Beijing’s Ukrainian Battle Lab
Among those observing the Russian military’s ongoing operations in Ukraine, few will be watching and assessing its performance more intensely than those in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Analyzing the wars of other countries continues to play an important role in Beijing’s decision-making about military modernization, along with the PLA’s own field experiments and its increasing use of big data, AI, and simulations. In the first phase of the Ukraine conflict, PLA analysts — who have traditionally held the Russian military in high regard — will undoubtedly find Russian operations wanting.
The People’s Republic of China views the military element of national power, and natural resources, as Moscow’s strong suits in its post-Soviet incarnation. Consequently, the success or failure of this operation will certainly color Beijing’s views about the “comprehensive national power” of the Russian Federation in general and the state of the Russian armed forces in particular.
Second, assessing Russian operational performance may have very direct implications for the PLA’s own recent and future reform and modernization choices. In 2016, the PLA underwent the most sweeping reorganization in its history in an attempt to better position itself to be able to fight modern information-age warfare. Some key aspects of that reorganization were based on what it learned from the United States. However, the PLA also incorporated lessons learned from Russia’s New Look military reforms, which began in late 2008. The PLA’s professional military journals often contain articles discussing the latest developments in Russian military affairs, as well as those taking place in the U.S. joint force. And of course, the Chinese and Russian militaries are close institutionally, conducting general staff talks and attending each other’s schools of professional military education. In November 2021, the two signed a “roadmap for closer military cooperation, 2021-2025,” which, among other things, aims to normalize combined naval and air patrols such as the one they conducted a month earlier, through the Tsugaru Strait north of Japan. Therefore, assessing Russian operational performance will be a high-priority task for PLA analysts as they move closer to their Russian counterparts.
Third, the Chinese and Russian armed forces have been conducting combined exercises with each other for many years. Russia’s performance in Ukraine will provide the PLA with a sense of the difference between training and actual combat. This issue is of great importance for the PLA, which is all too aware of the fact that it has not seen large-scale combat since it invaded Vietnam in 1979. However, the PLA views the Russian military as having significant combat experience, and comparatively speaking they are right. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian military has fought in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Syria, and now all of Ukraine. Therefore, PLA operations research analysts will be leaning into their computer terminals following and assessing how Moscow is faring in its latest deployment. One lesson they may draw is that even for militaries with extensive experience, war remains a difficult business.
Fourth, the technical performance of Russian weapons systems — their strengths and vulnerabilities — will be of particular interest. Although Beijing has a significant indigenous defense manufacturing sector, the PLA still has in its inventory Russian-manufactured or Russian-inspired weapons, systems, and platforms.
At this point, it is too early to state with high confidence what military professionals in China think they are learning from Russia’s operations. Like others around the world, the PLA’s analysts presumably are accruing data and trying to absorb what is unfolding in real-time, which is never easy. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is entering a new phase as the Russian military regroups and refocuses its operations in the east and southeast. More than likely, the PLA’s best analyses will be done months from now. Nevertheless, we can engage in some modest but informed speculation about what we suspect will animate PLA attention at the operational and strategic levels of conflict.
At the operational level, PLA analysts will notice that Russian operations to date seem to be violating some of the PLA’s time-honored “Basic Campaign Principles” (基本战役原则). Four in particular seem to have gone by the wayside. First, the Russian military has clearly underestimated the “enemy” while apparently overestimating its own capabilities, a significant shortcoming. The operative PLA campaign principle is “know the enemy and know yourself” (知彼知己). Next, based on the seemingly disjointed Russian operations conducted in the northern, eastern, and southern parts of Ukraine at the inception of hostilities, Moscow’s operations will likely be judged to have violated the PLA campaign principle of “unified coordination” (协调一致). Third, apparent Russian problems with logistics and other combat service support functions will suggest to PLA analysts that Russia failed to follow the principle of “comprehensive support” (全面保障). Finally, from the very beginning, Moscow’s military planners failed to adhere to, nor seemingly even attempted to achieve, the universal principle of war: “surprise,” which the PLA’s campaign principles state as “take the enemy by surprise” (出敌不意). Moscow’s problems in this regard have been compounded by Washington’s public deployment of intelligence, which should suggest to observers in Beijing the increasing difficulty in this day and age of achieving strategic-level surprise.
