Louise Kelly: What are the conflict’s implications for climate change consensus? How will it affect competition in the Arctic?
Alexander Gabuev: Russia is not a big player at the climate change negotiations, but all of the measures that have been introduced last year, to have an agenda for sustainable growth and combat climate change, are now rolled back because Russia will not be able to continue with the modernization of its oil processing plants and many other parts of its economy. So it will be much less green than before because of a lack of access to Western technology and Western green finance.
On the Arctic, China wanted to use Russia as a proxy to be more visible and more present. Russia is the only large state with a coastline that would be permissive to Chinese economic and financial interests, and China was a big investor in Russian oil and gas projects in the Yamal Peninsula and the Arctic liquified natural gas project. I think now, as Western companies are exiting the Russian market, it’s very likely that China will fill the void and find a way to be even more present, and Russia will not be able to push back.
Judy Dempsey: This climate change agenda is creating turmoil in Germany, frankly because [Chancellor] Olaf Scholz says he wants to wean Germany off Russian energy, which will not really happen, and off coal, which will happen. Of course, one should perhaps use nuclear power for climate change, but the Greens are absolutely ideologically against this. Germany, which sets itself to be the leader of the green revolution, has got itself in a bit of a problem on this.
Rose Gottemoeller: Rosatom and TENEX, its commercial arm, are going nuts right now. They had [billions of dollars] in orders on their books for nuclear power plants around the world. Basically, it’s all been shot to pieces now. So that means, I suppose, less nuclear power, unless somebody like South Korea or China now steps in to take over that order book that Russia is going to be forced to abandon under sanctions. We’ll see if they can climb back in some way from this.
The Arctic was a centerpiece of Russian policy. It chair the Arctic Council right now, which was a big deal for them. They really wanted to show off their positive policy in the Arctic with the other member states of the Arctic Council. But the other member states have walked out and are refusing to participate now in meetings under Russian chairmanship.
Karim Sadjadpour: One of the things I’ve learned in this industry is to never make predictions, especially about the future, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a very successful investment fund manager on Wall Street, a few months ago, and he told me something I thought was very interesting: over the last decade the investments that did the best were tech stocks—the Apples, Googles, Microsofts, et cetera. Over the next decade, where he’s putting his money is much more on commodities and oil and gas.
I don’t have any money riding on any of these predictions, but I did think it was interesting that someone who does do this for a living is betting on oil and gas and commodities. That’s certainly been a big winner for 2020 up until now. It remains to be seen whether that will remain the case several years out.
Watch the full event below, and see more Carnegie events here.