Putin’s Maoist Gambit in Ukraine
On the eve of his invasion, Vladimir Putin’s resort to a traditionally-Chinese diplomatic tactic reveals the enduring bond between the two revisionist powers.
In August 1958, three weeks after hosting Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing, Mao Zedong shelled the Taiwanese-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, initiating the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. The timing of Mao’s assault, following just after the Soviet leader’s visit, suggested that Khrushchev had greenlit Mao’s actions.
The move fooled American leaders, locked in Cold War rivalry with Moscow. President Dwight D. Eisenhower accused Khrushchev of orchestrating the entire crisis when, in truth, Khrushchev was as surprised as the American president.
In this way, Mao played one superpower rival off the other to provide cover for an aggressive military offensive.
China reused Mao’s tactic in 1979—this time against the Soviet Union, by then China’s primary rival. In February of that year, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping traveled to the United States for a high-profile tour of China’s newfound Cold War partner. Deng met with President Jimmy Carter, members of Congress, and many of the country’s most prominent business leaders.
Three weeks later, upon returning to Beijing, Deng invaded Vietnam, a Soviet client state. While internal documents show that Carter never endorsed Deng’s imminent invasion, Deng’s ploy convinced Moscow that he had.
“In both cases, Beijing succeeded in creating the impression that its actions enjoyed the blessing of one superpower, thus discouraging the other superpower from intervening,” Henry Kissinger has observed.
Mao and Deng’s strategy exploited the ambiguity of diplomatic exchanges to give a lesser power room to maneuver in the shadow of bipolar rivals. With the appearance of support from one pole, a third power could deter the other pole. The maneuver relied on deterrence by misdirection.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has embraced this traditionally Chinese gambit.
Weeks before invading Ukraine, Putin may have used a visit to Beijing to initiate a scheme similar to Mao and Deng’s. By visit’s end, Putin had secured written proof of a “no limits” partnership with Beijing. The gambit has left the United States unsure of the depths of Russo-Chinese coordination on items like military support and sanctions evasion.
These two cases contain clues for what may come of Putin’s gambit.
In 1958, Khrushchev was so furious at Mao for exploiting the appearance of coordination that he decided to withhold nuclear weapons, which he had previously offered. The Soviets had signed six agreements on nuclear science with the Chinese and were busy providing blueprints, teaching material, missiles, and nuclear specialists. However, according to analysis of Soviet internal documents, “the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958 unnerved the Russians, leading Khrushchev in June 1959 to rescind his promise to deliver a teaching model A-bomb to the Chinese.” Mao’s gambit clearly backfired.
In 1979, the United States, on the other hand, welcomed the ambiguity Deng’s visit provoked. Maintaining Deng’s ruse was a chance to further menace the Soviet Union.
In each case, the apparent co-conspirator (the Soviet Union in 1958 and the United States in 1979) had the option to punish China or embrace its aims. So far, it appears that Beijing has opted for the second course—to embrace Russia’s aims—just as the United States did China’s in 1979. In that sense, Putin’s gambit today is like the one Deng used in 1979.
Back then, Deng and Carter were united by the logic of Cold War I; despite Carter’s criticism of America’s Vietnam War, he countenanced China’s invasion of the country. Now, despite China’s long-cataloged insistence on the principles of territorial integrity, Xi Jinping is backing Putin’s Ukraine invasion. Powerful shared historical memories, such as the perceived tragedy of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and shared grievance, about Western-instigated “color revolutions” for example, have seemingly convinced the two leaders of the necessity of a union.
Like the United States in 1979, Beijing has been willing to endure the appearance of encouraging an invasion, believing it will impact the balance of great power competition. And, unlike the Soviet Union in 1958, rather than scale back the provision of weapons, Beijing may already be covertly providing military aid.
The Cold War antecedents of Putin’s gambit indicate that China had multiple options for its response to Putin’s aggression. Beijing’s choice to tolerate his maneuver conveys the enduring strategic appeal of such a partnership. The gambit’s sheer persuasive power will likely continue to trump the inconvenient optics.
Christopher Vassallo (@VassalloCMV) is a contributing writer on Asia for The National Interest and a junior fellow of the Center for the National Interest’s China and the Pacific program. He is a former Schwarzman Scholar and researcher at the Asia Society and Harvard Belfer Center.