8 Lessons for Taiwan From Russia’s War in Ukraine
This commentary is part of RM's effort to analyze the drivers and consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war one year on.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in China have raised fears of a comparable military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Moscow has annexed, on paper, parts of eastern Ukraine that it sees as its traditional territory and regards NATO as a hostile force. China, meanwhile, sees Taiwan as a local government and the Taiwan Strait as an internal sea. Such claims of sovereignty and maritime rights challenge international norms embraced by the West and its allies, as well as some of their interests, thus creating contestation beyond the borders of the regions in question.
While the fighting in Ukraine is on land, and thus very different from the maritime battlefield that would surround Taiwan, there are still many things my island nation can learn from Ukraine's defensive operations. One similarity in particular is that Taiwan, like Ukraine, is a relatively weak power facing the threat of a much larger one—and that asymmetry lies at the heart of many of the lessons outlined below, including that a nation’s security cannot rely solely on promises of peace and that continuity of government operations is vital.
In some key respects, Taiwan finds itself in a more advantageous position than Ukraine. It is geographically separated from its adversary by the strait and its GDP in 2021 was nearly four times Ukraine’s by one measure,1 giving Taiwan the financial leeway to bolster its defenses in advance.
Before considering lessons for Taiwan, it is important to note that China has also learned from the Russian-Ukrainian war, most notably by improving its psychological warfare capabilities, which have increasingly targeted Taiwan, and enlarging its nuclear arsenal (a process that began before the current war). Nuclear weapons afford Beijing a “political denial” capability, in addition to its conventional military anti-access/area-denial capabilities, to deter other countries from assisting Taiwan. The fact that Moscow's nuclear arsenal has kept the West from sending troops into Ukraine has likely reaffirmed China’s drive to accelerate the build-up of its nuclear arsenal and rocket forces.
Below I have listed eight possible lessons for Taiwan from the Ukraine war.
1. National security cannot rely solely on promises of peace, even in writing. While dialogue may help reduce misunderstandings, it is useless against a determined aggressor. The so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which provided assurances meant to safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, did not prevent Moscow from annexing Crimea 20 years later or starting a full-blown war early last year. Likewise, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and its protocols did not keep the Nazis from invading the Soviet Union in June 1941.
2. Continuity of government operations both demonstrates and bolsters a people’s determination and will to resist a military onslaught. Western countries originally thought Ukraine would quickly fall. However, the courage of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people succeeded in resisting the Russian army and made the European countries understand that Ukraine was the first front of defense of democracy and succeeded in gaining international support. In practical terms, Zelensky and other senior officials have stayed in Kyiv, kept the trains running, empowered local authorities and volunteers to help those affected by Russian attacks and tried tenaciously to repair damaged infrastructure.
3. A military strategy based on sea denial. Ukraine may not have seemed well-prepared before the war—corruption in the defense sector, for example, impacted war preparations—but it was able to resist effectively after the war started. In addition to demonstrating courage and will, the reinstatement of military conscription after 2014 provided the Ukrainian army with sufficient reserve manpower to play a key role in defending the frontlines against the Russian army and attacking Russian rear lines of communication, including by flank attack or circuitous means. Taiwan, with its democratic beliefs, espouses a policy of strategic defense and will never launch a first strike, so its military strategy must be deterrence. It is necessary to ensure counterstrike capability and credibility in order to deter effectively; therefore, lower cost and high survivability of precision-guided weapons systems become the preferred choice and can make good use of Taiwan's geographical characteristics to quickly establish Taiwan's sea denial capability in responding to China's threats.
4. Take threat signals seriously and strengthen defenses rapidly. Beijing has signaled in its "White Paper on Taiwan Policy" and in Xi's speeches that it will never promise to renounce the option of using force against Taiwan; official Communist Party communications likewise make it clear that Xi wants to see the unification of Taiwan with mainland China. These policies are even more explicit than Russia's publicly stated concerns about Ukraine drawing closer to NATO and statements, in its military doctrine and elsewhere, about Moscow’s right to protect its citizens beyond its borders. Faced with such a clear signal of threat, Taiwan must quickly increase its defense budget to strengthen its war readiness, in my view: By raising spending to 3% of GDP, we can build sufficient military capabilities and readiness.
