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The dangerous parallels between Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine and Xi’s claims on Taiwan

When former Taiwan Presidential spokesperson Kolas Yotaka watched Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one thought came to her mind.

Putin and Xi Jinping are similar,” she told me. “Because both of them believe they represent the old imperial power in their countries. And they are the chosen leaders who can defend their countries from foreign powers. They think they are the chosen ones. And they want to stay in power forever. But this is scary. And this is nonsense.”

Nonsense or not, Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has now entered its third year, costing tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars – and counting.

Putin justified his military aggression toward Ukraine, in part by invoking historical grievances and nationalism. His rationale echoes the narrative of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who consistently frames Beijing’s claim over Taiwan through a lens of historical entitlement and national rejuvenation.

“Anyone who cares about democracy, anyone who cares about human rights, they have to pay attention,” Kolas warned – referring to the parallels between Putin’s justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and Xi’s rhetoric around Taiwan – and the threat both autocratic leaders’ ambitions pose to those democracies.

Earlier this month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gave a similar warning, pointing to Putin’s 2022 visit to Beijing, days before he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“(Putin) signed an agreement with President Xi where they promised each other a partnership without any limits,” Stoltenberg told the Munich Security Conference.

“And what we see is that China and Russia are (becoming) closer and closer. So of course, if President Putin wins in Ukraine, it’s not only challenging for the Ukrainians … it sends a message not only to Putin, but also to Xi that when they use military force, they get what they want.

“What happens in Ukraine today can happen in Taiwan tomorrow.”

China’s ruling Communist Party says the self-ruling democracy of Taiwan is part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary

China has pushed back against comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine, pointing out that only a handful of countries recognize the island’s sovereignty.

But concerns about potential parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine – or the notes that Xi may be taking watching the world’s reaction to Russia’s war – have been augmented by China and Xi’s own response to it.

Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, despite purporting to uphold countries’ territorial integrity under international norms. It has also claimed impartiality in the conflict, but has continued to strengthen its economic, strategic and diplomatic ties with Russia – becoming a key economic lifeline for the sanctions-hit economy.

Delusions of national identity

Putin’s interview with Carlson was a softball affair, critics say, providing a platform for the Russian president to expound on his territorial ambitions over Ukraine.

He spoke of historical entitlement, rejected external interference and justified Russia’s unprovoked brutality on its fellow former Soviet state as necessary to protect its national interests.

And he went even further – making what many considered a bizarre argument that the Ukrainian soldiers dying in droves to defend their democratic homeland actually identify as Russian.

“Suddenly the Ukrainian soldiers were screaming from there in Russian. Perfect Russians, saying Russians do not surrender, and all of them perished. They still identify themselves as Russian. What is happening is to a certain extent, an element of a civil war,” Putin claimed.

Critics of Putin say he seems to be living in his own autocratic fantasy world, surrounded by an echo chamber of sycophants (Carlson, apparently one of them), who are either too delusional or too afraid to push back against Putin’s portrayal of Ukraine as inherently Russian, with its citizens still identifying as such.

I was on the ground in 2014 and 2022 covering Russia’s war on Ukraine and observed the exact opposite sentiment.

Not a single Ukrainian told me they identify as Russian. Everyone I interviewed spoke passionately (in Ukrainian) about their vehement hatred for the Russians who have bombed and brutalized their battle-scarred nation – tearing apart families and entire communities grappling with unspeakable loss.

Observers believe public opinion matters little to leaders like Putin and Xi, who have managed to consolidate near absolute power by cracking down on dissent, controlling the flow of information, and suppressing potential threats.

For Putin, Ukraine’s historical ties to Russia are deeply rooted in centuries of shared history, cultural exchanges, and political alliances – enough to justify its inclusion within the Russian sphere of influence. Ukraine, though once part of the Soviet Union, has a long and complex history that includes periods of independence and foreign rule.

Similarly, Xi has tied “reunification” with Taiwan into his sweeping strategy for China’s “national rejuvenation.”

Taiwan, which has been populated by indigenous people for thousands of years, was annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty, which ruled the island for more than 200 years - without fully controlling it - before ceding it to imperial Japan in 1895.

The island remained a Japanese colony for half a century until the end of World War II, when it came under the control of China’s ruling Nationalist government.