As long-time students of Russian doctrine, the PLA will likely be wondering, if not incredulous, about the apparent lack of “jointness” in Russian operations. Moscow’s Ukraine campaign looks very much like ground-force-centric combined arms warfare — the very type of warfare that the PLA is trying to move beyond for major operations. In November 2020, after 20 years of experimentation, the PLA totally revamped its doctrine for joint operations. The new PLA paradigm for joint operations, known as “Integrated Joint Operations” (一体化联合作战), calls for unity of effort and integration among the services across land, sea, air, and key high-tech battlespace domains such as cyberspace, outer space, and the electromagnetic spectrum — all under a unified command and control structure. Moreover, the PLA intends to push joint operations down to the tactical level, whereas previously joint operations were reserved for large-scale campaigns. The Integrated Joint Operations concept is driving multiple dimensions of PLA activity — national and theater-level organizational structure, command-and-control authorities and architectures, the development of capabilities, training, as well as professional military education. Instead of demonstrating elegant 21st-century joint operations with high-tech assets — as the U.S. military does and the PLA aspires to be able to do — Russia, the PLA will observe, seems to be reverting to ground, air, and missile attacks employed as blunt instruments. These Russian operations do not exemplify the “operational art” that the PLA hopes to be able to implement. And because the PLA has been an ardent student, if not admirer, of Russian doctrine for decades, PLA strategists and planners can only be wondering, “why?”
Next, as the PLA is the “armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party,” it is a political force as well as a military force. The PLA has a corps of political officers to enforce discipline, strengthen the link between the military and the party, attend to civil-military dynamics, and deal with the personnel aspects of warfare. As such, the PLA will pay close attention to reports about the human and cognitive dimensions of the war. PLA analysts will read reports about poor morale among Russian troops, alleged desertions, lack of tactical communications discipline, indiscriminate attacks against Ukrainian noncombatants, and accusations of war crimes. They will also pay attention to stories about protests in Russia by citizens who are opposed to “Putin’s war” and Moscow’s repressive responses. At the same time, PLA political officers and others will likely marvel at how well Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has wielded information warfare and strategic communications as a force multiplier. Indeed, Zelensky and the Ukrainian military are in fact practicing what the PLA refers to as the “Three Warfares” (三种战法) — public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. Reading these stories will undoubtedly vindicate for the PLA their continuing emphasis on “political work” (政治工作) among the troops and the local populace and will justify the PLA’s new joint doctrine addressing both political work and national mobilization. These stories from the battlefields of Ukraine will also likely provide additional data points underscoring for political officers and others why the PLA must remain a political force. They will also raise questions about the efficacy of the post-Soviet iteration of the political commissar system in the Russian armed forces.
Beyond the operational and tactical, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the international responses it catalyzed is likely generating discussions about larger order strategic-level issues, such as the implications of strong international economic sanctions for the future of Chinese national security, the ability of liberal democracies across regions to present a united front in the face of a common galvanizing threat, the inherent power of alliances, and the rapid return of the United States to a global leadership role. And while the government in Beijing denies any political parallels between the situation in Ukraine with that of Taiwan, the PLA and others may find both operational and strategic lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian war to be relevant to that scenario.
Among the weightiest strategic-level issues generated by the Russo-Ukrainian war will be the issue of nuclear deterrence. One can imagine that PLA analysts and others in the Chinese national security community will study the role that Russia’s possession of a serious nuclear deterrent is playing in shaping the choices of the United States and NATO in their responses to Moscow’s operations, including the early decision not to intervene militarily. Doing so will likely validate Beijing’s decisions, made long before the Ukraine war, to increase the size and survivability of its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, it could also raise questions about the future efficacy of China’s long-standing “no first use” nuclear doctrine. One suspects the nuclear issue will be looked at long and hard by Beijing’s military and civilian strategists.
Overall, then, we should assume the PLA will devote considerable resources during and after this conflict to absorbing the lessons of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the past serves as prologue, there will be no rush to judgment. There will be symposia, conferences, debates, articles, and books dissecting all dimensions of the war. At the operational and tactical levels of war, those lessons will either validate or result in adjustments to issues such as doctrine, including tactics, techniques, and procedures, the optimal employment of systems, and even political work. Strategically, such lessons may even affect future nuclear doctrine and impact Beijing’s calculus for the potential use of force. Officials in Beijing continue to state that this conflict is not something they wished to see. We should take that statement at face value. Nevertheless, the Russian military campaign is providing the PLA with another “battle lab” from which it will continue to learn as it studies the wars of other countries.
David M. Finkelstein is a retired U.S. Army officer and long-time student of Asian security affairs. He is the director for China & Indo-Pacific Security Affairs at CNA, an independent research institute in Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed are strictly his own.
Image: Chinese Ministry of National Defense