Why China won’t invade Taiwan and Russia won’t attack Ukraine

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Since the end for World War II, the United States has fallen victim to exaggerating national security threats while ignoring others that proved more dangerous. Perhaps the memory of the interwar years and appeasement of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan became embedded in America’s DNA.

The alleged missile gap of the late 1950s and early 1960s turned out to be decisively in America’s favor; Vietnam was never vital to halting non-existent monolithic communism; Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction; imposing democracy in the greater Middle East was a mirage; and today, intelligence warnings of a Russian assault into Ukraine with 175,000 soldiers, and generals and admirals fretting over a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, exemplify these exaggerations.

Barring a catastrophic blunder, Russia will not attack Ukraine. For the foreseeable future, China lacks the military capability to mount an amphibious operation to seize and occupy Taiwan. Why? 

A common thread links Russian President Vladimir Putin with Soviet leaders dating back to Lenin: “active measures.” Active measures have always rested on combinations of military intimidation and non-kinetic, psychological, covert and overt intelligence and disruptive operations. The Soviet Union used them unsuccessfully in trying to assimilate Estonia in 1924. Putin is employing them today. 

While predicting exactly what Putin may or may not do is risky, identifying the likely reasons for creating this crisis is less so. First, Putin understands that he has the initiative in dialing up or down the state of the crisis. Second, with interior lines, Putin can maneuver his forces with no restraints other than weather and the primitive state of Russia’s roads and rail. Third, Putin can sustain this military presence at acceptable costs and without exhausting his forces. Fourth, Putin announces his general aims in advance. In July, a 5,000 word missive on Ukraine announced what would follow. Unfortunately, the West neglected to understand that and respond.

Putin wants respect and treatment as a peer. He wants to expand the buffer between NATO and the European Union through Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. He is applying intimidation to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to accommodate Russian demands to cease its western impulses to join NATO that almost certainly never will occur. 

Putin is also cleverly leveraging President Biden and other Western leaders to cajole, convince or compel Zelensky to adhere to the Minsk II agreement. And Putin appreciates that Russian public opinion currently is running 60-65 percent in his favor.

Putin fully recognizes the potential calamity of an invasion. Russia could face an insurgency as deadly as Afghanistan’s, with possibly 30,000 or more Russian casualties and devastating negative effects to his standing at home. Denying access to the SWIFT banking system and ending Nordstream II would have dire economic and financial consequences. Further, an attack would almost certainly provoke more defense spending by NATO and increased deployment of forces to this region, disrupting his plans for expanding his buffer. 

That China will not invade Taiwan is proven by answering the question of how much force would be needed. No senior official has offered an estimate. History does.

In 1944, the U.S. plan for invading Taiwan, defended by about 30,000 Japanese soldiers, called for more than double the forces that landed at Normandy. Operation Causeway required 400,000 soldiers and Marines and 4,000 ships. It is improbable that China will ever obtain this capability. 

China has other  options. It could obliterate Taiwan. It could seize Taiwan’s tiny islands in the South China Sea. It could impose an embargo with its maritime militia of thousands of commercial ships and boats. And it could attempt regime change from within Taiwan. It will not, however, launch an amphibious assault.

Where are things headed in Russia? The most likely outcome will be a series of meetings to de-escalate what the West perceives as the threat of invasion. At some stage, Putin will declare a victory. Ukraine’s move west will be delayed but not prevented. And that will satisfy the U.S. and its allies.

But what is being missed? A new threat has emerged in the form of a fifth horseman of the apocalypse armed not with the Cold War MAD of Mutual Assured Destruction to prevent an existential thermonuclear war but a new MAD. This MAD stands for Massive Attacks of Disruption.

COVID-19, extreme weather caused by climate change and cyberattacks that can cripple societies by denial of essential services are clear and present dangers exceeding those posed by Russia and China. But few have recognized the danger of MAD. And fewer are taking action.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary 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 that World at Large.”

Tags . Russia-Ukraine conflict China Joe Biden NATO Russia Ukraine Ukraine-Russia border Vladimir Putin

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