Global Pairings

Advantage China: Putin’s Dangerous Crimea Precedent

Putin’s intervention in Crimea re-opens the door to territorial China’s claims on Russia


  • Russia mistakenly believes that it has an ally in China as it seizes Crimea.
  • Nobody benefits more from Putin's move in Crimea -- and has bigger sanctioning potential on Russia -- than China.
  • Russia's actions in Crimea might even increase tension in East Asia, in particular across the Taiwan Strait.
  • In the 19th century, China was forced to cede the Far East and parts of Siberia to Russia.
  • In Crimea, Russia has set a dangerous precedent for the Chinese that they may exploit one day.
  • Russia's Far East is increasingly full of China's citizens, much like ex-Soviet Russians in Crimea.

Putin is miscalculating badly. As to negative fallout from his Crimea move, all eyes are on the West and what it will do in terms of sanctions, including exclusion from the G8.

Meanwhile, Russia believes that it has an ally in China, even as China openly backs away at the U.N. Security Council over the issue. In fact, nobody benefits more from Putin’s move in Crimea — and has bigger sanctioning potential on Russia — than China.

In a few short weeks, Putin’s propaganda has managed to whip up a nationalist fever and irredentist fervor in Russia. He has raised the hopes among low-income Russian speakers in Crimea for a better life. Putin’s propaganda and his real-world moves have successfully instilled fear on all sides.

Even if the West makes the annexation of Crimea too costly for the Russian economy and Putin’s super-rich friends, it will be difficult for Russia to tame the forces it has already unleashed.

Acting impetuously and rashly, the Kremlin has opened up a can of worms. It antagonized Western Europe and the United States, who are angered by the spectacle of a great power revising European borders by force – for the first time since 1945.

Russian bullying

Meanwhile, Central European nations have been unnerved. They anticipate instability in Ukraine, which could draw Russia even deeper and force it to occupy more of Ukraine’s regions than it is currently prepared to do. They envision refugees spilling into their territory and resistance fighters seeking sanctuary within their borders.

Russia’s immediate neighbors have reason to fear, too – including its closest allies. What if Russia decides to use its military to implement a two-state union with Belarus, which now exists mostly on paper? Or if it decides to come to the “assistance” of Russian speakers in Northern Kazakhstan?

As far as Ukraine itself is concerned, though, Putin’s moves have backfired badly. Russia’s military meddling in Crimea and rabid anti-Ukrainian propaganda have now turned a majority of that country’s 40 million people – including many in Eastern Ukraine – against its larger neighbor. A majority of Ukrainians now want to join NATO – something which was not true only a month ago.

Russia’s actions in Crimea might even increase tension in East Asia, in particular across the Taiwan Strait. The government in Taipei will now be mindful of the precedent set by Russia in Crimea and eye China with far greater suspicion.

Chinese restraint

Not that China is ever likely to follow Russia’s misguided example. By comparison to Russia, China is a restrained and patient international player. It is quite hesitant to create another reason to quarrel with the United States or scare other countries in the region. The latter have already been unsettled enough by China’s rapid rise to the superpower status.

A quarter of a century ago, Beijing refrained from using force to take over Hong Kong and Macao – which it very easily could have done. Instead, it painstakingly negotiated the terms of transition and has by and large stuck to them, carefully preserving Hong Kong’s special status.

In the case of Taiwan, too, China is likely to continue to wait and wait, knowing that history and economics are on its side.

Given the extent to which Taiwanese companies have deployed their own capital and centers of operations onto the mainland, in objective terms, the merger might as well have already happened. All that remains to be arranged are the legal and political niceties.

Don’t forget China’s claims on Russia

However, there is one more territorial claim, which China currently keeps on the back burner. It is against – who else? – Mother Russia herself. During the age of European colonial expansion, the Celestial Empire (China) was effectively dominated by the European powers. However, it was never carved up the way other countries and continents were.

With one exception: In the 19th century, China was forced to cede the Far East and parts of Siberia to Russia. During the 1960s and early 1970s, there were border tensions and even a number of armed clashes between China and the Soviet Union.

Small parts of Russian territory were then quietly ceded to China — and more recently, the two agreed to accept the current borders — but China believes much larger chunks of what is now Russia rightfully belong to Russia.

As if to settle these broader claims by osmosis, Chinese settlers have been steadily moving into Russia’s remote, economically depressed and underpopulated regions.

