The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has sparked significant commentary along the theme of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow.” These articles usually focus on the superficial similarities in the strategic threat environment that Ukraine and Taiwan face, given their proximity to hostile powers and lack of official membership in any security bloc. The operational environments of the two countries, however, are drastically different. Both countries have their own specific environmental/geopolitical advantages and disadvantages vis-à-vis their adversaries. Having said that, there are a number of useful strategic and operational lessons that Taiwan can take from the current war, when properly adapted.
These lessons complement the previous lessons learned from the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War. In that conflict, the Azeris effectively used UAVs and decoys to conduct flexible strikes and to complicate enemy targeting. Reports from the current war have validated this approach, exemplified by the numerous successful strikes by Ukraine’s TB-2 UAVs against Russian convoys, as well as the inability of the Russian Aerospace Force to properly identify and target Ukrainian air defense (for instance, wasting limited precision guided munitions by striking non-operational aircraft parked in the open). Moreover, the larger scale of the current war has provided additional useful data.
At the time of this writing on March 17, the Ukrainians have forced a greatly superior (at least on paper) Russian force into a grinding stalemate. The Ukrainians still hold their capital of Kyiv, the primary objective of the Russian offensive. Ukraine’s fierce resistance and targeting of Russian logistics have stalled the offensive and resulted in severe, outsized losses for the Russian force. This operational stalemate, when combined with the extremely severe Western economic sanctions that have been brought to bear, may very well break Russian military power and lead to political turmoil or even a “color revolution” inside Russia. The PRC, of course, is taking its own lessons from the conflict; thus, it is important that Taiwan military planners look at the methods that not only address current concerns, but also mitigate likely PRC adaptive responses.
Rapid Mobilization and the KISS Principle
One of the key drivers of the Russia-Ukraine War was Russian President Putin’s perception that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s pre-war unpopularity meant that the Ukrainian population would be acquiescent to a rapid shock and awe campaign to remove the Ukrainian leadership, followed by the establishment of a puppet state. In short, Putin was preparing for a state security raid writ large, a “special military operation” versus a full-blown war. This strategic-level miscalculation led to a number of serious operational problems for the Russian military: first, the number of troops mobilized for the war was insufficient for either active warfighting or counterinsurgency operations; second, the invasion plan was overly-complex; third, it employed a vastly insufficient logistics enterprise that assumed rapid termination. All three problems exacerbate each other, which has led to long operational pauses—and thus vulnerability to hit-and-run attacks.
Ukraine was fortunate in that its adversary’s poor strategic assumptions and operational design provided valuable time to raise, train, and equip Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force units. The Territorial Defense Force has proven to be a strategic asset for Ukraine, but not strictly in a military operational sense: the organization was officially instituted a mere month before the invasion, with rifles being handed out en masse to a flood of volunteers after the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24.
Despite the training and equipment shortages, however, the Territorial Defense Force has been instrumental in demonstrating to a global audience the depth of Ukrainian resiliency and resistance. This in turn allowed Ukraine to win the information war and gain global sympathy— and more importantly, to spur global support in the form of volunteers, money, arms, and sanctions against the Russian government. With time, the operational benefits will increase, as the reservists gain the weaponry, organization, and combat experience necessary to provide the Ukrainian regular force with the ability to sustain itself against attrition.
Taiwan cannot assume its adversary will make these same mistakes. In fact, many of the lessons the PLA will likely take from the conflict mirror the historical issues that the PLA faced in its 1979 war against Vietnam. The likely result will be the PLA designing a simplified, high-intensity plan of attack to further reduce the time window for Taiwan and US/allied forces to prepare, with no illusions of winning hearts and minds. Thus, Taiwan must step up preparations for ensuring its own effective territorial reserve force, both for strategic deterrent purposes and for operational use.
This means abiding by the “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) principle of practicing a simplified regimen of ground familiarity, firearms training, and hit-and-run tactics against second echelon/logistics convoys. This also means demonstrations of the ability to rapidly mobilize, equip, and then disperse the territorial force prior to hostilities. While the sight of thousands of Ukrainians lining up to volunteer and pick up small arms was a potent demonstration of Ukrainian resolve, it also represented a high risk of enormous casualties and panic if the Russian Aerospace Forces had the capability to rapidly target the crowds. In Taiwan’s case, ensuring that the civilian population does not panic is even more crucial than for Ukraine, given the far more constrained logistics environment.
