It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent — for Russia itself.
Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia’s external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia — in part because the last Russian census declined to count them — but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.
It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model.
Timothy Snyder is an American historian and Professor of History at Yale University.
Ukrainian Policy note: More on the Chinese demographic issue in Siberia can be read in Will China Colonize and Incorporate Siberia? by Richard Rousseau and in China Doesn’t Back Russia’s Invasion Of Crimea — And That’s A Big Problem For Putin featured in Business Insider. Here is an excerpt from the latter:
Mr Walden says the Chinese have never forgiven Russia for seizing East Siberia under the Tsars, the “lost territories”. They want their property back, and they are getting it back by ethnic resettlement across the Amur and the frontier regions, much as Mexico is retaking California and Texas by the Reconquista of migration.
The population of far Eastern Siberia has collapsed to 6.3m from over 8 million twenty years ago, leaving ghost towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia has failed to make a go of its Eastern venture. With a national fertility rate of 1.4, chronic alcoholism, and a population expected to shrink by 30m to barely more than 110m by 2050 — according to UN demographers, not Mr Putin’s officials — the nation must inexorably recede towards its European bastion of Old Muscovy. The question is how fast, and how peacefully.