Ukraine War, August 31, 2022: Nuclear weapons, China, and winning the war in Ukraine

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Dispatches

1) Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, “The only thing now preventing a Ukrainian victory is Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship; A united West can defeat Putin by using its economic muscle to get China on board to stop the despot from making his apocalyptic threats,” The Telegraph, August 31, 2022 (1:42pm);

Analysis

De Bretton-Gordon draws attention to the fact that it is only Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes directly in Ukraine that prevents the far-superior NATO forces with their 21st century weapons from quickly forcing Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine.

He does not suggest the West try to win a nuclear show-down with Putin. Rather he suggests a more indirect approach.  He argues that the West has great leverage over China whose exports to the West dwarf those it sends to Russia.

A unified West could induce China to make Putin cease its nuclear threats, by threatening to curtail its imports from China in the same way it has done by curtailing its gas imports from Russia.

De Bretton-Gordon writes,

China no doubt could play the key role in nullifying Russia aggression, but I expect it will not lean on Russia by its own volition. Economic growth and stability are key to China’s place in the world order, and counter intuitively drives their brand of communism. The US and European markets for Chinese goods and services dwarf probably by many trillions that of Russia. I am sure if the West threatens to wean itself off Chinese products, as it has off Russian gas, the Chinese hand will very quickly tighten around the Russian neck.

It is most likely that money, or rather lack of it, will eventually remove Russian nukes from the Ukraine battlefield.

By implication, he makes a strong argument for the imposition of secondary sanctions against Russia that would apply to China. However, it is hard to see how any mandatory “wean the West from China” policy could be adopted by a unified West, though potentially voluntary steps in this direction could help nudge the Chinese.

Chinese fear of getting caught up in the existing sanctions has probably been a big factor in their not providing military aid to Russia.

Nonetheless, it is not easy to see how the Chinese hand might quickly tighten around the Russian neck. Nor is it clear that such action would force Putin to renounce consideration of using nuclear weapons.

Worth recalling is Winston Churchill’s famous quote along these lines:

When I warned them (the French) that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!” — Winston Churchill, Ottawa, Dec. 30, 1941
–Chris Cobb, “WINSTON CHURCHILL 70 YEARS AGO: ‘SOME CHICKEN! SOME NECK!’” International Churchill Society, January 4, 2012.

While comparisons between Britain and Russia may not be apposite, it is well to remember that the Russian neck proved to be quite strong during World War II.

Moreover, there is one additional factor that may influence China to go along with Western sanctions. Uulike Russia, China is not at present challenging the U.N. Charter and international law in general.

To be sure, its actions in the South China Sea have been violating international law, as a 2016 arbitral decision under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention made clear.

But there is a big difference between violating the law–maintaining that you are not–and rejecting the entire legal system.

Significantly, China maintains that the use of force against Taiwan would not violate international law. The U.S. and the West have failed to articulate a strong rebuttal to China’s arguments, though they could if the put their minds to it.

The point is simply that China does not represent the same kind of challenge to the U.N. Charter and international law that Russia does, at least not yet.

Still, de Bretton-Gordon makes a powerful point. The best way to influence Putin and Russia may be through pressuring China along the lines he suggests.

The Trenchant Observer

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