China and Restoring the Russian Empire: Insights From Ancient Rome

Recent Features

Interviews | Security

China and Restoring the Russian Empire: Insights From Ancient Rome

Insights from Barry Strauss.

China and Restoring the Russian Empire: Insights From Ancient Rome

Lorenzo A. Castro’s painting of the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Credit: U.K. National Maritime Museum

Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Barry Strauss Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies and Professor of History and Classics at Cornell University, Corliss Page Dean Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of myriad publications on classical history, including “The War That Made The Roman Empire” (Simon & Schuster 2022) is the 314th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Examine the elements of the war that made the Roman Empire with Vladimir Putin’s aim to restore the Russian empire. 

Historically, empires have been won by wars. Vladimir Putin decided as early as 2008, when he invaded Georgia, that he would not shy from using military means to restore Russia’s empire. Georgia had been a Soviet republic but became independent after the collapse of the USSR. Putin sent in his military in a “peace enforcement operation” in order to support a breakaway region and to squelch Georgian ambitions of joining NATO. He succeeded in both aims. He won even greater victories when he conquered Crimea in a bloodless coup in 2014 and supported a war in the separatist, mostly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.

Putin paid little price for those actions. In 2014, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said of Putin’s aggression, “It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century. You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.” Yet Putin got away with not merely 19th century behavior but 19 BC behavior. Putin rewrote the rules. His Russia is reminiscent of Rome. If Putin’s aggression in Ukraine stands, then 21st century Europe is in danger of becoming a lot more like first-century BC Europe.

Analyze Putin’s notion of empire and China’s role in it.

Putin’s ambition is to restore the Russian empire to something like its great expanse before the First World War. Since Russia was pushed back to much narrower borders after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin’s Russia is necessarily a revionist power.

China is also a revisionist power and it as also an empire, with various ethnicities under Han Chinese control. China wants to dominate East Asia and the western Pacific, to cement a global presence, and to make Taiwan into a Chinese province – or, as China sees it, to restore a rebellious Taiwan to that status. Some believe that China wants to become the dominant power globally, replacing the United States. Whether that is true or not, China and Russia share an interest in weakening the U.S. and pushing back its hegemony.

Hence, Putin and Xi Jinping are allies. At the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year, Putin no doubt shared with Xi his plan to invade Ukraine. China has, accordingly, done little to condemn Russia’s aggression. In the short term, Russia and China are allied, thereby representing a formidable Eurasian bloc.

There are, to be sure, tensions. In both economic and demographic terms, Russia is the junior partner in the relationship, which surely doesn’t please it. Russia sells arms to India that India is prepared to use against China. In the long term, great differences will divide China and Russia, in particular, the future status of Russian East Asia, which China covets. Alliances, however, are always a matter of convenience, and there is much to keep the two empires together in the short term.

Compare and contrast the strategic failure of Mark Antony and Putin, and implications for Xi Jinping.

Putin and Antony each suffered an intelligence failure. They each underestimated their enemy. Antony did not expect the enemy to cross the Ionian Sea from Italy to Greece at the start of the sailing season, in March, when conditions could be stormy. Even less did he expect the enemy to head south to the furthest point from Italy on Greece’s west coast. And yet Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, did just that. He surprised Antony’s forces by storming Antony’s base at Methone, about 385 nautical miles from Italy, instead of Actium, which was only a little more than 200 nautical miles away. But Methone was the keystone of Antony’s supply chain to the East. By taking Methone, Agrippa began the process of starving Antony’s forces.

Putin did not expect the Ukrainians to put up a fight. He believed his own propaganda that Ukraine wasn’t a real country whose citizens would sacrifice their lives on its behalf. He fell for mistaken intelligence that the Ukrainian government would flee before Russian soldiers as the Afghan government fled before the Taliban the previous August. He underestimated the response from NATO countries, particularly from Germany and the U.S.

Xi Jinping and his advisers must be watching the war in Ukraine with the utmost interest. Ukrainian resistance makes it hard to argue that liberal capitalist regimes are incapable of engaging in an armed struggle. Whether Taiwan is as resilient as Ukraine is a question that will occupy Chinese strategists. On the diplomatic front, China would surely try to come up with a more convincing casus belli for striking Taiwan than Russia’s lame claim of “denazifying” Ukraine. China may also be intrigued by the degree of support that Russia has received, despite its aggression, from such countries as India and Brazil. That might suggest to China that it might be able to garner more international support for attacking Taiwan than one might have expected.

China will also watch carefully to see how firm and how long-lasting Euro-American pushback against Russia, from arms deliveries to Ukraine to sanctions against Russia, turns out to be. After the first flush of enthusiasm, the West may go back to pre-February 24 acquiescence of Putin’s expansionism.

Last but by no means least, China will watch the battlefield. The poor performance of the Russian military will surely concern the PLA, since both armies depend in large part on conscripts. Russia’s problems carrying out combined-arms operations and with logistics both stem in part from a lack of experience in complex military operations. As the Chinese surely know, they too lack experience of complex operations both on land and at sea, so Russia’s struggles are surely a cause for Chinese concern. The questions now are: will Russia manage to conquer eastern and southern Ukraine after all or will the Ukrainians drive the Russians out? War has many facets, but forcing the enemy to do one’s will is the bottom line.

Identify parallels between the Battle of Actium and Russia’s war in Ukraine.     

Actium and Ukraine both remind us of just how difficult war is. Antony and Putin each had an advantage in technology – be it bigger ships with sturdier prows or more tanks, planes, missiles, and air defense – and money, be it Egypt’s treasury or Russia’s energy billions. Yet each ran up against a cagey, audacious, and experienced enemy. Antony’s men and the Russians each suffered from morale problems: Antony’s men because of their diminishing supplies and mounting defeats, the Russians because of doubt about the mission and logistical problems.

How might the endgame of Russia’s war with China’s support impact the future of security in Europe and Asia?  

If Russia conquers eastern and southern Ukraine, then the current security order in Europe and Asia will become much less secure. The situation will be even more dangerous if Putin increases his hold on power in Russia and if Western resolve about sanctions fades, as may well happen. In that case, China will be emboldened to conquer Taiwan. If, however, Ukraine pushes Russia back to something like the pre-war boundaries, even if Russia holds on to Crimea and the Donbas region, then NATO and the West will come out stronger. To be sure, there are other issues, such as European and American energy policy and the willingness of Western states to rearm. For the moment, however, all eyes are on Ukraine.