“On one occasion, an eminent Chinese told me that letting Stalin lead Mao into authorizing the Korean War [in 1950] was the only strategic mistake Mao ever made because, in the end, the Korean War delayed Chinese unification by a century in that it led to America’s commitment to Taiwan.”
- Henry Kissinger, World Order
“When [Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and] the United States and NATO did not come to Georgia’s aid militarily … [Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that NATO] did not have the political will to fight for partners outside the alliance … that the United States’ security priorities were focused elsewhere. …
The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread. …
The 2014 war [in which Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine] is essentially a big (war) game of “chicken.” Based upon the West’s past performance in Georgia, Putin anticipated that the West would blink first in Ukraine, balking at the high costs of the confrontation, which he had laid out very clearly with his offensive defense. … This game of chicken will be a long one.”
- Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin
Perhaps a bit lost in some U.S. quarters amid Thanksgiving gatherings, the coming of Omnicron, and the Supreme Court’s consideration of an abortion case, were recent complementary statements and actions by the Chinese and Russian governments. While China was condemning the passage of the USS Milius through the Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland – although the American destroyer was apparently entirely in international waters and operating in accordance with international law – Russia, while amassing thousands of troops, drones, and electronic-warfare systems at its border with Ukraine, criticized what it called, “significant intensification of the actions of American strategic bomber aviation near the borders of Russia.”
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declared that “China and Russia are united together like a great mountain. Our friendship is unbreakable.” The Russian Defense Ministry separately indicated at almost the same time, “The heads of the military departments [of Russia and China] stressed the inviolability of friendship and the strength of ties between Russia and China.”
Presumably to both tire and test Taiwan’s defenses, China increased the number of aircraft it is sending into “gray” airspace near Taiwan, the realm just outside Taiwanese territorial airspace that Taiwan monitors to provide it with additional time to respond to threats. Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency has claimed that Russia has plans to invade Ukraine this winter. Mr. Putin has indicated that any NATO deployment of troops or advanced missiles to Ukraine would cross a “red line,” and Russia would act, while making reference to Russia’s hypersonic missiles. (Hypersonic weapons travel at more than five times the speed of sound, and are intended to evade American defense systems.)
Although America has sold defensive weapons to Taiwan for decades under the Taiwan Relations Act (the “TRA”), and maintains a token troop contingent on the island, the TRA does not obligate the U.S. to defend Taiwan if it comes under attack. As most are aware, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and thus isn’t covered by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which obligates NATO members to defend each other if one is attacked. Mr. Putin has warned against admitting Ukraine to NATO. (President Joe Biden reportedly opposes Ukraine’s NATO admission until its government does more to address corruption.) Even so, in response to the Russian buildup, NATO officials have threatened economic and political ramifications for Russia while noting that they have no military obligation to Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has intoned that any further escalation by Russia against Ukraine would be of “great concern” and “trigger serious consequences.”
How seriously can Vladimir Putin be expected to take this verbal posturing? Can anyone who has ever read about the bitter torment that the Russian population endured in defeating the Nazi invasion during World War II believe that the Russian people can’t withstand any hardships caused by any level of NATO economic and political sanctions? Who would one suppose that the vast majority of Russians, fed only Russian media, will ultimately blame for their misery – NATO, or Mr. Putin? As for the steadfastness of the NATO bloc, I found a website indicating that in 2019 (seemingly a sufficiently-current reference for this note), 41% of the European Union’s natural gas, 27% of its crude oil, and 47% of its solid fuel were imported from Russia. With winter looming, how staunch will Mr. Putin believe that the European NATO allies will really be?
This note anticipates a post on foreign policy strategy that has been in the works for some time, but every President faces challenges requiring grand strategy to yield to immediate necessity; President Biden may well be facing such a challenge at present. It is certainly arguable that China and Russia are probing American readiness in contemplation of a de facto pincer movement in the coming months to test American resources and resolve. I would submit that we will be best served if Mr. Biden responds steadily but proactively. A few notions:
The President came to office pledging to make diplomacy rather than militancy the linchpin of American foreign policy. That’s an admirable sentiment, but as Richard Haass noted in A World in Disarray, “As a rule of thumb, diplomacy and negotiations tend to reflect realities on the ground, not change them.” Global strongmen operate according to the same code as grade school bullies; they will be deterred by soft speech only if those they confront are willing and able, as President Theodore Roosevelt observed over a century ago, to accompany their measured tones with a big stick.
America currently maintains the most formidable military and weaponry in the world (although we are behind in some areas; for example, I have read commentary stating that we currently trail China in the afore-mentioned hypersonic missile technology). At the same time, our advantage appears to be waning as both China and Russia are able to prioritize military preparedness in a way that we, with domestic obligations in a democracy, are having and will have trouble matching in coming years. Arguably, time is not on our side.
China’s President Xi Jinping has demonstrated less patience in advancing Chinese territorial interests – principally, in the manner that the Mainland has over the last several years asserted its governmental dominance over Hong Kong in clear contravention of the “One Country, Two Systems” embodied in the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration under which the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of the region to China — than his renowned predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. China has threatened that it will not countenance the elevation of Taiwan to nationhood status.
