Lessons from Ukraine and an important China update


As we near the grim one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Harvard University Professor Stephen M. Walt provides his list of The Top Five Lessons From Year One of Ukraine’s War (foreign policy.com, 9 February 2023).

All five lessons are instructive:

  • It is very easy for leaders to miscalculate, as Putin did when he assumed Ukraine could not mount a “serious resistance”.
  • States in the international system typically unite to oppose overt acts of aggression, another lesson Putin overlooked.
  • Outside support may enable Kyiv to hold the line and make limited gains come spring, but ousting Russia from all the territory it now controls may be impossible, no matter how much aid is sent.
  • War empowers extremists and makes compromise harder.
  • A strategy of restraint would have reduced the risk of war.

A strategy of restraint

We wish to focus here on the last two lessons in that list beginning with Professor Walt’s argument that a strategy of restraint would have reduced the risk of war. He writes:

The final lesson—and arguably the most important—is that this war would have been far less likely if the United States had adopted a strategy of foreign-policy restraint.

He continues:

Had U.S. and Western policymakers heeded repeated warnings about the consequences of open-ended NATO enlargement …. Russia’s incentive to invade would have been greatly reduced.

He concludes:

Putin bears primary responsibility for launching a brutal and illegal war, but the Biden administration and its predecessors are far from blameless. The Ukrainian people are now suffering from Putin’s ruthlessness, but also from Western officials’ hubris and naivete.

War empowers extremists

We also wish to consider in more detail Professor Walt’s lesson that war empowers extremists and makes compromise harder, something we believe our frequent blog post discussions on the lack of attention to diplomacy to end the war have made only too clear.

Walt asks:

I wonder if all those hawkish voices at the Atlantic or Atlantic Council (not to mention some outspoken Eastern European politicians) have ever stopped to ask themselves if they might be wrong. Is it barely possible that helping prolong the war could lead to a worse outcome for Ukraine?

He concludes, and we fully concur:

Peace or a cease-fire may still be a long way off, but thinking about how to shut it down is in everyone’s interest, and especially Ukraine’s.

Recent statements by General Mark Milley, chair of America’s joint chiefs of staff, did reference negotiation “opportunities”.

The Guardian summarizes those comments as follows:

Gen Mark Milley… has said neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve their military aims, and he believes the war will end at the negotiating table.

Furthermore, the Guardian reports:

Asked … if the moment for diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine had passed, Milley said both sides were “dug in pretty hard on their objectives” and unwilling to negotiate.

General Milley added:

We’re weeks away from the beginning of spring, but it’s a rolling window. There’s opportunities at any moment in time.

Ceasefire.ca comments:

The follow-up question that springs immediately to mind is: what is the United States doing to capitalize on those [negotiation] opportunities?

As long as it takes…

According to Emma Ashford, a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, the answer to the question posed above is:

not very much.

In dialogue with another FP columnist, Matthew Kroenig, she stated:

Biden’s call [in his State of the Union address] to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” was surprising, at least to me, and concerning because it suggests that the White House is still not thinking strategically about where the Russia-Ukraine war is going and how we might want it to end.

For more on this failure of Western foresight, see the commentary by Russia Matters staff entitled Support for Ukraine: Whatever It Takes, as Long as It Takes…to Do What? (17 February 2023).

Ukrainian views harden

For an excellent discussion of Ukrainian views (including in Russian-occupied areas) on how the war should end, see Ukrainian Public Opinion and the War (youtube channel for quincyinst.org, 14 February 2023) by clicking on the arrow below:

Austria, diplomacy and the OSCE

In a recent article for the Quincy Institute on the upcoming meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Anatol Lieven reminds us of what diplomacy is all about.

He writes:

[Diplomacy] does not mean agreeing on everything with your friends. It means negotiating with rivals and sometimes even enemies…. Sometimes this will lead to the conclusion that no compromise is possible; but the only legitimate path to this conclusion is through talking.

