In a recent discussion with European internationals in a leafy Brussel’s café, I was staggered by the ignorance of what has happened to arrive at current events in Ukraine and frightened at the group’s naivety of the implications of recent events on the future. I wanted to scream: Wake up! We’re playing Mahjong.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine demanded a SWIFT and strong reaction. Democratic Western-leaning Ukraine deserved better support before and now. The West has not done nearly enough to help or prevent future Russian or Chinese actions. No credible deterrence. When someone is set on fighting to achieve their ends, they must be fought – restraint follows.

Despite a $600Bn Sovereign Welfare Fund, wars are expensive in materiel, and if Ukrainians continue to fight an occupation, Russia will rapidly find itself relying on Chinese financial aid (despite their current rejection of Russian assets), further gas purchases, and perhaps technical-military materiel support. Russia will need to continue their fight in Ukraine, or politically Russia’s autocracy will fray and unwind from within. Putin cannot stop playing Mahjong now – the board game played on every Chinese street corner.

The G10’s early failure to deny complete access to SWIFT by Germany, to pay for gas (incredible but true), Italy, to protect Unicredit’s illicit oligarch investments, and France … well, that one’s a mystery, has only strengthened Russia’s ability to maintain a SWF (Sovereign Wealth Fund) enhanced by high gas, and oil prices.

The UK and USA could have acted independently, but both have their own internal issues, influenced and shaped by many years of patient and careful Russian overt and covert activity. Despite a shame-induced partial-movement on SWIFT within the EU,  we now have a Russia that can act to maintain higher energy prices and have the funds to maintain an occupying force. A bellicose military force that will be buoyed by its success and confident to do more elsewhere. A leader focused on his ‘Putin the Great’ – unifier of the Russian peoples – legacy.

Surely the widening and deepening sanctions imposed by a remarkably re-aligning EU and USA will slowly strangle Russia and cause an internal collapse? Not while China can afford to underpin Russia, and China can afford to underpin Russia. It must. Not in time to save Ukraine’s fate.

The longer Russia faces sanctions and intends to occupy Ukraine, the greater its dependence becomes on China. As Russia becomes more isolated from western technology and economies, the more it shifts towards China: even if that is a fear, Russia has held for years. It has set itself on a course now that has an inevitable ending, a Russian, Chinese relationship where China is the dominant partner and controls the Eurasian Hinterland – strategically, one of the two requisites for global domination: the other being oceanic dominance.

China has a very bright future if it chooses to play this Mahjong game as well as it has so far. They will wait for the outcome of the US mid-terms. If the Republicans gain both houses and do so substantially, Biden will be a one-term President, and what follows will be a more introspective USA. A more introspective USA in terms of its relationship with a Europe, which Republicans will fairly portray, as a weak leech of USA military power – unable to coalesce and act out its weight and potential power. While the USA more focused on its own power and strengths could lead to efforts to re-build its oceanic strengths.

China can watch this unfold without much concern as long as it continues to play its hand as it has done to date, through economics and diplomacy across Eurasia, South-East Asia, and Africa. A calming Chinese voice-over event in Ukraine will lull European politicians, distancing them from Anglo-Saxon warning cries and opening their ears to siren Chinese whispers. Slowly China will extend its influence for almost nothing across Eurasia and the hinterland. Russia has set the stage and done all the hard work for them.

What if China plays its next round of Mahjong in Taiwan, perhaps because, like Putin, Xi seeks a legacy through conquest of that nearby ethnic Chinese island? It is unlikely mainland Europeans would join any military response to help distant Taiwan – they do not even fight for their neighbours. Given the difficulty and uncertainty of the outcome of a USA-led, primarily Anglo-Saxon maritime military effort to prevent or overturn such a conquest, China will probably succeed in winning this move.

An oceanic power could sever China’s routes for trade and resources to Africa, but overland routes exist to Europe through Russia and Siberia has vast unexplored resources and a growing ethnic Chinese presence which possibly exceeds that of ethnic Russians: there would be no need to occupy a dependent, weakened Russian vassal state.

Then the next round of games being played is anyone’s guess. One thing for sure though is, two bi-polar worlds, one based on control of the Eurasian hinterland, the other the oceans, will define the players:  whether that is Mahjong still or Poker, will show in time.

Read more on the Russia/Ukraine geo-politics

Russia’s Defensive Economic Model: Paper Tiger Reforms and State-led Investment Spending as Patchwork Fixes

Europe’s divided security

SWIFT exclusion is fine; sanctioning the Russian Central Bank is better


Paul A Smith is an expert adviser in Strategic Planning and Capacity Building for reform. Supporting Government and International organisations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.