On February 24, 2022, some 150,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine, destroying large numbers of towns and taking the lives of multitudes of Ukrainians.
Supported by Western nations filled with fury and horror, Ukraine resisted and killed many of the invading troops. So far, both Russian and Ukrainian troops have lost 20-50% of their total strength. The former Japanese Imperial Army considered a force to have been fully destroyed when it had lost 50% of its troop strength.
According to a German military report during World War II, the morale of the Soviet Red Army troops was narrowly maintained through instilling them with the fear of being executed by the Red Army’s “special blocking corps” that executed defectors and others who failed to follow military discipline. There also are records of officers shooting and killing soldiers for committing rapes and looting.
Considering the actions of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the contemporary Russian troops and those of the Soviet Red Army have much in common. Also, the mental structure of Russians, who endured more than 20 million lives sacrificed in the German-Soviet war, is still alive. Russians have low sensitivity to deaths and injuries, while their tolerance levels for property damage are notably high. Regardless of regime changes, after all Russians are Russians.
Mentality of Invading Ukraine
The slogan employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia today is: “Make Russia Great Again.” Russians believe that their country should be a superpower and Russian leaders must strive to make that happen.
What the Russian public dreams of is resurrection of the Soviet Union, the superpower that boasted the largest in Russian territory in history, that vied with the United States and the Western world to gain global hegemony.
The national anthem at the time of the Soviet Union has also been revived to become the national anthem of today’s Russia. It goes in part, “Russia is the holy power of ours.”
In 2011, President Putin came out with the concept of an “Eurasian alliance” aiming for the revival of the Soviet Union. Control over Ukraine is a long desired objective of the Russians, as reflected in Putin’s vision. That public approval of President Putin has remained around 80% even after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war is simply because he is trying to fulfill the wishes of many Russians.
Russia can even be said to be a democratic country in a sense, having put in place a system of elections. It would be difficult to wage a war ー even for President Putin ー if the public did not want it.
Russia’s Guilt in the Loss of Soviet Glory
If you compare Russia today with the Soviet Union, it is Russia that lost the western part of the Soviet Union ー that is, Eastern Europe ー when the USSR collapsed. On the other hand, Russia has kept the eastern border of the Soviet Union intact. In addition, it has not lost even a fragment of the Northern Territories that it stole from Japan.
The Kremlin, by contrast, is trying to forcefully change the status quo in Eastern Europe, which was the western region of the Soviet Union, making it a dangerous nation for European countries. However, in the eastern part of the former Soviet Union where China has been massively increasing pressure day by day, Russia has been caught up in trying to maintain the status quo.
For the first time in 200 years Beijing has emerged as the dominant partner in the Chinese-Russo relationship. According to the Chinese side, Beijing has become Moscow’s elder brother with Moscow in the position of being Beijing’s younger sister.
Russia, desperately trying to protect its Far East borders, is a country intent on maintaining the status quo in Asia.
Resurrection of the Chinese Empire
The slogan of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is: “Make China Great Again.”
The CCP, however, has a major weakness as a political party. In democracies, the government can show the people support it by the results of an election. The Chinese Communist Party has never proved that it is supported by a majority of the people.
In fact, the CCP maintains itself in government by controlling the people by force, not by receiving support from the people. That said, support from the people is necessary for a stable government.
Therefore, ever since the days of Deng Xiaoping, the CCP has adopted the policy line of pursuing “cool-headed capitalism,” playing on the common Chinese dream of becoming rich. In this scheme, specific persons could become rich, instead of communism in which everyone becomes poor. No Chinese person opposes becoming rich. And in this way, the CCP has bought the support of the public through what can be termed a “national enrichment policy.”
Nevertheless, as a result of “cool-headed capitalism,” the disparity between rich and poor has been widening, and public dissatisfaction has been rising.
Therefore, the CCP understands that it must do something supported by the people in order to maintain public support. In this connection, no Chinese opposes policies that expand China’s sphere of influence in the international community and satisfy the Chinese people’s sense of pride.
This is just what is meant by “Make China Great Again.” What ordinary Chinese think of as the Great Reconstruction of the Chinese People is rebuilding the pillars of the historic Chinese empire, which was the world’s biggest superpower up until the 19th century.
Changing the Status Quo By Force
What is the difference between the Chinese empire of the 19th century and present-day China? Today’s China has lost its sphere of influence in the eastern region of its former empire, that is, the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asian tribute countries.
Regarding its western borders, Beijing firmly controls the new region of Xinjiang, which the Quing dynasty conquered in the 19th century. Therefore, it is enough for Beijing to continue a policy of maintaining the status quo as far as its western region is concerned.
But on its eastern side, the status quo must change for China to regain the sphere of influence of its once upon a time empire. China is therefore a dangerous country set on changing the status quo for neighbors along its eastern borders, including Japan.
Furthermore, China is the only country that has been aspiring to wrest land away from Japan’s effective control. Russian troops are bleeding in Ukraine and have no power to carry out a two-front operation.
Therefore, any country considering confronting China as it seeks to precariously change the status quo, must remember one of the aphorisms in Karl Von Clausewitz’s essay “On War”. To paraphrase: One who is averse to blood-shedding is destined to lose to an opponent who is willing to shed blood.
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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Tomohide Murai, Honorary Professor at the Institute for International Strategy, Tokyo International University