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Compromise and defeat are not options for Ukraine — or Taiwan

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Dec. 21, 2022.

“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Maybe we should go back to that maxim about happy and unhappy families at the opening of “Anna Karenina.” To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all happy victors in war are alike, but every unhappy loser is unhappy in his own way. Let us consider how wars have ended since the victory of the Allied powers over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945.

The Taliban, after their uncontested success in Afghanistan, were overjoyed while the U.S.-supported Afghan forces were destroyed, scattered, exiled and imprisoned. In Vietnam, after the defeat of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese in 1975, the North Vietnamese exulted in victory, forcing thousands into “reeducation” camps from which many never emerged. Nearly a million fled on risky journeys by sea in which thousands drowned.

In the Korean War, South Korea and the U.S. turned back invasions first by the North Koreans and then the Chinese. South Korea has emerged as an incredibly prosperous country, recognized everywhere as economically and culturally productive and creative. North Korea has plunged into poverty made worse by a terrorist regime that has killed and imprisoned thousands of its own people while sinking much-needed funds into nuclear weapons and missiles.

Considering the history of each of the two Koreas over the span of nearly seven decades since the Korean War armistice was signed in July 1953, one has to say the South and its American ally won the war. It’s silly to argue the war isn’t over just because it ended in a truce, rather than a peace treaty. This exercise in semantics only provides an excuse for North Korea and its pro-North friends to undermine the truce with demands for a treaty calling for destruction of the historic alliance between the Republic of Korea and the U.S. and withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In Ukraine, it’s too early to say who’s winning or losing. The Russians have suffered huge setbacks, but Russia is a huge country. The Germans in 1941 pushed the Soviet army to the edge of Moscow. A monument marks the exact point where the Nazi invasion was halted in January 1942 and the tide inexorably turned. Just because Russian President Vladimir Putin has been disappointed by his failure to achieve a quick victory does not mean he’s about to agree to a lasting compromise.

Russian offensives may wax and wane, but Putin is not likely to talk peace on any terms but his own. The worst mistake that Ukraine and NATO, led by the U.S., could make would be to fall for a deal under which Ukraine would concede territory overrun by the Russians and then agree to a ceasefire and loss of foreign assistance. Under those conditions, Putin would gear up for fresh offensives, seizing any pretext to carve out ever more Ukraine territory whenever he sensed a lack of resolve of the NATO alliance.

The Russians are still waiting to take over what Moscow sees as land belonging to the greater Russian empire. Without the full and impassioned support of the U.S. and other NATO nations in defense of freedom and independence for Ukraine against the Russian invaders, Ukraine will crumble and fall. If the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky were forced to accept a false peace, Ukraine, like South Vietnam, would be the unhappy loser. Victory may not be in sight for Ukraine, but compromise and defeat are not options.

Much closer to Korea, Taiwan faces increasing threats from China. Just this week, the Chinese have staged massive aerial war games within Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The purpose, of course, is intimidation, a warning that China may invade the island province that it has been claiming ever since the victory of Mao Zedong’s Red Army over the Chinese mainland in 1949.

Taiwan is an island of peace, independently governed by an elected president who’s reluctant to proclaim the province an independent country for fear of thoroughly upsetting the Chinese. Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose mode of governance bears an unhappy resemblance to that of Putin, might decide the time had come to advance from war games to a full-scale invasion.

As of now, more than 70 years after the “Nationalist” Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek led his defeated forces across the Formosa Straits from the mainland, Taiwan enjoys much the same sense of freedom as South Korea. Mao’s victory on the mainland was a tragedy for his enemies, but Taiwan has overcome terrible problems, including decades of martial law under Chiang in which several thousand mainly Taiwanese people, at odds with Chiang and his army from the mainland, were executed.

Taiwan has emerged victorious from “the white terror,” as it was known. Resentment no doubt festers between Taiwanese and those whose families were originally from the mainland, but basically the island is free, prosperous and democratic. That’s all the more reason for the U.S to stand by Taiwan even though Washington formally recognizes Beijing. As in Ukraine and South Korea, democracy and freedom are at stake in Taiwan too.

In these contests between winners and losers, though, the battle lines are often indistinct and the outcome unsettled. The winners, proud of their victories, risk sinking into dictatorship and corruption. You have to wonder about contests for nations from Southeast Asia to the middle to eastern Europe and Africa. 

What happened to the Arab Spring of 10 years ago, breathing fresh air, hope and life across the Arab world? Remember the exhilaration of the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003? The new American-supported regime was already flailing as Iran extended its influence before Saddam was executed three years later.

For that matter, how sure are we of peace in eastern Europe as Putin fantasizes extending Russian power over the former Soviet empire? He has encountered disasters in Iraq, but he’s not giving up the dream of a revanchist Russia under his rule or that of a successor. We’ll have to wait before celebrating victory in Ukraine.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags China-Taiwan tension NATO Russia under Vladimir Putin Ukraine invasion Vladimir Putin

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