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US strategies toward China and Russia remain a mix of contradictions

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Chinese surveillance balloon discovered over Montana has prompted the Biden administration to postpone Sec. of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing — the first high level trip in four years. Meanwhile, support for Ukraine is caught between President Biden’s refusal to send F-16 fighters to Kyiv and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plea for the equivalent of President Kennedy’s “pay any price” to save Ukrainian democracy from an out-of-control dictator. In both cases, U.S. relations with an adversary continue to worsen.

And they prompt the question: Would the U.S. go to war with China over Taiwan and with Russia over UkraineBiden has left the issue of Taiwan purposely ambiguous, which is smart. About Ukraine, Biden has said that the U.S. has no intention of escalating the conflict into World War III. Without taking a poll, few members of NATO would dissent from that view or commit to a war with Russia.

Giving these realities, what policy choices does the U.S. have? The potential casus belli with China is an invasion of Taiwan. Making that option too costly for Beijing to consider would seem the most effective objective. And that does not require direct American engagement. By adopting a “porcupine,” or asymmetric, defense, Taiwan can prevent China from invading. The crucial question is why Taipei has been so reluctant to move to do so.

Ukraine is more complicated and probably more dangerous because a war is being fought, not hypothesized. Short of going to war to drive Russia out of captured and occupied territories, the U.S. has three basic strategic options.

First, the U.S. and allies can provide the military means for Ukraine to restore control of the captured territories and return to the pre-Feb. 24  borders or indeed to be more aggressive in retaking Crimea and much of Donbas.

Second, the aim can be to keep Ukraine in the fight long enough to impose sufficient casualties and pain to force Russia to negotiate. Or third, the aim can be to make negotiations the priority by imposing incentives and disincentives to that end on both combatants.

The first option would require a huge concentrated effort to enable Ukraine to have a combined operations capability. At least five or more brigades’ worth  of equipment would be needed that in approximate terms would include and not be limited to 500 or more heavy tanks; 2,000 fighting vehicles;  long-range missiles capable of striking targets inside Russia; 3,000 more artillery pieces; several squadrons of fighters and attack helicopters; mining and counter mining; logistics; command and control; other kit; and training and support needed to operate and maintain this equipment. The price tag would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars and would exceed the capacity of the U.S. and NATO to deliver in time to make a difference before year’s end.

The second option is what the U.S. and NATO are doing now. With marginal increases or better, Ukrainian leaders believe this could turn the tide and, despite Pentagon skepticism, possibly allow it to retake Crimea. The third option, unless pursued with great secrecy, would undo promises that only Ukraine will determine how and when negotiations will take place.

Given that war with Russia is to be avoided, option two will prevail. But that does not answer the further question of how the war will end. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no sign of relenting. A major Russian offensive has been predicted. And, so far, Moscow has been unconcerned with casualties.

American strategy vis-a-vis China and Russia remains a mix of contradictions and dilemmas and paradoxes. One commonsensical conclusion would call for a major policy review. That did not work in Afghanistan. And the “surge” that succeeded at least for a time in Iraq is not applicable to Ukraine. But perhaps the time has come for a major review for China and Ukraine.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book 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.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden Boris Johnson China China balloon China-Taiwan tensions Chinese spy balloon NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war Taiwan Ukraine

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