Stockpile, Stockpile, and Stockpile Some More
One of the most impressive Ukrainian feats of the war has been maintaining a functioning system of logistics, particularly its railnet. This railnet has been instrumental in allowing for a massive flow of refugees out of Ukraine, while bringing in volunteers and weapons from all over Europe. The lack of effective Russian airpower/missile strikes on the Ukrainian railnet has allowed Ukrainian repair teams to keep pace with the damage. Railroads have been crucial to keeping the Ukrainian war effort going, as even the massive US/UK airlift of anti-tank weaponry just prior to hostilities has proven insufficient. In the week following the start of the war, the United States and NATO pushed a further 17,000 anti-tank weapons into Ukraine via rail, and a further US package of weapons and military equipment was pledged in mid-March.  Ukrainian logistical superiority has been crucial to maintaining warfighting capability and morale, especially against an opponent that has repeatedly run short on both food and fuel.
One of the obvious lessons for the PRC would then be to ensure a higher level of systematic strikes against Taiwan’s logistics infrastructure. The PLA Rocket Force has considerably more missiles than the Russian Aerospace Force, while the much smaller land mass/transportation networks of Taiwan versus Ukraine means that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Taiwan to replicate Ukraine’s achievement of maintaining resilient logistics under attack. Even assuming partner support, weaponry, food, and fuel will all need to be airlifted or shipped across the Pacific at extreme risk, more slowly and on a smaller scale as compared to rail. Additionally, it will be difficult for the various regions in Taiwan to provide mutual support and sanctuary to one another in the way western Ukraine (which as of this writing has been mostly untouched by the war) provides for Kyiv and eastern Ukraine.
For Taiwan, this means that stockpiling is of the highest necessity, both for operational warfighting and to demonstrate the ability to sustain a war of indeterminate length. The first order of priority should be to ensure large, distributed stockpiles of small arms ammunition, water, food, medicine, and fuel to last for a minimum of 30 days. The ongoing Russian attack against Kyiv and the siege of Mariupol, both of which have lasted for over three weeks, have demonstrated that while it is extremely difficult for an opponent to outright capture a city against determined opposition, it is also difficult for defenders to resupply and evacuate civilians under fire. The situation would be even worse for Taiwan, as Taiwan would not be in a position to evacuate millions of civilians via rail to safer areas on-island or to friendly neighbors.
The second order of priority is to build up stockpiles of anti-tank weaponry, portable anti-aircraft systems, mines, and rapidly deployable anti-armor obstacles/barricades. This will reduce the necessity of the populace needing to make and use homemade Molotov cocktails and anti-armor obstacles. In Kyiv’s case, the failure of the initial Russian air assault and the subsequent stalling of the Russian armored column on the outskirts of Kyiv bought the defenders several weeks to fortify the city. Having pre-built obstacles and barricades would allow Taipei’s defenders to do the same in a matter of hours, versus days.
In a previous article, I discussed how Western observers had an unrealistic dream of “Fortress Taiwan,” and that absent major shock, both the West and Taiwan had to flexibly work with the systems they have to maximize deterrence. The massive, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine could be considered such a shock, and Taiwanese society is responding by calling for greater self-reliance and resiliency. This watershed moment should be seized upon by both the Taiwanese government and society to decisively increase readiness, with the example of Germany’s massive one-time defense boost and heightened long-term defense spending in mind. The end result would not just be a stronger military, but a drastically more resilient society, able to shrug off PRC gray zone/psychological warfare. By learning the lessons of Ukraine today, Taiwan can avoid being the target tomorrow.
In my next installment, I will discuss additional lessons from the war, including the role of mission command and the criticality of airpower.
The main point: The Russia-Ukraine War has provided many lessons on how a smaller power can offset and outlast a stronger power. These methods include mobilizing an entire populace to outnumber an expeditionary force, and taking advantage of stockpiling to achieve logistical superiority.
 As the Russian offensive switches to indiscriminate air and artillery strikes, the United States is providing Ukraine with more sophisticated anti-aircraft and loitering munitions systems. On March 16, the Biden Administration announced an additional package of emergency security assistance to Ukraine, which included 800 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; 9,000 anti-armor weapons; 100 tactical UAV systems; and various small arms, ammunition, and body armor.