In 1949, following their defeat to the Communists in China’s bloody civil war, Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan, moving the seat of the Republic of China government to the island.

Xi has played up Taiwan’s historical ties to the mainland and strengthened longstanding Communist Party rhetoric around taking control of the island.

“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest of sincerity and the upmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary – this is directed solely at interference by outside forces and a few separatists seeking Taiwan independence,” Xi said in a 2022 speech at a major party gathering.

He’s also tried to play up shared identity. “People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese and share a natural affinity and national identity built upon kinship and mutual assistance. This is a fact that can never be changed by anyone or any force,” Xi said in 2019.

Surveys by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University Election Study Center, which has tracked changes in the self-identity of the people in Taiwan since 1992, show that in 2023, nearly 62% of people in Taiwan identified exclusively as Taiwanese, with those identifying as Chinese at 2.4%, an all-time low. China blames the corruptive influence of so-called external forces like the United States for this.

Fears of Taiwan becoming “the next Hong Kong” that largely fueled President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election in 2020 and helped her Democratic Progressive Party secure an unprecedented third Presidential term this year – despite what Taipei described as a coordinated campaign of military intimidation and disinformation by Beijing.

Those results underscore a key feature of Taiwan’s political landscape: that many citizens cherish their democratic institutions, freedoms, and distinct identity.

Such sentiment is probably inconsequential to Xi, who has essentially secured a lifetime of one-man rule in the mainland.

One widely held view – in and out of Taiwan – is that Xi is determined to bring Taiwan into China’s communist orbit by 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the party’s rule over mainland China. Anything less, observers say, would undermine Beijing’s authority – and Xi’s leadership.

Glorified past, uncertain future

By tapping into the imagery of past greatness relative to the West, both Xi and Putin seek to bolster their legitimacy for domestic audiences and project strength in the face of frictions with the West.

Pointing to so-called historical continuity also allows them to frame current geopolitical actions as part of a natural resurgence of their countries’ influence on the world stage – helping justify assertive foreign policies and challenges to Western dominance.

Today Xi is expanding China’s military at a pace the world hasn’t seen in a century – since before World War Two.

Long-time China analyst Steve Tsang, author of “If China Attacks Taiwan,” once told me that Xi’s military build-up is, by comparison, larger than Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan combined. Xi already commands the world’s largest Navy and his ambitions in nuclear, space, and AI warfare are advancing at lightning speed.

Wen-Ti Sung, a Fellow at the Global China Hub, Atlantic Council, stresses the need for democratic unity to deter authoritarian aggression, particularly citing Xi’s assertive leadership and its implications for Taiwan.

“Xi Jinping’s leadership is characterized by a high degree of projective self-confidence. You hear Xi Jinping talks about the East is rising, and the West is declining all the time,” he says.

“With that increased projected confidence comes increased demand for results to be delivered by Xi Jinping as well, which is why you see Xi Jinping being a lot less patient on the Taiwan issue.”

In recent years, China has significantly escalated its military intimidation of Taiwan, employing various tactics to assert its territorial claims, including frequent airspace intrusions, naval maneuvers, and large-scale military exercises conducted near the island.

Analysts say Beijing’s military build-up, modernization efforts, and deployment of advanced weaponry further underscore its intention to coerce and intimidate Taiwan, while raising regional tensions.

When it comes to Taiwan’s future and comparisons with Ukraine, the analogy has its limits, and each must be understood and addressed on its own terms.

For one, Taiwan has garnered significant international support, albeit unofficially, including from Washington, complicating any attempt by Beijing to forcefully annex the island. Additionally, the US’ commitment to supply Taiwan with the means to defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act further distinguishes the situation from that of Ukraine.

That said, how the rest of the world behaves toward Putin and to signs of Xi’s aggression around Taiwan and in the broader region could have an impact on Xi’s calculus, experts say.

And for those noticing how Putin’s dismissal of Ukraine as an “artificial state” mirrors Xi’s insistence that all matters linked to Taiwan are “internal affairs,” those uncompromising stances raise concern.

Many here in Taiwan fear it’s only a matter of time before Xi, like Putin, puts his words into action.

CNN’s Wayne Chang contributed editorial research.

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