5. Redesign investment strategies to account for military asymmetry. By some estimates, China spends 17 times more on its military than Taiwan, so Taiwan needs investments that boost its chances of defending itself successfully. Military strategy is like a symphony that must combine very different capabilities. Aside from Stinger and Javelin missiles, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the value of long-range defensive weapons such as M777 howitzer and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System（HIMARS）. The same would apply in the Taiwan Strait. Relying only on small, short-range weapons systems would make the sea an enemy highway. Taiwan needs modern military technology and precision-guided munitions that favor the defender and would allow Taiwan’s smaller force to destroy the enemy's amphibious fleet and prevent it from landing. This will be helped along by Taiwan's special five-year budget of $8.5 billion to enhance air and sea missile capabilities. The main force, in my view, should be ground-based anti-ship and air-defense missiles, uncrewed vehicle systems and counter-strike missiles that help keep the enemy at bay. (This is also good value for money: For example, it may take 24 months to construct a frigate but only three and a half days for Taiwan to build an anti-ship missile; Ukraine's sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva with two anti-ship missiles serves as a good example of the effectiveness of such asymmetry.) The challenge is that Taiwan must also contend with coercive gray-zone campaigns that may become China’s “new norm”: quasi-military operations using warplanes and warships close to Taiwan's airspace and waters to create psychological pressure. This makes it necessary to also invest in platforms such as fighter planes and warships.
6. Design an effective communications strategy. Ukraine's experience in international communications is also valuable. Taiwan must make the international community understand that Taiwan does not see China as an enemy, but that China sees democracy as an enemy. Taiwan is democratic and China is authoritarian. This is a competition of systems. The issue of the Taiwan Strait is not an issue of unification versus independence. Taiwan’s position should be cast as anti-communist, not anti-China. This, in my view, will help counter Beijing's propaganda about the "One China Principle" because in the PRC constitution the Chinese Communist Party is the only legal ruling party of China, which means that Beijing's assertion of “one China” equals one-party rule. Breaking Beijing’s strategic narrative could spare Taiwan a lot of trouble and obstacles and gain more international support.
7. Strengthen defensive resilience. Taiwan’s government has announced the resumption of conscription, replacing four-month training with one-year military service, which will help improve Taiwan's defensive resilience, in my view. According to a Taiwanese poll released in August, 65.5% of respondents agreed that year-long compulsory military service should be reinstated. Conscription will provide more manpower to destroy the small number of enemy troops (amphibious or airborne) that do come ashore and, at the same time, instill a sense of "citizen soldiers." Ukraine has also been relying on conscription as part of its attempts to repel the Russian invasion.
8. Conduct joint training with allied partners but prepare for the worst-case scenario. Pre-war joint exercises involving U.S., NATO and Ukrainian forces, as well as the emergency training during wartime, have been plentiful and seemingly effective. The West’s sharing of real-time intelligence with Ukraine has, meanwhile, greatly contributed to Kyiv’s ability to effectively combat the invading Russian forces. Similar assistance from allies would likewise contribute to Taiwan’s defense. Despite Washington's efforts to provide various kinds of assistance to Taiwan, including military exchange, there are still many obstacles, not least due to the lack of formal diplomatic relations. For Taiwan, this is full of uncertainty—I personally position international politics as an art—and that is why Taiwan must still prepare for the worst-case scenario and the prospect of fighting alone.
Since the Battle of Marathon during the first Persian invasion of Greece, the history of war is replete with cases of small armies defeating large enemies, and Ukraine offers Taiwan strategic inspiration in terms of systematic political-military thinking. Taiwan is already strengthening various defense preparations, including continuous government operations, civil defense, critical infrastructure protection and strategic material reserves. The lessons of Ukraine's defensive war have shortened the learning curve for Taiwan and will be a good reference. Taiwan understands that it will never become a "free rider" in security matters. Therefore, Taiwan needs “armed democracy” to protect its own survival and the security of its partners.
- According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database, Taiwan’s 2021 GDP in current prices was $774.4 billion versus Ukraine’s $199.7 billion; in terms of GDP based on purchasing power parity (as a share of the world’s total), Taiwan’s exceeded Ukraine’s by a factor of 2.5, totaling 1% versus 0.4%.
Tzu-yun Su is the director of the Division of Defense Strategy and Resource at INDSR.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by the Taiwan Presidential Office shared under a Creative Commons license.