The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway. Throughout much of the world, observers surely hope that upcoming developments on the battlefield will bring the war closer to a conclusion. But just as the war itself has had global implications, how it ends (or doesn’t) will have global implications as well—including for Taiwan. This article considers three broad potential scenarios, and their potential consequences for Taiwan: (1) some manner of Ukrainian victory; (2) some manner of Russian victory; and (3) a prolonged stalemate, or “frozen conflict.” These three scenarios are not exhaustive of all possible outcomes in the war, but they do illustrate why the conflict is relevant to Asia—and why Ukrainian victory is in Taiwan’s interests.
Scenario 1: Ukrainian Victory
When the Ukrainian counteroffensive culminates in the weeks to come, it may represent the beginning of the end for Russia’s war of aggression. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been clear that his government’s goal is to restore Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, with Russian forces removed from Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. It is conceivable that Kyiv may be willing to declare victory short of achieving those goals, with the retaking of Crimea largely seen as a particularly difficult objective.
Whatever the precise borders of a victorious Ukraine, victory is most likely to come about in the relative short-term—perhaps during the next two years—while foreign, and especially American, support for the Ukrainian war effort and for the government’s functioning remains robust. In this scenario, that support allows sustained Ukrainian battlefield successes, thus opening two potential paths to peace. On the one hand, those successes could lead the leadership in Moscow to change its political calculus: Russian President Vladimir Putin might conclude that the benefits of continuing to fight no longer outweigh the benefits of suing for peace.
Alternatively, Ukraine’s armed forces might “break” the Russian military in Ukraine. Due to some combination of the infliction of casualties, the destruction of materiel, the severing of supply lines, and the breaking of morale, Ukraine might destroy the Russian military as an effective fighting force. In other words, Russian forces might simply be incapable of keeping up the fight and Putin might find himself negotiating not over how much Ukrainian territory he can keep, but over how much of his military Ukraine permits to escape. This compounding of tactical, operational, and strategic routs would be the best outcome for Ukraine, Europe, and global stability.
Either of these paths to Ukrainian victory would have positive follow-on effects for Taiwan. Symbolically, victory would demonstrate that much of the developed, democratic world is willing to go toe-to-toe with a nuclear-armed state bent on annexing a smaller, weaker neighbor. Beijing will undoubtedly take notice. Similarly, Ukrainian victory will put lie to the notion—adhered to by elements on both the right and the left in American politics—that America can do little good in the world and should turn inward rather than involve itself in the affairs of distant peoples and places. If a positive outcome in Ukraine enhances American confidence that it can successfully grapple with China’s designs on Taiwan, that will be a win for Taipei.
More concretely, victory in the relative near-term will free up American resources and attention to address military imbalances in the Indo-Pacific region. In this scenario, the United States will likely commit to the long-term arming of Ukraine, but can carry that effort out at a deliberate pace after Russian defeat, while treating more urgently the arming of Taiwan and enhancements to American force structure and posture in Asia. This will be particularly true if the Russian military “breaks” en route to Ukrainian victory. With Russian conventional military power effectively neutered in Europe, Washington may be able to responsibly deprioritize the defense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over the decade to follow while it seeks to contain China in the east.
Scenario 2: Russian Victory
Russia is unlikely to achieve its initial objectives in its war on Ukraine. However this war ends, Ukraine will remain an independent state with Kyiv as its capital. But that does not mean Russian victory is impossible. If Ukraine does not achieve victory in the relative near-term, as described above, international support (both for its war effort and to enable its government to function) is likely to wither. Consider the United States, the biggest provider of aid to Ukraine in absolute terms. While polling indicates continued public support for assisting Kyiv, growing numbers of Americans say that the United States is providing too much support and partisan divides on Ukraine policy are widening. Those trends do not bode well for high levels of American aid over the longer term.
If American and other sources of assistance dry up in the coming years, Ukraine may opt to sue for peace rather than see battlefield tides turn against it. One possible outcome is that Russia ends up in firm control of Crimea and other occupied territories in the east, perhaps with formal Ukrainian cession of those lands. A peace treaty in these circumstances might also see Kyiv commit to some form of neutrality and to forego pursuing membership in the European Union and NATO.