Stupid Russia, patient China

By asserting its historic sovereignty over Crimea, Russia has set a dangerous precedent for the Chinese as they look wistfully over their northern border. Those vast empty spaces of Russia’s Far East, full of all kinds of natural resources, are what China’s booming economy craves. And now its citizens live there too, much like ex-Soviet Russians residing in Crimea.

Russia not so long ago agreed to preserve and defend Ukraine’s existing borders. Breaking that agreement in a moment of opportunity creates a precedent for other countries with alternative border preferences, including China, to follow suit if the relevant opportunities arise.

True, Beijing will bide its time and will not do anything precipitous or unlawful. But when the time comes, it will not hesitate to re-assert its claims – and Russia will have no one to blame but Putin for providing a convenient excuse for a land grab, in the form of a powerful precedent in Crimea.

See our ten-point strategy note based on this essay.

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About Alexei Bayer

Alexei Bayer is the Eastern Europe Editor of The Globalist.

  • irastraus

    Could you please provide me a link to the full survey that you use for this remark? (the link you do give shows related things, but not this.) “A majority of Ukrainians now want to join NATO – something which was not true only a month ago. ” It is very important for me to be able to access the full data on this matter.

    Thank you

    Ira Straus
    Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO

  • dccajun

    Don’t you think China is concerned that this same principle that Russia invoked of self-determination in Crimea might be contagious in Tibet? And, I think you dismiss the Taiwan comparison too lightly. Once again, like the Crimeans, the Taiwanese have determined that they are political separate from China. My take is that China is very wary of the Russian move, and don’t see good outcomes from it for their regional problems.

  • John Cornett

    According to Putin’s new example, TAIWAN CAN VOTE FOR SUCCESSION. In fact, Taiwan can become “occupied” by any foreign power and, while under occupation, can vote to secede from China. TAIWAN CAN EVEN VOTE TO JOIN ANOTHER NATION, that can “protect” the people of Taiwan from ill-treatment from pro-Chinese people.
    TIBET CAN VOTE FOR SUCCESSION according to the new principle Mr. Putin has thrust upon the world. Are Tibetan’s discriminated against? OK, they can ASK a FOREIGN POWER (at China’s moment of weakness) to come in an “protect” the Tibetans while they hold a REFERENDUM TO SECEDE. They can even JOIN ANOTHER COUNTRY, that will “really” protect them.
    Oh the joy, oh the euphoria of it. Putin is making a stupid and dangerous argument, crafted only for his selfish interests.

  • dguyintoronto

    The Chinese response to Taiwan in relation to Russian action in Crimea is simple “bad fo business”

  • MRMcCaffery

    Wrong on all points. The 1991 Sino-Soviet border agreement resolved all the issues on borders between these two Asian giants. Ever notice how the one nation China does not have border issues with is Russia? Crimea is only likely to embolden China to press Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines more forcefully than has recently been the case, given the lame sanctions and tepid response of Europe and the Obama administration.

  • bhumphreyTG

    The author’s point, however, is that these agreements are no longer as ironclad as they seemed. In the 1990s, Russia agreed without contention to respect and protect Ukraine’s borders including Crimea. That held up right up until it didn’t. Treaties get broken all the time. So why should Russia assume that its agreement with China will now hold?

  • Frank Horzabky

    “the spectacle of a great power revising European borders by force – for the first time since 1945.”
    Uh? Have you forgotten Yugoslavia? When the US intervened militarily to partition Yugoslavia in several ethnic states.

  • MRMcCaffery

    Because the Russia Federation and China revalidated the agreement in 1997 and China knows Putin would push back, hard, unlike RP or Obama.

  • Independence2014

    The US didn’t do that. Yugoslavia fell apart on its own, largely due to Milosevic’s provocations — starting, first, when Slovenia declared its independence from it, followed by Yugoslavia’s other provinces.

  • MRMcCaffery

    Crimea had Russia and Russian troops (they were never ‘militia’ only the naive western press bought that mirage) to back them up. No one is going to send troops to Tibet or Taiwan.

  • Frank Horzabky

    Tell me: how did Kosovo secede from Serbia? 78 days of bombing by the USAF in 1999. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, while it was still occupied by US and other NATO troops, eight years after Milosevic had fallen from power and Serbia had a new, pro-Western government. Serbia had no say in the secession. Thank you America, you created Kosovo, an Islamic state in the heart of Europe.

  • bhumphreyTG

    Maybe Milosevic shouldn’t have attempted “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo.

    In any case, Serbia and Kosovo have a treaty of recognition now. So that process, whatever its flaws, is old news.

  • Frank Horzabky

    Old news? 2008 was only six years ago. Ukraine will recognize that Crimea is Russian territory faster than that.