Taiwan, Ukraine, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations Revisited

An attack on Ukraine by the Russian forces massed on its eastern border would nakedly demonstrate the nature of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and, by extension, the nature of authoritarianism itself. The Russian state seeks control of Ukraine for reasons of power, and to assuage a Russian population taught to measure greatness on the basis of territorial aggrandisement—a salve to the still-painful loss of its status as a superpower 30 years ago. That the population of Ukraine will resist such a land-grab is of little concern in Russia (so long as not many Russian lives are lost), except among a small-if-growing minority of those (usually referred to as “liberals”) who have embraced some or all of the main elements of post-colonial democratic government.

Only authoritarian states still have the confidence and the will to mount an attack on an independent state they believe to be theirs, invariably arguing that history has given annexation its blessing. This claim is usually bolstered by another—that the conduct of Western powers, in their colonial period and now, has ensured that the state dismemberment they caused or encouraged would continue. As Western states have retreated from imperialism and turned inward to agonise about their colonial sins, authoritarian powers have seized the opportunity to expand and dominate. And so, history executes a u-turn to revisit old battlegrounds.

Russia’s aggressive neo-colonialism is mirrored by that of China, another police state with which it enjoys increasingly warm relations. In the joint 1984 declaration that handed Hong Kong back to China after a century-and-a-half of UK ownership, China agreed to refrain from imposing communist rule in favour of a “one country, two systems” approach. This included—or was supposed to include—the retention of many of the institutions of democracy and civil society developed in the latter years of British rule.

That agreement has now largely been breached: only those political figures which have shown allegiance to Beijing are allowed to stand for office. The new basic law in the territory, and a security law rendering most protest illegal, have not brought acquiescence, even if the large protests of 2014 and 2019 have been suppressed. An election of carefully vetted candidates a few days before Christmas produced a turnout of only 30 percent—a result which showed opposition to the external power running at roughly the same level as in Ukraine.

Chinese policy most closely resembles that of Russia in its threats to invade Taiwan. The island was occupied and ruled by the losing side in the 1949 Chinese civil war; its one-party rule was reformed in the late eighties, and a lively democratic system developed. The People’s Republic of China has never accepted its separate status, and penalises other states which do. It has recently stepped up military overflights and belligerent rhetoric, and raised the possibility of an invasion to secure what it regards as its property—including the 23.5m population.

Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, has responded by launching a military modernisation programme, with $9bn spent largely on naval weapons, including missiles and warships. She seems determined to repel boarders, and shows more confidence than the Ukrainian leadership that she can. A report by the country’s Defence Ministry claims that “the nation’s military strongly defends ports and airports, and they will not be easy to occupy in a short time. Landing operations will face extremely high risks. … The nation's military has the advantage of the Taiwan Strait being a natural moat and can use joint intercept operations, cutting off the Communist military’s supplies, severely reducing the combat effectiveness and endurance of the landing forces.”

Yet in both the Chinese and the Russian cases, the forces and technology available to the threatened are far inferior to those possessed by those making the threats. The latter can also choose the size of the attack they decide to undertake. China may use missiles and aerial bombardment to reduce the effectiveness of Taiwanese ground forces, perhaps with such effectiveness as to force surrender without an invasion.

Nothing is certain in either of these possible theatres of war, but the Russian threat appears, for the moment, to be the more immediate. More alarming still, if either of these looming invasions does occur and succeed, the other will be greatly encouraged.

That Ukraine will fight any future invasion seems certain—during the six years since the occupation of the Donbass, Russian aggression has increased the loyalty of the population to the state. The military is much better trained and equipped than it was when Russia first sponsored the rebellion of the Russian-speaking population in the eastern Donbas region in 2014. And while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky initially sought to negotiate with Putin, he has now concluded that the Russian president is set on conquest, and the Ukrainian military has pledged its support for resistance, should it come to that.

Western intelligence services now estimate that Russian military personnel on the Ukrainian border number around 100,000, and the reserves needed to support an invasion are being redeployed to build the force to around 175,000. A comparison between the two states gives Russia a clear advantage. Ukraine has 255,000 active personnel, while Russia has just over a million. Further, Ukraine’s air force is relatively small and its missile stock is limited. Like China, Russia can also inflict enormous damage from its own side of the border, an onslaught from ordnance to which Ukraine could hardly respond.

Putin has set out his thinking on Ukraine in two forms: first, he has demanded a guarantee from the West that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO; and second, he has written a lengthy essay on the background to Russian-Ukrainian relations, which allegedly supports his repeated belief that the two are, in fact, one country.

Putin’s essay bears some remarkable similarities to a 1993 essay for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” by the late American international relations scholar and foreign policy realist, Samuel Huntington. Huntington’s argument was complex, but shrunk to its barest bones, it held that the world was not becoming more similar and Western, but remained split into a series of civilisations “defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” He believed that “the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilizations. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.”

