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The fallacy that links Putin’s attack on Ukraine with Xi’s ambitions on Taiwan

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow in June 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Just a day before Russian forces began an early morning strike on Ukraine, even their allies in Beijing appeared to distance themselves from it. Chinese officials held back their support for Russian aggression, instead emphasizing that China’s own fraught geopolitical situation stands apart.

“Taiwan is not Ukraine,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.”

And while Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month restated that Russia supports Beijing’s “one-China principle” and stood opposed to an independent Taiwan, he has been coy about the prospect of conflict — even as his own nation prepared for an assault on Ukraine.

“I think China does not need to use force,” Putin told reporters in Moscow in October, downplaying the threat of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan and suggesting that shared interests would compel the island and the mainland together.

For all the debate in Washington, the differences between the situations with Russia and Ukraine and China and Taiwan are significant, with everything from history to geography standing apart. And though pressure from the West has helped bring Russia and China together, neither Putin nor Xi seems particularly interested in going out on a limb for the other’s pet project.

Here’s where countries stand on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

There is one concept that unites Putin on Ukraine and Xi on Taiwan, however: The idea that history and geography can trump self-determination and democracy, no matter what.

Glossing over the fears about NATO expansion, Putin’s Monday speech about Ukraine indicated that history rather than security was what mattered to him. As Today’s WorldView covered yesterday, the rambling speech blamed not just the West but Soviet leaders for creating the supposedly artificial nation of Ukraine.

Putin has cast aspersions on Ukrainian statehood since at least 2008, when he told a startled President George W. Bush that it was not a real country. Historians say this viewpoint is false.

“The reality is that Ukrainian culture and language have existed for centuries and a Ukrainian nationalist movement sprang up in the mid-1800s, angering the czars,” The Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote Wednesday.

But even if it were somehow true, it’s moot. Ukraine exists, unequivocally, now. More than 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed. It is a vibrant, if imperfect, democracy. Polls show the majority of its residents favor closer ties with Western nations and are skeptical of Putin and Russia.

Chinese officials take a similar line with Taiwan, describing it as simply a “renegade province” and suggesting that its “reunification” with the mainland was inevitable.

There are major differences between how Ukraine and Taiwan broke away from their neighbors, of course. The leaders of the Republic of China fled the mainland in 1949 and they did not renounce their claim to leadership of it. And since the 1970s, Beijing has successfully isolated Taiwan diplomatically, including limiting its participation at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.

But Beijing’s arguments ignore the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, as well as the strong indigenous history on the island.

Most importantly, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy with a well-functioning government, as it’s comparatively successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic helped show. A survey released by National Chengchi University in 2020 found that around 64 percent of the population identified as exclusively Taiwanese — and only 3 percent Chinese.

How far is China willing to go to help Russia?

For Putin and Xi, these details may be irrelevant. One of Putin’s first acts as prime minister was to bring an independent Chechnya back under Moscow’s control by beating back an armed insurgency with overwhelming force and reports of astonishing brutality.

Xi, meanwhile, has managed to subsume the pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong through a gradual erosion of rights and a crackdown that has seen many protesters jailed or in exile. Calls for independence in Xinjiang and Tibet have been effectively crushed with even more force.

But ideas about self-determination are not irrelevant to much of the world. This week, a speech by Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations Martin Kimani went viral on social media after the diplomat compared Russian action to Ukraine to the colonialism that many nations in Africa and elsewhere underwent and their struggles for independence in the 20th century.

“We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and repression,” Kimani said.

Both Putin and Xi have sounded off against colonization by powerful nations, which may help explain why they are reticent to show full support for each other on Ukraine and Taiwan. As The Post’s Lily Kuo put it this week, China in particular is walking a tight rope in its comments about Ukraine as “noninterference and respect for territorial integrity form the core of its foreign policy.”

Beating back self-determination and democracy can certainly be done, of course. But it’s a fallacy to think it can be done simply or easily — and perhaps Russia may be about to find out that the benefits rarely outweigh the costs.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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