This outcome would not be in Taiwan’s interests. Some might think that, as with Ukrainian victory above, American disengagement from Ukraine in this scenario would enable Washington to turn its attention to Taiwan. Maybe, but that is far from a sure thing and arguably unlikely. An American public that tires of aiding one far-off country to defend itself is not going to enthusiastically pivot to aiding a different far-off country—especially one with which the United States has no official diplomatic relations.
Moreover, even if the United States reduces its support for Ukraine, Washington will have to redouble its commitment to NATO in the wake of a Russian victory. As Shay Khatiri, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and I have pointed out in the Washington Examiner, Russian victory portends “a future in which NATO’s southeastern front is far more vulnerable, Russia can create new crises at will, and Russia will be in a far stronger position once it recovers and rearms.” We argue: “in prioritizing the avoidance of an unlikely war with Russia today, the Biden Administration and its European allies are making a future, wider war all the more likely.” In other words, the current European crisis does not end with Russian victory; instead, Russian victory ensures that that crisis will only intensify in the years to come.
In such a scenario, European countries—who in recent years have grown increasingly concerned about security challenges emanating from Asia, and who have invested in closer relations with Taiwan—will find they must focus more narrowly on the Russian menace. They may even seek warmer relations with China in the hope that Beijing can restrain Moscow.
What is more, a Europe that focuses more narrowly and with greater intensity on Russia will not enable an American pivot to Asia. As NATO’s response to the Ukraine war has shown, American leadership and action are crucial when it comes to addressing security issues in Europe. To the extent that Germany and France are interested in exercising continental leadership on security matters, their neighbors are unwelcoming of that leadership. Divides between east and west require external mediation. More broadly, intra-European distrust will fester and weaken European security absent deep American engagement.
Under such circumstances, China will be comfortable acting more assertively in Asia—in part because it may assess that Washington has little appetite for meaningfully standing up to Beijing after failing to thwart the poorer and weaker Russia, but also because America will be tied down in Europe in a way it would not be after Ukrainian victory.
Scenario 3: Prolonged Conflict or Stalemate
It is also possible that, failing to achieve victory in the relative near-term, Ukraine will receive sufficient international support to keep up the fight, but not enough to enable decisive battlefield victories. The end result could be a prolonged, grinding, but less intense “frozen conflict,” in which the front lines become effectively locked in place, and in which neither side can declare victory or has an interest in pursuing peace talks.
This outcome is suboptimal for Taiwan, but preferable to Russian victory. Although a reduction in US aid for Ukraine may reflect growing skepticism of such efforts wherever they may be focused, Taipei can at least be assured that delivery of its orders of American defense equipment are less likely to be delayed due to exigencies in Europe. With Russia tied down in Ukraine, moreover, Moscow may have less wherewithal to make trouble elsewhere in Europe. That, in turn, may enable both the United States and European countries to focus relatively more attention on Asia than in the Russian victory scenario.
But even a frozen war or war of reduced intensity in Europe will have economic, demographic, and security consequences that extend beyond Ukraine’s borders. As the Korean peninsula makes clear, frozen conflicts do not breed regional stability—they are instead a constant, ever-present source of volatility. And as history teaches, volatility in Europe has long had momentous effects on Asia.
A Word on Nuclear Weapons
During the last 18 months, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly rattled the nuclear saber in an effort to shape the international response to his war of aggression. That saber-rattling has undoubtedly instilled caution in Washington and in allied capitals across Europe. But Ukrainian victory could reinforce the traditional Chinese view that nuclear weapons are not useful for much, if anything, beyond deterring the threat or use of nuclear weapons against China.
On the other hand, if Russia ends up winning this war or even if the war settles into a brutal stalemate, Beijing may conclude that nuclear coercion is effective—that Moscow’s nuclear threats prevented the NATO allies from prioritizing Ukrainian victory, and that those threats were thus instrumental in denying Ukrainian victory. These scenarios, then, could spell the beginning of the end of the long-held and more or less restrained Chinese approach to nuclear weapons, and thus complicate how Washington would respond to Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan.
The main point: Just as the war in Ukraine has had global implications, how it ends (or doesn’t end) will have global implications as well. Ukrainian victory is in Taiwan’s interests.