The False Choice of Ukraine or Taiwan
we have a war right now
As I mentioned on the last Midrats Podcast, I am becoming less and less willing to entertain the concept that we can either help Ukraine maintain her independence, or we can help Taiwan get ready to maintain theirs, but we cannot do both.
I understand the argument, but I think it is wrong.
An entire book can be written as to why, but I’ll boil down the top-4 cold-hearted realist reasons that pop first in my head;
Pre-war our two most significant challengers in the world were the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Russia did a stupid thing and threw herself in to a grinding war of imperial conquest in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are putting up a hell of a fight and in the process are eliminating Russian conventional power for decades to come or the length of her present republic - whichever comes first.
The majority of the weapons requirements for the expected theaters of war are different. The Russo-Ukrainian War is a ground war with a small maritime theater and a short range, low altitude tactical aviation environment with a few cruise missiles and tactical ranged drones thrown in for measure. Any war around Taiwan will be a naval and aerospace war dominated by warships, rocket forces, and precision long range fires - with a land component limited in geography, range, and requirements.
The assumptions in #2, however, are not ironclad. History is thick with localized wars over bits of important terrain quickly spreading in to different theaters. If the PRC decides to kick off a war of conquest over Taiwan and we throw in, we would be very lucky to see it contained there. It may very well spread, but if it does, it will involve nations who border her that have large national land forces that we can support. We won’t have to carry the major land effort - and we would be fools to put major ground forces on the main continent of Asia, again. Best to take the risk there.
One war at a time. While war over Taiwan is on the seam between the possible and probable over the next decade, but we have a no-kidding war in Europe with Russia - real for some and proxy for us - going on right now. We didn’t cause it, and we are not fighting it - but as we did with the UK before WWII, we are helping the side we think would best serve our interests should they come out on top. I have seen no serious person who has outlined any scenario where a triumphant Russian Republic in the war in Ukraine serves the USA or her European allies well.
That is my quick look, but for some better thinking, let’s check in with our friend Rebeccah Heinrichs (you can catch her recent appearance on Midrats in February here) via her latest from Hudson, Empowering Ukraine Prepares Us for China;
A victorious Ukraine, along with a strengthened eastern front of NATO, would provide a bulwark against further Russian aggression. A confident and stable NATO would present nations near the Russian border with more realistic opportunities to assist the United States in across-the-government efforts to weaken, compete with, and sometimes confront China. If Russia were to prevail, China would have greater leverage over Europe and would be the biggest benefactor of Russia’s success.
More than one year into the unprovoked full-scale Russian invasion, support from the US and its allies has allowed Ukraine to devastate the Russian military. According to reports, Ukraine has destroyed more than half of Russia’s armored vehicles, exacted 200,000 casualties including significant portions of its most knowledgeable officer and noncommissioned officer corps, and decimated Russia’s special (spetsnaz) forces.
Not a single weapon the United States has delivered to Ukraine was scheduled or intended to go to Taiwan. To date, Taiwan has been supported through Foreign Military Sales (FMS), like other nations that buy weapons from the United States. The entirety of the FMS backlog existed before a shot was fired in Ukraine. Because Taiwan is currently not being invaded, weapons deliveries have moved at a peacetime pace and have run into various bureaucratic and diplomatic challenges in addition to supply chain bottlenecks. Taiwan has chosen to purchase certain types of US weapons, and the United States has worked with Taipei to choose the most appropriate weapons that would be most conducive to deterring a PRC invasion and then fending off that invading force if deterrence were to fail. Given the sensitivity of the US-Taiwan relationship, achieving progress through FMS has been exceedingly difficult.
In contrast, America is arming Ukraine with weapons through the presidential drawdown authority, which allows us to send weapons already in US stockpiles. The US has also used Ukraine Security Assistance funding and Foreign Military Funding to purchase new weapons for Ukraine as well.
The Venn diagram of weapons that are most useful to Ukraine and Taiwan is complex. Principally, Ukraine needs long-range fires against ground targets and a mechanized/armored maneuver capability. By contrast, Taiwan needs anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, and many of the dispersed infantry capabilities that were useful to Ukraine at the beginning of the war, but are less so today. Some capabilities, like air defense, are badly needed in both scenarios.
Read the whole thing, but her ending is a fair warning should the “Taiwan Firsters” get their way;
Ending support for Ukraine’s defense would neither propel the United States to a swift pivot to the Pacific nor speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan. But it would bolster Russia’s ability to subjugate Ukraine, further weaken NATO’s position against Russia, and possibly result in the direct invasion of NATO allies. A Russian success against Ukraine would be valuable to China and would further cement PRC power and leverage over Europe. It is not unreasonable to surmise that suddenly ending US support to Ukraine would also severely damage America’s alliance relationships in Europe and Asia, as many countries have spent significant treasure and political risk to support Ukraine’s success. Lastly, such an abandonment would communicate a lack of US resolve to stand firm against authoritarian imperialism—a message that would certainly be received with gladness in Beijing.