Ms. Hill and Mr. Gaddy make clear in Mr. Putin that the Russian President, in addition to his savvy, is paranoid and aggrieved. While one might assume that the leader of the nation with the world’s second-mightiest nuclear arsenal would be confident that no nation would ever seek to invade Russia, the country’s experience and his own background make him wary and aggressive. Ukraine gained its sovereignty when the Soviet Union dissolved. Most recall Mr. Putin’s 2005 declaration that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He later indicated that he considered the Soviet Union to be Russia, “only it had a different name.” These are dangerous sentiments; they would lead one to believe that Mr. Putin considers Ukraine part of Russia, and perhaps any outside intervention on Ukraine’s behalf a de facto invasion of Russia. That said, the Russian President is perhaps unsurpassed among today’s global leaders at assessing the strengths as well as the weaknesses of his adversaries. It is hard to believe (at least for me) that unless provoked beyond all bounds, he is going to start a confrontation that he believes might result in an escalation that he might not win and could result in nuclear conflagration. He has to assume that despite all of China’s and Russia’s mutual professions of friendship, that if he gets into a major struggle with NATO, Mr. Xi will not stop to aid Russia, but will instead exploit the distraction to advance China’s interests in Asia.
Mr. Biden faces a daunting balancing act. The U.S. Defense Department recently released an unclassified summary of its Global-Posture Review that the Wall Street Journal aptly described as an assessment of how to best deploy our resources as “the U.S. moves to take on Beijing while deterring Russia and fighting terrorism in the Middle East and Africa.” Presidents Biden and Putin are holding a virtual summit about Ukraine today; hopefully, Mr. Biden will take none of his options off the table. If he simply talks at Mr. Putin and hereafter at Mr. Xi and they correctly conclude that he will do nothing more, I would predict that within five years – and perhaps much sooner — Ukraine will again be a Russian satellite and Taiwan will have truly been made into the Chinese province that China now claims that it is. If he pushes back too hard, and presents what either Mr. Xi or Mr. Putin view as too egregious an affront, a military conflict could result. These calculations are complicated by the reality that America’s military might is vast, but it is not unlimited.
I would submit that the time to move is now: that Mr. Biden should press the case while he still holds a relatively stronger military hand than Messrs. Putin and Xi. I would hope that he will be resolute without being foolhardy [obviously easier said than done ;)].
My definition of the difference as to Ukraine: Increase the provision of defensive arms to Ukraine. Despite Mr. Putin’s rumblings and reported Biden Administration disinclinations regarding American troop involvement, arrange for an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and then station a NATO force (including American troops) in Kiev. (Kiev, Ukraine’s capitol, is removed from Ukraine’s separatist regions and the Russian border.) Unless there are indications that the pervasive corruption in Ukraine is of the kind that would divulge NATO military secrets to Russia, I would expedite Ukraine’s admission into NATO. (Would the West rather have a corrupt Ukraine within its orbit and subject to its pressures, or have another Russian satellite, like Belarus, on its borders?) On the other hand, I would not – repeat not – place missile or other systems in Ukraine which could be used to fire into Russia.
Mr. Putin will seethe. Will he act militarily? I’d warrant that he won’t, if he is convinced that NATO is ready to respond militarily if he does. Despite his bluster, he well knows that neither little Ukraine nor NATO is going to invade Russia. Would he severely restrict energy exports to Europe? At least highly possible; unquestionably a severe concern for Europe. At the same time, Russia’s exports to Europe are almost 40% of its economy. Unless Mr. Putin can find other ready buyers for his oil and gas, his voluntary restriction of trade with Europe in a dispute he has precipitated will seemingly send his own economy into recession and provoke his populace, clearly already restive with his 20-year rule.
The Biden Administration should simultaneously take similar steps with regard to Taiwan. Despite China’s bristling, the U.S. should continue to look for ways to expand its relationship with the island, such as the Administration’s recent invitation to Taiwan to attend its “Summit for Democracy.” It should increase its provision of defensive arms to the island under the TRA. After arranging for an invitation from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, it should increase American troop presence on the island, but – given the ambiguous nature of Taiwan’s legal status — not beyond the point that the force can be called “advisory” or credibly be considered “token.” It should increase its naval presence around Taiwan.
Will Mr. Xi smolder? Undoubtedly. However, I would venture that Mr. Xi seeks to have China control the world, not destroy it. It is hard to believe (again, perhaps only for me) that he will risk a military invasion of Taiwan at this point, if he believes that there is a real possibility that the United States will militarily intervene. It is also hard for me to believe that he will view increased U.S. presence in the Asian theater as an overt threat (although he will certainly consider it an irritant and affront). He knows that we are not going to invade China. In the face of an orchestrated but not overdone U.S. buildup, he will presumably pause. He will hopefully conclude (hopefully incorrectly) that time is on his side with regard to Taiwan; but not yet.
Right now, I suspect that many of those that have gotten this far in this ponderous note are mighty glad that I’m not in a position to advise Mr. Biden ;). I fully understand that America is war-weary after 20 years of grotesquely-squandered blood and treasure in wantonly ill-conceived warfare in a part of the world less strategically important than either Europe or Asia. I fully acknowledge that it’s easy for a retired Midwest blogger to pontificate; I would hate to have actual foreign policy responsibility. That said, I submit that the only manner in which we will maintain equilibrium in an increasingly illiberal world is if those who would take what they believe they can get away with are persuaded that we will act if need be. For any who believe that Russia and China are amenable to reasoned persuasion if they have no fear of military reprisal to their military aggression in their respective spheres, I would respond: Crimea. Hong Kong. If we dither, we will again be perceived as meekly turning our backs on those who asked for our help – to not only their detriment but our own. While the approaches outlined in this post are but holding actions while a broader collective containment strategy, based upon enhancing the capabilities of our allies, can be undertaken, I would suggest that we need to heed a prophetic (and poetic) reminder from long ago:
“All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies …
You will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed ….[T]hat story is over and told. … It is the most grievous consequence of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years – five years of futile good intention, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power …
Those are the features … which marked an improvident stewardship for which Great Britain and France have dearly to pay. …
Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised … the safety … of Great Britain and France. …
You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and … that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses … with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.”
- Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, October 5, 1938