OPINION - We should fear the threat from Putin and Xi Jinping, the master conjurors abroad

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government, after authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 6, 2022 (REUTERS)
Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government, after authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 6, 2022 (REUTERS)

Like all good conjurors Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin know that the success of their act depends on audience distraction. For weeks now the headlines have been full of speculation about an attack by Russia on Ukraine and the People’s Liberation Army of China on Taiwan. US intelligence has leaked copious reports, backed by satellite pictures, of possibly up to 100,000 Russian military personnel, plus reservists, along the borders of Ukraine.

The Chinese air forces have run hundreds of flights through Taiwan military air space, and President Xi has repeatedly said that the island should be reunited to the “China motherland” within five years.

Putin has claimed that in Ukraine’s history and geography lies “the soul of the Russian people’s story”.

But what else are the master-conjurors up to? What do they want us to see, and what would they like to remain hidden? We also have to look at the tensions at home, which both leaders appear to find unsettling.

Putin’s latest move has been to send Russian troops into Kazakhstan to help its embattled president. Meanwhile, he is pushing a tight timetable. Russia is to join talks planned for January 12 under the framework of the Nato-Russia Council. Putin wants all offensive Nato weaponry removed from Poland and the Baltics, as well as Ukraine and Georgia. Furthermore, Ukraine and Georgia must pledge never to try to join Nato. Such an undertaking is a legal and diplomatic nonsense; he knows it.

Both leaders know they have a psychological advantage with the divisions of “the West” after the Afghanistan debacle. Since January 1, however, there has been a change, with Washington engaging allies and the government in Kiev. Secretary of state Antony Blinken has said he wants Nato to act with one voice. But America appears divided within.

EU Europe is also divided, with the new German coalition and President Macron desperate to show they are on the same page. They aren’t. Macron favours a much softer line on China and an approach to Russia divergent from that of America and the UK.

Russia is busy across Europe. Moscow is using international maritime regulation to close the Azov sea to shipping as it notifies “military exercises”. Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik is threatening to wreck the 1995 truce laid out in Dayton by pulling the Serbs out of the Bosnian federation, and is relying on Russian backing.

China is also busy across its Pacific neighbourhood. Last week Beijing offered riot control training and militia to the Solomon Islands to counter Australian troops and police sent in to help restore order in November.

But signs of domestic grief are growing. Chinese property conglomerate Evergrande has suspended its shares. The city of Xian is under total curfew from a resurgence of Covid. This is not helped by growing suspicion in the scientific community that the pandemic began with a leak in the Wuhan Virology Institute’s laboratories.

Russia, too, is being hit hard by repeated waves of Covid. Moreover, there are signs that Putin is under pressure from his own hardliners to act decisively. As Xi and Putin sense danger to themselves, they become more dangerous to the rest of us.

For both, the timeframe for military options may be narrowing. Winter mud and snow are terrible for Russia’s forces on Ukraine’s borders. And Taiwan is more agile in preparing a long guerrilla defence than is often credited. It’s decision time for the UK, too. The time for the gestures — destroyers in the Black Sea, carriers in the Pacific — is over. Britain must offer what its allies say they need, of what it is genuinely capable, and what is in its own interest — individually as a nation, and collectively as an ally.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting