It has been a commonplace in the last year, since it became clear that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would not succeed, to argue that perhaps useful lessons would be learned by Xi Jinping. The lessons might be that what may appear simple is in fact quite complex; that defeat is possible; that the population may organize itself for resistance; that outside allies may in fact come to the defense of the invaded land; that one’s own military might not perform brilliantly under fire; and many other lessons that might cause Xi to think twice and twice again before launching a military assault on Taiwan.
But the events of the last few days may be even more cautionary for Xi. The uprising of Yevgeny Prigozhin against Vladimir Putin and the Russian military leadership suggests another lesson for Xi: that while he may know how the invasion of Taiwan starts, he cannot know how it ends. One need not draw direct parallels; there is no force like the Wagner mercenary group in China, nor any figure like Prigozhin. Still, Prigozhin’s action shows what can happen when military victory is not immediate, when there are major casualties, when public support is uncertain, when parts of the military become dissatisfied with other parts. Surely the notion that his invasion could result in this attempted putsch by the Wagner group—a revolt with enough support that the promised punishment of the putsch leader has been withdrawn—would never have crossed Putin’s mind on the day he ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Instead of shaking Zelensky's hold on power, the invasion has shaken Putin's.
And that is perhaps the best lesson we may hope Xi draws: that certainty is illusory and uncertainty leads to danger.
A year ago, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed the Taiwan/Ukraine argument with Jeffrey Goldberg:
Goldberg: What are the lessons that China is learning from the Russian invasion of Ukraine that most concern you?
Sullivan: Well, I think that you can look at what Russia has done in Ukraine and see that a much bigger military has gone after a much smaller neighbor with a much smaller military, and yet has not achieved its objectives, and say, Hey, maybe we should completely rethink this. But the thinking could also be How do we do it better than [Russia] if we had to do it? I’m not predicting anything.
Goldberg: If the West wins in Ukraine, you think China no longer contemplates invading Taiwan?
Sullivan: It’s never as simple as that, this question of credibility in one part of the world translating absolutely to decisions in another part of the world. But do I think it would have an impact? Yes. And I do think that part of our objective in Ukraine has to be to show strength, resilience, staying power, canniness, capability, because this will have some impact on our ability to effectively deter others elsewhere.
Will Prigozhin’s revolt save Taiwan? Will it teach Xi Jinping that invasions are too risky? As Sullivan said, “It’s never as simple as that.” But surely the events of the past weekend are a cautionary tale as the Chinese dictator contemplates his next moves.