Reflections on the First Year of the Russo-Ukrainian War

On March 12, 2022, a Chinese scholar and researcher affiliated with China’s State Council named Hu Wei published a commentary on our website criticizing China’s position on the war in Ukraine, correctly predicting that it would make China, like Russia, an international pariah. The article was viewed more than 1.5 million times, including hundreds of thousands of times in China, before being censored by the Chinese government. Hu was placed under investigation and later faced repercussions for publishing the article. Today, he offers his reflections on the first year of the war Ukraine. 

The original Chinese-language article can be read here. Please note that this article was not commissioned by the US-China Perception Monitor, nor is the author affiliated with the Carter Center or the US-China Perception Monitor.

A nation—no matter how big or small—ought not to go against the development of human civilization.

Sometimes, it feels like time flies by. Indeed, it has already been three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and one year since the Russo-Ukrainian war. These two events—as catalysts of “major changes”—are perhaps what Fernand Braudel called the predetermined longue durée of history as well as an irreplaceable markers of history’s “shorter cycles.”

At the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, I wrote an article analyzing its possible outcomes and proposed some policy recommendations for China. Though the article was quite controversial at the time, it appears the trajectory of the war largely follows my original prediction. At this moment of one year anniversary of the war, there are a few key events worth noting.

The first was U.S. President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine. He is the first U.S. president to visit Ukraine—since President George H.W. Bush’s visit to Kyiv in 1991—in recent decades and the first to enter a war zone uncontrolled by the U.S. military. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed his visit as “an important moment for Ukraine” and a “historical moment.” But since Ukraine is an “active war zone with no U.S. control over airspace,” President Biden had no other option but to take the risk of paying a “secret visit,” concealed with a “smokescreen” created by the White House. And the trip to Ukraine was equally arduous: Biden, at 80, departed from the Andrews Air Force Base for Poland at 4:15 a.m. on the 19th and took a 10-hour long train ride to Kyiv at 9:37 p.m., finally arriving at around 8 a.m. on the 20th. Such meticulous effort undoubtedly marks the unusual importance of the visit.

Many western politicians have visited Kyiv before—some of them truly significant, yet none with the same status as the U.S. president. No wonder Zelensky was moved to tears on the spot. No, the trip was neither a mere “symbolic event” nor only limited to $500 million in military aid, as evidenced by Biden’s public declaration of Putin’s “war of conquest” as one of failure in Kyiv. In this light, perhaps Biden’s visit to Ukraine marks the war’s final stage. The post-war world landscape will be radically altered, the current structure of the United Nations will be reshaped, Russia will no longer be a great power, and the external environment which China confronts will become increasingly vicious.

The vote on the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) marked the second major event. On February 23rd, the 11th Emergency Special Session of the UNGA reconvened to underscore the need for comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in Ukraine and to reiterate its demand that the Russian Federation immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw its military forces from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory. The draft resolution—submitted jointly by 57 countries including Ukraine, the United States, Germany, and Japan—won 141 votes in favor. Seven countries—Belarus, North Korea, Russia, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Mali, and Syria—opposed the measure, and 32 countries—including China, India, and South Africa—abstained from voting. The result is comparable with previous votes on Ukraine-related matters. While opposition increased by 2 votes (Nicaragua and Mali) upon Russia’s persuasion, the fundamental perspective maintained by the international community on the invasion did not change in any way. Indeed, the just concluded Munich Security Conference was unprecedented in that there were no debates of different perspectives, forming an atmosphere of public opinion that was overwhelmingly pro-Ukraine. And prior to the UNGA meeting, the West had made it clear that this was the last chance for Russia and neutral countries to take a stance. But it is clear that these “chances” are no different from embarrassing “challenges” for nations such as Russia.

In practice, the UNGA resolutions are non-binding and cannot be enforced. Why, then, ought we make such a vote? —Because it embodies a moral force. Birds of a feather flock together. A just cause attracts much support, an unjust one finds little (物以类聚,人以群分。得道多助,失道寡助). International politics consists of not only “interest” and “power,” but also “righteousness” and “principle.” We oftentimes remark that “a weak nation has no diplomacy” and that “there exist no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” Yet many nations, small and weak, are not only well-situated but also maintain friends with those countries that shoulder moral responsibilities in today’s world. And on the contrary, superpowers such as the Soviet Union, besieged on all sides, would inevitably collapse. Those who go along with the mighty world trend will prosper; those who resist it shall perish (世界潮流,浩浩荡荡,顺之者昌,逆之者亡). A nation—no matter how big or small—ought not to go against the development of human civilization.

The third major event is China’s release of its position paper on the Ukraine crisis. Director Wang Yi arrived in Russia shortly after President Biden left Ukraine, highlighting the divergence between China and the U.S. on the matter. Earlier on February 18th, Wang Yi declared at the Munich Security Conference that China would publish a position paper on the first anniversary of the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published the document on the 24th with great fanfare. China’s effort to attract global attention to this document is evident. The position paper consists of 12 points, all of which consistently echoed China’s previous viewpoints on the Russo-Ukraine confrontation, including proposing a ceasefire, jumpstarting negotiation, and opposing the use or the threat to use nuclear weapons. Yet the paper contains no specific implementation plan or any operational measures. Point 10 calls for removing unilateral sanctions and what it refers to is self-evident. As such, nations in favor of imposing sanctions on Russia will not accept this document. Ukraine, of course, will not agree with the proposals. Even Russia says the document does not reflect its positions.

At this time, the battlefield momentum and the moral advantages are both in the hands of Ukrainians. To call for negotiation under this circumstance holds no realistic foundation. The publication of this document will not bring about any real impact on the progress of the Russo-Ukraine War, but it will have a huge impact on how China is going to position itself in the international community. As the prospect of the war gets clearer, China is in a dilemma with not much room to maneuver politically. This context is sharply different compared to the situation when I wrote my first commentary.

Lastly, had Putin known the outcome of his “special military operation” then, would he still make this choice? Of course, history does not entertain “what ifs,” and what is lost can never be regained. What is done cannot be undone (历史是没有后悔药可吃的); we can only learn from the lessons, try our best to not cling obstinately to our course and to never repeat past mistakes. This is applicable to everyone. In his state of the union address in Moscow on February 21st, Putin declared that the West launched the war first and Russia is simply trying to stop the war with force. This is a shocking declaration. No decision-makers can avoid making mistakes and the only difference between wise decision-makers and foolish ones is the ability to learn from past errors, reverse wrong policies in a timely manner, and stop the losses as early as possible. Russia as a nation-state has taken many detours in the past, yet the tuition it paid has resulted in nothing. At this juncture, the conclusion of the “Ode to Afang Palace” (an essay by the Tang Dynasty author Du Mu on what lessons to be learned from the collapse of the Qin Dynasty) appears in front of my eyes: “The people of Qin were too busy to lament themselves. Later generations lamented the collapse of Qin but refused to learn the lessons. And they were doomed to be lamented by later generations.” ( 秦人不暇自哀,而后人哀之。后人哀之而不鉴之,亦使后人而复哀后人也。)

What is the most tragic is to witness a nation that does not remember its past mistakes.