Putin’s intimidation of the West in Ukraine provides a roadmap for China on Taiwan

“It’s not enough to speak with rhetorical flourish of ennobling words of democracy, of freedom, of [e]quality, and liberty. … Let us resolve to put the strength of democracies into action to thwart the designs of autocracy.”

President Biden spoke those eloquent words on Saturday in Warsaw, to the applause of Poles who are doing so much to help Ukrainian refugees. 

But many Ukrainians, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, although grateful for the limited arms and other support America has provided, remain deeply disappointed at what the United States has not done — and easily could do. 

Biden steadfastly rejects Poland’s offer to transfer Russian MiG aircraft to Ukraine. The planes would be flown by Ukrainian pilots to create the no-fly zone that Biden refuses to establish using U.S. jets and personnel. Washington also is withholding the quality and quantity of other defensive weapons that Ukraine desperately needs to combat Russia’s air, land and sea attacks, such as tanks and Slovakia’s proffered S-300 air defense systems.

The dismal failure of Western deterrence policies to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the first place requires serious reexamination by political and military leaders because of its implications for future challenges from other enemies of democracy, especially China.

During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow avoided direct military confrontation because of their shared fear of escalation to nuclear conflict, called mutual assured destruction (MAD). But the psychology of nuclear deterrence gave hints of changing when China began to emerge as a potential nuclear power and expressed a willingness to use such weapons.

Mao Zedong infamously declared in 1957, as China was a few years away from detonating its first atomic bomb: “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. … China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.”

Mao already had demonstrated his contempt for human life when he expended a million Chinese soldiers in joining North Korea’s failed invasion of South Korea. His radical domestic policies killed more than 60 million Chinese, making him history’s greatest mass murderer, surpassing Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Decades after Mao’s death, Chinese military leaders continued to issue chilling nuclear threats.  During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, China threatened to obliterate Los Angeles in what a Clinton official called “our own Cuban missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.” In 2005, a Chinese official, again speaking of conflict over Taiwan, expanded the nuclear threat to “hundreds of American cities.”

There is no real indication that China’s leaders today are as suicidal as Mao boasted he was — only that they find it useful to convince Westerners they are, as a warning against supporting Taiwan’s independence. The terror tactic has restrained U.S. presidents from stating directly that America will defend Taiwan, though Biden twice has done so, only to have his words walked back by his appointees.

Putin has observed the geopolitical dynamics of the nuclear threat psychology and its utility in keeping the West at bay. That apprehension restrained the Bush administration from resisting Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and induced Obama-Biden acquiescence to Putin’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.

Last year, as Russia massed forces along the Ukraine border, Biden preemptively announced that America would not send forces to help Ukraine because “that would mean World War III.” Two months later, with his invasion fully underway, Putin took blatant advantage of the fear factor by putting his nuclear forces on alert. Taking a page from China’s playbook, his spokesman openly mused about using nuclear weapons in the event of “an existential threat” to Russia. 

Ever since, the phrases “nuclear war” and “World War III” have promiscuously appeared in the public discussion to explain U.S. and NATO inhibitions against direct intervention in Ukraine.

Reflecting that policy quasi-paralysis, Biden hedged even his public statements on Washington’s economic sanctions, saying their severity would depend on whether Russia’s invasion was more than a “minor incursion.” He has rejected a no-fly zone and delayed sending Ukraine critically needed defensive weapons. He fears further “provoking” Putin who, unprovoked, already has unleashed a devastating air, ground and naval attack on a neighboring democracy, brazenly committing war crimes without concern for a U.S.-NATO military response.

In Brussels, Biden was asked whether Ukraine should make territorial concessions to end the conflict. Rather than saying that would be an unjustified reward for Putin’s aggression and a concession that would erode the international order, Biden responded, “It’s their judgment to make,” suggesting Washington could accept that outcome and might even prefer it.

If Ukraine acts on what might seem a gentle hint from Biden, it will reinforce Russia’s success in occupying Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, and set an unfortunate example for China’s aggressive intentions toward Taiwan. Beijing would be tempted to conclude that its seizure of Quemoy and/or some other Taiwanese island would be similarly accepted by Washington as preferable to the dreaded prospect of a third world war.  

Proportionality in responses to aggression, limited war, de-escalation and strategic “off ramps” are standard Western concepts in conducting “just wars” to avoid another global catastrophe.  But that ostensibly prudent and honorable approach can prove counterproductive and fail to deter when it is seen by aggressors such as Russia or China as an indication of fear and weakness.  Militarily, that has been the Western response on Ukraine and war has been the almost inevitable result.  

Biden even stunningly declared in Brussels that “I did not say that, in fact, the sanctions would deter [Putin]. Sanctions never deter.” Yet, the next day in Poland he asserted, “Russia was bent on violence from the start. I know not all of you believed me, and us, when we kept saying, ‘they are going to cross the border, they are going to attack.’”  

If both statements are true, they demonstrate a colossal and cynical incoherence in Biden administration policy: They expected and predicted the Russian invasion; knew that sanctions “never work,” but kept threatening them anyway — to be imposed after the invasion was underway and Ukrainians already were paying the horrific price. And they unilaterally ruled out any preemptive NATO military presence in Ukraine, or enhanced arming of Ukrainians, that might well have deterred Putin from making his catastrophic move.

Biden repeatedly promises to defend “every single inch” of NATO territory but not an inch of besieged Ukraine, which 14 years ago was promised NATO membership. His statement that Putin “cannot remain in power” follows logically from his earlier declaration that he is a “war criminal” and, as in the Cold War, offers moral support to Russians trapped behind Putin’s new Information Curtain.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China aggression China-Taiwan tension Joe Biden Mutual assured destruction Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin World War III

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