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Is Ukraine Putin’s Taiwan?

For those interested in military strategy, the term “asymmetric” has been in wide use. Simply put, asymmetric means taking advantage of an adversary’s strengths or weaknesses, or both, to exploit or counter them. For example, the Taliban had no army or air force to contest those of NATO. But they still won.

That said, symmetry also matters. And symmetry is playing out on Ukraine’s borders as 100,000 Russian forces mass for reasons so far opaque. But the Pentagon is taking this very seriously, fearing that the onset of winter will freeze certain entry routes into Ukraine that Russian armor could easily exploit if Moscow chooses to invade. 

The more interesting question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin views Ukraine as China sees Taiwan and reintegration or unification is now a first order priority. Since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, regaining Taiwan has been among Beijing’s most vital interests. Of course, Taiwan was never part of the PRC ceded to and occupied by Japan in 1895 after defeating the Qing Dynasty in the first Sino-Japanese War.

Likewise, Ukraine was part of the USSR but not Russia. In a 5,000-word missive released in July, Putin made  his legal, historical and societal case that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people,” inferring that it was time for Ukraine to return to the fold. At that point, I predicted that Putin would try “something” this fall or early winter. The question remains what.

Thus far, neither Putin nor his spokesmen have suggested any linkage or analogy with China’s intent on making Taiwan part of China on a permanent basis. And the analogy goes only so far. China’s argument is entirely emotional and perhaps the final step in taking revenge or ending the pain of the “century of humiliation.”

Putin’s argument is strategic as well as political and economic. The Kremlin has made it absolutely clear that “red lines” exist should Ukraine move further towards the West and even considers NATO membership, bringing the alliance directly abutting Russia’s strategic center of gravity and the crucial importance of the Black Sea to it. Ukraine’s agricultural and defense industrial sectors are also enormously valuable to Russia.

And there is another vital difference. There are exaggerated fears in Washington of a Chinese amphibious assault to seize Taiwan. But if estimates are correctthe size of that force would be twice as large as the nearly 200,000 troops who landed at Normandy. The PRC is unlikely ever to achieve that capability, but it does have other options.

That is not the case in Ukraine. Russia has substantial forces not only in Donbas and eastern Ukraine. Approximately 30,000 Russian military are in Crimea along with the Black Sea Fleet. And Russian troops merely need to cross over the border, unlike the requirement to cross the 100 mile-wide Taiwan Straits.

But this is a tidy symmetry, and perhaps Putin will use that to make his point as he attempts to coerce, compel or cajole Ukraine to turn east and north and away from the European Union and NATO. Given these geopolitical and strategic realities, what can the West do that it is not? Can a real crisis be avoided?

First, if Russia were to invade and attempt to devour the entirety of Ukraine, its casualties would likely be massive. If history repeats itself, Ukrainians could wage an asymmetric partisan war far deadlier than what Russia suffered in Afghanistan. If that occurred, the most sensible and asymmetric strategy for NATO would be covert aid to Ukrainian partisans to bleed Russia, as well as powerful and biting sanctions.

But Putin still has the gas pipeline weapon. With winter here, would Europe trade access to vital fuel for aiding Ukrainian insurgents? Fortunately, it is highly unlikely Putin would invade.

Hence, Russia could expand its control in the East as negotiating leverage. In my forthcoming book, noted below, the scenario of Russia seizing Ukraine’s tiny and largely unpopulated Serpent Island at the mouth of the Danube Delta in the very western part of the Black Sea is a more likely option. And the aim of any of these options is to seek negotiations with the West and particularly President Biden.

Putin probably sees the U.S. in decline and Biden in a very weak position. Finding some solution to the Ukrainian crisis would be beneficial both to Biden and Putin, and one way of keeping Ukraine at least unconnected to NATO.

Will this gambit work? We will learn the answer soon.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”

Tags Autonomous Republic of Crimea Black Sea Fleet China Joe Biden NATO Politics of Crimea Russia Russia–Ukraine relations Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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