Conflicts, he continued, will become more common not less, because civilisations are older, more fundamental, and more powerful than nations and have greater cultural power. Greater interaction would therefore not produce more similarity, but a growing awareness of difference. Technological and social change pushes people to find their identity in tradition and, in many cases, in religion; other civilisations may copy the West in some ways, but they will also strive to remain distinct and true to their civilisational roots. Huntington therefore concluded that the West’s efforts to promote democracy and civic values, retain its military edge, and grow its economy would meet greater resistance.

Putin’s essay was written in July, and begins with the bald assertion that for centuries “Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole.” Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians are “all descendants of Ancient Rus … bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and—after the baptism of Rus—the Orthodox faith.” Language, economy, common rulers, and shared religion, he contends, remain the dominant forces determining the commonality of three peoples split into three nation states (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) comprising what Huntington would have called a single civilisation.

Ukraine, Putin argues, is pulling away from Russia and attempting to strengthen its independence because it is “under the protection and control of the Western powers … not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure.” Consolidation of Western control over Ukraine and hostility to Russia is now a nightly theme of Russian TV news and chat shows, as well as the pro-Kremlin newspapers, magazines, and websites.

Towards the end of his essay, Putin delivers a thinly veiled threat: “All the subterfuges associated with the anti-Russia project are clear to us. And we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country.” Another passage in which Putin compares Russia and Ukraine to the US and Canada, and to Germany and Austria, independent states who recognise their common culture, suggests that his intention is not to rule Ukraine directly, but to replace the government there with a Russia-friendly one.

His demand that Ukraine must never be received into NATO has been rejected by US President Joe Biden and by other NATO members. During a visit to German troops in Lithuania, the new German Defence Minister, Christine Lambrecht, said, “We have to talk to each other, which means discussing the proposals that Russia has put forward. But it cannot be that Russia dictates to NATO partners how they position themselves, and that is something that we will make very clear.” Biden has, however, ruled out the use of US units in Ukraine if an attack does take place, instead promising “economic consequences like none he's ever seen or ever have been seen, in terms of being imposed.”

It may be that Ukraine’s hitherto-staunch rejection of Russian threats gives something of a lie to the Huntington-Putin theory of civilisational inevitability. Ukraine, after all, is largely Slav and Orthodox—indeed, as Putin notes in his essay, the beginnings of Greater Russia and of the spread of the Orthodox faith emerged in Kiev. But it now looks as though a Ukrainian majority wish to break away from the prison of history, and embrace a European destiny. Huntington did concede that civilisations could change, and parts of one might move to another. Putin is, by contrast, inflexible on that point.

But, Lambrecht’s defiance notwithstanding, Russia has caught Germany at a difficult time, as he must surely have calculated. The German administration is already facing pressure from allies in Europe and North America to cancel Nordstream II, an agreement with Russia that will supply gas to the huge German market via an almost-completed pipeline. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, joint leader of the Greens and a member of the governing coalition, is a longstanding opponent of the pipeline. But Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is a member of the Social Democrats who dominate the coalition, and they have supported it. This is potentially a weak link in the attempt to show a united front against an invasion of Ukraine. Russia already supplies about 60 percent of Germany’s gas supply, and although gas accounts for only 20 percent of the country’s energy use, consumption will rise if coal stations are decommissioned and nuclear power continues to be phased out.

Putin believes that the current crisis puts principled opposition to authoritarian empire-building at odds with the imperatives of faith and history, as well as the pragmatic imperative of keeping Germans supplied with energy. The Russian president has therefore caught Western democracies in a moment of vulnerability. Predicting the decisions of Russia’s mercurial leader with any certainty is tricky. Nevertheless, developments on the Ukrainian border are ominous, and Putin may decide to test Western resolve in an effort to prove by force that Ukraine is one with Russia—like it or not.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/12/24/civilisations-do-clash/

I wonder how many military (serving or veteran) subscribe to Quillette.

The author’s knowledge, in the sphere of cultural and foreign relations, is a lot greater than mine. I do remember that when visiting some of the countries in that region (back in the days of the U.S.S.R.), they each did have their own nationality, including a sense of identity, themselves as peoples, and patriotism. That became evident, for example, when Slovakia and the Czech Republic split apart from what had been Czechoslovakia. Neither side seemed particularly bothered, though I think I heard that Václav Havel lamented the split. For each “people” to have their/its own country, just felt right. In some simple, straightforward sense.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of all of this can be more simply explained by simple military considerations. (Kissinger and realpolitik come to mind.)

Russia needs access to warm water ports - it’s as simple as that. From a military point of view.

But my knowledge of military matters, and my understanding of military concepts and the military point of view, are very limited. I see for example that Novorossiysk exists - it’s Russian. But, how good is it as a port, compared to others in that area? I just don’t know.

If somebody else knows, I’d sure like to hear/learn about it.


I would love to see Ukraine insist that Russia pay reparations for the ten million Ukrainians murdered and starved to death by their Soviet overlords during the 1930s (“Holodomor”). This, I think, would bring front and center Ukraine’s case for resisting a Russian takeover.

Remember, Putin was a KGB agent for that same Soviet government. Call that out. Put him on the defensive.

