Should we expect a Sochi replay, this time by China, after Winter Olympics?

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By John J. Metzler

The ongoing Beijing Winter Olympics have averted our attention from a possible geopolitical clash of titans.

As the Games progress under a mantle of Covid restrictions, controversy over China’s domestic political repression, and yes, the adrenaline thrill of a global sporting event, military forces are gathering in both Eastern Europe and East Asia which threaten freedom and could jolt the global balance of power.

The Sochi Winter Olympics. / CC BY-SA 2.0

I recall the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia back in 2014 when an already resurgent Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin put on a good show and sporting spectacle in the snowy mountains while at the same time planning to dismember neighboring Ukraine.

Just after the Winter Games in late February, Moscow began a series of covert military actions supporting Russian ethnic separatists in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region and shortly thereafter, annexing Crimea in March.

The timeline was unmistakable. The world was watching elsewhere.

Just before the start of the current Olympics, Vladimir Putin visited Beijing to meet with China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping; the meeting exhibited not only political choreography but produced a stunningly clear message of intent. In a wide-ranging statement Russia and China coordinated their positions on key diplomatic flashpoint throughout the world. Their perspectives were formed from what they perceive as lacking American leadership following the Afghanistan debacle.

Related: New Cold War: China and Russia formalize anti-U.S. alliance, February 8, 2022

The Joint statement stressed that Russia and China “oppose further enlargement of NATO.” Moscow moreover added, “The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” Russia equally supports China’s position relating to the search for the origins of the Coronavirus which was traced to Wuhan.

Both authoritarian powers restated their political bottom line; keep Ukraine out of NATO and Taiwan belongs to Communist China.

Though clearly not a formal Treaty, the joint Putin/Xi Statement of Policy remains the most direct and forceful outlines of interests since the Cold War.

This signifies a political tryst between tyrants. Yet ironically it was on Valentine’s Day 1950 during a trip by China’s dictator Mao Tse-tung to visit Stalin that The Sino/Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was signed; which at the time was hailed as “eternal and indestructible.”

Even then this was more a marriage of connivance than a marriage of convenience. Nonetheless for contemporary Western policy makers, even the chimera of Sino/Russian cooperation and military coordination can evoke nightmare scenarios.

But does this signal that the Russian tanks will roll into Ukraine when the Olympic flame is extinguished in far off China?

Will Vladimir Putin reach beyond his deceptions in the Donbas and perhaps probe Ukraine’s map in a punitive grab for additional territory?

Will Xi Jinping try to seize the small island of Taiwan?

Putin’s play book is starkly simple; create and foment tensions, smoke, mirrors and confusion.

Maintain a steady flow of disinformation and at the same time act as the victim. The Russian ruler views Ukraine as a “little brother” which must be brought back to Mother Russia’s ethnic and political embrace. Thus, Putin’s crude hyper-nationalism in smirking scornfully at Ukraine’s sovereignty and planning to dismember it piece by piece.

In the meantime, the West is nervous but largely united. The USA and NATO states are ferrying munitions and lethal supplies to the Ukrainian military. Additional troops are being positioned in Poland and Romania and the vulnerable Baltic States. Yet, is the Ukrainian army trained well enough to operate some of the more sophisticated equipment without foreign military trainers?

While the UN Security Council finally met to discuss the simmering crisis, there was no attempt at a formal resolution given that both Moscow and Beijing would have used their powerful veto against it. Nonetheless, the open meeting served to shine light on Moscow’s continuing deceptions and threats to Ukraine’s borders.

So, what about democratic Taiwan’s security given these mendacious events? While NATO is not treaty bound to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, neither is any country formally required to protect Taiwan.

The U.S. defense treaty with the small island was abrogated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Thus, though we are not legally bound by obligation, we are profoundly linked by shared national interests, as are Japan and Australia, to maintain Taiwan’s freedom and sovereignty in light of Beijing’s growing military provocations.

In both cases deterrence remains the key to block aggression and a good defense underscores that military deterrence.  Diplomacy keeps everybody talking while the world watches and prays for peace.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]