He warns:

Increasingly, however, the West has adopted the stance that just meeting with adversaries at all involves some sort of surrender or moral compromise.

A particularly galling example is the widespread condemnation by Western politicians and commentators of the Austrian government’s decision to permit sanctioned Russian lawmakers to attend the OSCE meeting despite the fact that they are obligated by the rules of the organization to do just that.

Bearing in mind that the now 57-member OSCE was established during the Cold war to facilitate dialogue between East and West, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has emphasized the importance of

open channels of communication with Moscow.

Austria is a member of the European Union, but under the terms of the treaty of 1954 by which Western and Soviet occupation forces withdrew from the country, it has not joined NATO or any other military alliance. It has sent economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but no military aid.

As Lieven reminds us:

This neutrality was the reason why the OSCE headquarters was established in Austria.

Professor Paul Rogers and the view from the South

For more on another important dimension of the Ukraine conflict, see The West is wrong to assume it has global support in the war against Putin (Paul Rogers, openDemocracy.net, 11 February 2023).

The sub-head of the article reads:

Experience of Western war and colonialism in the Global South change perspectives on the conflict in Ukraine

We wish here to focus on one aspect of that experience of war: the virtual destruction of Mosul, particularly the old town, and other ISIL-held cities in Iraq, in the war against the Islamic State.

A UN Report in January 2020 states in part:

While ISIS was responsible for a litany of crimes against the population of the city during its occupation, the military campaign to recapture Mosul also saw violations against civilians carried out by the Iraqi government, the international coalition supporting it, and pro-government militia.

The report continues:

The result was destruction on a massive scale. The city of Mosul, especially the old historic town, was about 65 per cent destroyed as a result of the conflict with ISIS.

Professor Rogers, in his 2017 article What the taking of Mosul means, after noting that “the great bulk of the heavy ordnance dropped on Mosul has come from the [Western] coalition”, then quotes “the well informed Air Force Times” on the extent of that bombardment:

In the first half of 2017, the coalition released at least 23,413 weapons, putting it on track to easily eclipse the 30,743 bombs dropped in all of 2016, and the 28,696 released throughout 2015.

Ceasefire.ca comments:

The point is not to absolve Russia for its relentless air campaign against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure but to provide some further context for why much of the global south may not wish to align itself with Western moral outrage over Russian violations of international law in Ukraine.



What a difference a week makes in the saga of the wayward Chinese spy balloon. In his latest remarks on the issue, President Biden stated:

Now, we’ll also continue to engage with China, as we have throughout the past two weeks.  As I’ve said since the beginning of my administration, we seek competition, not conflict, with China.  We’re not looking for a new Cold War.

For a different perspective on the core issue of state spying, see the commentary by Guardian columnist and foreign policy correspondent Johnathan Steele entitled Of course China’s balloon was spying. States all spy on each other – and we all benefit (16 February 2023).

The sub-head reads:

The latest standoff has sparked international hysteria. But the more countries know about friends and enemies, the better

Reminding us that “using technology to spy on other states’ military capabilities is as old as it is widespread”, Steele then bluntly affirms:

Let’s face it. Spying is a benefit.

He provides a rather timely example:

Starting hostilities is less likely if you have accurate and up-to-date information about what your army is up against (a lesson Vladimir Putin failed to learn before 24 February last year).

He continues:

Understanding another state’s or another leader’s intentions is even more important, whether this intelligence-gathering is performed by spies, diplomats and non-governmental political analysts or by what are politely called “technical means”.

In Steele’s view:

The crucial issue, which no amount of balloons or satellites can provide, is empathy. Put yourself in the other side’s shoes. Understand their history, culture and the economic and political pressures their leaders are under.

Applying this to the US–China relationship, Steele concludes:

There is no doubt that the relationship between the US and China is the leading global security challenge of at least the next 10 years. The two countries are rivals and competitors, but they are not enemies.