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The Obama administration, Clinton State Department and the CIA bit off more than they could chew in the Maidan Revolution of 2014. Call it a ‘popular uprising’ if you want, but it removed a legitimately elected Russian-friendly president, with a more European-friendly one, replaced one corrupt with another corrupt guy. I think @Stan is right concerning most of the former soviet states, “they each did have their own nationality, including a sense of identity, themselves as peoples, and patriotism,” and in that sense, Ukrainians have always felt their own identity, which includes some grievances against Moscow, but they can never be ‘anti-Russian’ because they are thoroughly Slavic Orthodox. And, given that in much of the Ukraine, a substantial minority and in some places a majority of the population are ethnic Russians, or intermarried with Russians, the Americans were messing around inside a different civilization without a good motive. They misunderstood and underestimated Putin.

Poland and the Baltic states are in NATO, and that’s o.k.; they are historically ‘European’, and not Slavic. Ukraine does not belong in NATO, There is no good in NATO committing to defend Kievan interests against Muscovite interests. That’s a family affair to stay out of.


Don’t pay too much attention to Lloyd and the Financial Times on the matter of Russia and Ukraine. Lloyd is a financial internationalist and, like Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, the European Commission and the entire US State Department and Department of Defense, he sees that there is just too much money to be made beating the war drums against Russia. To my eye, Russia is no more “authoritarian” and no more un-democratic than the US, UK or EU.

The Red Army has about a third of its strength on its western boarder because that is where NATO’s provocations have been since the Clinton administration.

The sad truth is that without the US, European NATO forces would be a candle in the wind against Russia anywhere from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Further, given the choice between staying warm in the winter and redeeming whatever the Ukrainians come up with in the way of “democracy,” the Germans will always chose staying warm. Hence Nordstream 2 will be completed and Ukraine can continue to wallow in its usual state of corruption.

If NATO, the US State Department and the European Commission chose to make it that way, Ukraine can be to Russia as Taiwan is to China. That is to say neither the US nor NATO can stop Russia or China from reclaiming them if their hand is forced. It might lead to nuclear war or it might not but neither NATO nor the US will be able to prevent it in a conventional war because Russian and Chinese military power are substantial close to their borders, NATO’s is really quite weak and the US’s military power is very questionable as it seems to have evolved into to something designed to lose wars to subsistence farmers.

I would love to hear Lloyd’s explanation of why after the Soviet Union collapsed the war hawks at the Financial Times and New York Times decided Russia was no different from the USSR and why they thought expanding NATO into the former Warsaw Bloc countries was a good idea when the new Russian Federation was prostrate and why they thought bombing Belgrade was the way to go - that was the event that got Putin elected in the post-Yeltsin Russian Federation.

Rather than being “mercurial,” as Lloyd put it, Putin has always been very consistent in these matters. He has always offered peace and friendship if NATO keeps its troops away from Russia’s borders.

Some say it is just money. This does explain the Financial Times interest in the matter.

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Just another neocon article popping where you least expect it. These guys are relentless. Thake this gem: “An attack on Ukraine by the Russian forces massed on its eastern border would nakedly demonstrate the nature of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and, by extension, the nature of authoritarianism itself.” So, when the US invaded for no particular reason Iraq, did this “nakedly demonstrated” the US authoritarianism? Let’s get the basic facts straight here. Russia wanted to establish a buffer zone between itself and NATO in the form of Russia-friendly governments in Ukraine and Belarus. There was such government in Ukraine until Clinton/Obama decided to take it down and set up the stage for NATO expansion further to the east. Why? Nobody knows but the idiot neocons who have been running most of the American foreign policy for decades. There is this sliver of the US establishment with imperial ambitions and then the 99.9% of the American population who don’t care about any US empires whatsoever.
These guys are not only vicious but also stupid. The real danger to America is China, not Russia. If they could figure out this, they would have done their best to get Russia on the US side and surround China with US-friendly countries. Instead they just pushed Russia right into Xi’s arms. But hey, stupid is as stupid does.


The thing is, no US corporation, not any US politician, has figured out a way to make money off Russia. In a smaller country, there are ways to do extortion, and there will be friendly local officials happy to offer bribes. In China, you can make money on the up-and-up, be selling electronic services and entertainment, and you can make it thru back channels accepting gifts. But there’s no profit in Russia. There’s only a profit by peeling off its protectorates.

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Interesting analysis. However I agree with “old commie” in this regard. I think the military establishment of Europe and the USA are still fighting the last war.
i attach a relevant article by Michal Sexton that argues an alternative viewpoint


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The US has no vital national interest in preventing Russian hegemony over Ukraine. The Europeans do, and if it is important enough to them, THEY should prepare for military confrontation with Russia. Without US involvement, I suspect they won’t bother.

Russia’s troubles with Ukraine, ironically enough, presage the trouble that Russia is going to have with the nations of Russia’s empire, its so-called “federation.” When Putin goes, many of those statelets could erupt in nationalist revolt. Then there might actually be a purpose for NATO, because any new candidate Russian “supreme leader” would turn to the Machiavellian-playbook of foreign war (with one or more Baltic states in the crosshairs) to establish their credentials.