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2023 Spring Conference Bitesize: General Sir Mike Jackson - The zero sum approach of Russia and China

Date: 25 May 2023

2023 Spring Conference Bitesize: General Sir Mike Jackson - The zero sum approach of Russia and China

Bitesize Summary

In a military career spanning decades, General Sir Mike Jackson has commanded the British in Iraq, UN forces in Kosovo and peacekeeping missions in Bosnia; he has seen duty in Northern Ireland and was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps, specialising in the threat from the Soviet Union. At our conference, he gave his views on the impact of Russia and China on the world stage.

Who did we get here?

“As we look back on the Cold War, it seems really quite simple,” began Sir Mike, “Western democracy versus communist authoritarianism. Now we have Western democracy versus authoritarianism but without the ideology. 

“It’s fair to ask how on earth did we get here from those days when, in the 80s, there was a sense of stability? One which is now, I fear, diminished.” 

Sir Mike, who has a degree in Russian studies, said that, as the land of Tchaikovsky and the Bolshoi Ballet but also Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin, Russia was full of contradictions. 

“This is all part of the Russian character. Both individually and nationally, they have great pride in their country's history. Winston Churchill was right in my view when he described Russia as a ‘Riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma’.” 

He explained the country also had a “neuralgia”, stemming from a perception of being surrounded by enemies ready to march on Moscow and always coming from the West. This extended to nervousness about countries that border Russia, the Eastern European and Baltic States, which provided a buffer from threats from the West.

“So Putin objected – and you can have some sympathy – to this expansion of NATO up to in some cases, the very borders of Russia itself. And this is one of the reasons he gives for his wretched War in Ukraine.” 


“I think Putin really believes his own rhetoric that Ukraine is not a proper country but part of Russia. Ukrainians are not a proper people, they are Russian. And his delusion so far appears undiminished by military failure.” 

Sir Mike reminded us that this war was not new – it has been going on for nearly a decade, since Russia invaded the southern Donbas, which contains a large Russian population, and the “rather clever” takeover of Crimea by subterfuge. 

He questioned Putin’s judgement, citing the early stages of the Ukraine invasion, when a large number of Russian tanks were bombarded after taking an obvious route. He also said a rumour that the tanks were carrying victory parade uniforms was credible and that it is likely Putin had ‘some very bad advice’.

But he had overreached militarily “in a disastrous way” and it had become political: “The lack of success starts to have a political effect and once you shake that kaleidoscope which is the Russian state, who knows what pattern emerges?”

“We would all hope for Ukrainian success on the battlefield. We hear almost daily speculation as to their summer counter offensive. We will see, but it requires them to retake large tracts of land.”

Possible outcomes 

  1. Ukrainian success on the battlefield 
“This would lead to a wounded, cornered, angry wild animal in the Kremlin by name of Vladimir Putin.” But if he were to fall, we should not give three cheers, for fear of who might replace him, “There are some worse contenders for Putin’s job.”
  1. Stalemate
    Sir Mike said if the war continued for an indeterminate time, the Western appetite for arms supply would be tested, but arguably Russian patience would falter too. 
  2. Russian success
    “Are they really going to occupy a country bigger than France indefinitely, against the wishes of the vast majority of its people? It would be very messy.” 
  3. A form of ceasefire/political settlement
    “All that would do is lock in this struggle at a particular moment in time, which would allow Russia to re-arm and restart at any time.”
In summary, Sir Mike said: “We are seeing most vividly the difference in political philosophy between the West, Russia et al. We are proud of our rules-based international system; we think the individual is as important as the next and we downplay the nation state. 

“Russia is the reverse – it’s I win, you lose. They downplay the individual, no doubt a form of hangover from the Soviet Union, where the individual was ideologically subordinate to the state. Negotiation, forget it.

“It’s about regime protection. Putin is quite clear that the West is eyed to dethrone him. I think we'd like to do that, but we're not going to take any concrete moves in that direction.” 
He concluded that Vladimir Putin was guilty of Hubris, but said he was unable to say what form “the inevitable Nemesis” would take. 


Sir Mike, who more than half a century ago was stationed as a young British Army officer on the Hong Kong border, described China as “another huge authoritarian state with a very zero-sum approach to world affairs.” 

He said 50 years ago, around the time of the Cultural Revolution, China was “economically backward and politically harsh” but that in two generations there had been an “astonishing rise” and “extraordinary” achievements in the country, giving as an example the development of high speed rail in the country.

“We fuss and bother about HS2 but for China that’s not much more than a branch line. They are building high speed rail at a phenomenal rate.” 

Mindset of China 

“Like Russia, China is neuralgic territorially. Tibet is not a foreign country, it's an integral part of ancient China. Hong Kong was an aberration. They can't wait for the end of the 50-year period when Hong Kong becomes completely assimilated into mainland politics.”

Taiwan also remains in “an aberration” in Chinese eyes, which President Xi has made clear will be “liberated”, despite the wishes of Taiwanese population. Xi seems to be softening world opinion up that this may happen sooner rather than later, said Sir Mike. 

What might happen?

Sir Mike explained that militarily, it was a very challenging proposition for China to take Taiwan, as there were few beaches on which to land an amphibious force in the 100 miles between the island and the mainland.

He said it was deliberately unclear how the West might react: “We do not know how Washington would play it at the time. They have understandably pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity, that is they're not saying now what they would do. The reaction of the rest of the West, including the United Kingdom is that we are in some danger.” 

But in Sir Mike’s view, inaction could be dangerous: “There’s as an awful prospect of behaving like the small child who has a nightmare and pulls the blankets over his head, hoping everything will be alright in the morning. I'm not sure that's strategy.” 

He stressed that, like Russia, China had military mass behind it which the West no longer had. In addition, China tended to take the long view where the West did not. To illustrate the point, he told a story about US president Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to Peking in 1970s, in which he asked premier Zhou Enlai, who served under Chairman Mao, “What, in your judgement, is the historical significance of the French Revolution?” After a pause, Zhou Enlai was said to have replied: “Mr President, it's far too early to tell.”

Influence on other countries

Sir Mike said it was likely agreements were in place between President Xi and Putin, not least the sale of oil and gas to China and confirmed the influence China was having in Africa.
“They built the Nairobi to Mombasa high-speed rail link in three years. I gather the business model is: ‘We will build you a new port (which they're doing north of Mombasa), we'll lend you the money for it at a good interest rate. But if you default, the freehold comes to us.’ And they are defaulting, and the freehold of ports is reverting to the original investors, the Chinese.” 

In conclusion

On the subject of our response to China’s activities, Sir Mike concluded: “I don't think the West is there. When I say we need clear strategic thinking, we need a hard-headedness, which doesn't rest very easily with our Western society. 

“We need competent and capable security forces and intelligence agencies, a firm and knowledgeable leadership. These are what I would ask for to help us navigate these rather choppy waters.”


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