Everything should be done by western countries not to slip into a mindset that treats China as hostile.

Canada, China and joint academic research

On 14 February 2023, the Government of Canada announced, as part of a “further enhanced” national security posture, a new policy regarding the funding of joint academic research with “foreign state actors”.  The announcement reads in part:

Grant applications that involve conducting research in a sensitive research area will not be funded if any of the researchers working on the project are affiliated with a university, research institute or laboratory connected to military, national defence or state security entities of foreign state actors that pose a risk to our national security.

Since education is under provincial jurisdiction, the focus of the new policy is federal funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Canada’s federal research granting councils, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Strider Technologies Inc.

Reporting on these new national-security rules to “better protect cutting-edge science and technology from ending up in the hands of China and other hostile countries,” the Globe and Mail referenced research provided to it by US strategic intelligence company Strider Technologies Inc., which found:

Researchers at 50 Canadian universities, including the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia and McGill University, have conducted and published joint scientific papers from 2005 to 2022 with scientists connected to NUDT [China’s National University of Defence Technology].

Since the devil really is in the detail of the research, it is useful to ask the question who exactly is Strider Technologies Inc.?

Intelligence Online has this entry on Strider Technologies:

Backed by the Koch family and Donald Trump’s former national security adviser [H.R. McMaster], Strider, run by former US intelligence specialists on China and already under contract to the Pentagon, is starting to prospect in Europe.

Ceasefire.ca comments:

Another reasonable question to ask is how much value Strider Technologies Inc would place on academic freedom and scientific collaboration in its calculation of risks and benefits?

Canadian expert says Canadian rules should go further

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president of NSERC and now a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, called the Canadian government’s announcement “a very good step.”

However, the Globe and Mail also reports that

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said collaborating with civilian researchers in China is also risky because they too are obliged to work with the Chinese military if requested.

Just to be clear here. The new policy prohibits federal funding for research with military scientists in sensitive areas.

But McCuaig-Johnson appears to want to outlaw all collaboration with Chinese researchers — that is, with civilians working on non-sensitive research.

For a particularly striking example of where this all might lead, see ‘Absurd’: Spider venom researcher banned over fears work could be weaponised (Sean Parnell, Brisbanetimes.com.au, 24 January 2023).

The introduction to the article reads:

An international student has been denied the opportunity to continue her research into potential new painkillers because Defence officials feared it could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The dangers of national security overreach

Canadian Senator Yuen Pau Woo gave a speech in the Senate on 14 February 2023 calling attention to the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It begins:

Honourable colleagues, 100 years ago in this chamber, senators voted to adopt the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. This piece of legislation is better known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” because it effectively prohibited the entry of ethnic Chinese to Canada for 24 years.

In conjunction with Senator Oh, the speech announces the launch of an inquiry that includes

a reflection on contemporary forms of prejudice and exclusion faced by Canadians of Asian descent.

After reviewing the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its egregious effects, Senator Woo outlines the kinds of “modern exclusion” in Canada today, stating in part:

It is the kind of exclusion that assumes every workplace infraction in the technology sector is an instance of espionage. That frames collaborations between Canadian and Chinese scientists as intrinsically suspect, and that calls on Chinese Canadian researchers to turn their backs on longstanding partnerships in the mainland.

Whither Canada?

Below is a tweet from McQuaig-Johnston after the announcement of the new policy.

McQuaig-Johnston notes with approval that Canada is “moving ahead of many other countries” with its new policy.

But research and innovation cannot be neatly separated from the scientific collaboration that underpins it. At a minimum, then, Canada should also be looking carefully at what alternative approaches other countries are pursuing to safeguard both national security and the academic environment necessary to nurture cutting-edge research and technological innovation.

We call on the Government of Canada to carefully balance national security concerns with academic freedom and vital scientific collaboration.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Tags: China, Diplomacy, National security, spying, Ukraine