Lessons from Ukraine for Deterrence against China
What can the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies learn from the Russian war?
All eyes are trained on Ukraine. And while the United States works to build a coalition to push back against Russia, Beijing, among others, is measuring the Western response to Putin’s aggression.
Over the last several years, and especially during this crisis, Russia and China have learned from each other—both by what they have done, and by what they think they can get away with. Their goal is to try to show the United States and its allies that Western responses will be insufficient, unpalatable, and unsustainable. So what will this war mean globally, as Beijing watches the Western-led response to Putin’s aggression?
It is not yet time to render judgment on the responses to Russia’s destabilizing actions. But it is not too early to think about which responses offer the United States and its partners a template to build upon for assembling coalitions, developing consequences that bite, and deterring further acts of intimidation, coercion, and force.
That thinking needs to begin immediately, as the challenge is broader than Russia. Putin, after all, is hardly the only authoritarian leader launched on a campaign to undercut democratic values, intimidate his neighbors, and undermine the rules-based order. Russia is not even the most powerful state to do so: Even though Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive and assertive China is not Putin’s Russia and cannot be handled in the same way, those who are determined to avoid succumbing to a Russian or Chinese sphere of influence and are seeking partners-in-arms should act now.
The Biden administration, having learned from Putin’s previous revisionist interventions in Ukraine and Georgia, was more prepared in 2022. Months before Russian forces began their February 24 attack on Kiev, the administration took new and unprecedented steps to warn allies and the world at large about the likelihood of Putin’s invasion.
Conscious of the likely international mistrust of U.S. officials raising alarms about the Russian threat, the administration prioritized transparency and clarity in the measured escalations of its warnings about the increasing likelihood of invasion. As one U.S. newspaper put it, the Biden administration’s warnings “have taken on the feeling of the Weather Channel tracking a hurricane.”
This transparency, including the sharing of reputable intelligence about Putin’s plans, had the effect of substantially mitigating the effectiveness of Putin’s well-established routine of disinformation. Senior Biden officials dominated the public narrative, speaking openly and specifically about the details of Putin’s troop build-ups and describing both the measured steps the United States and allies were taking in response and the reasons for them. It was a sharp contrast to prior administrations’ reliance on inference and opacity.
The Biden administration also took unprecedented steps in its approach to multilateralism. In addition to convening extensive meetings by NATO, the UN, and similar multilateral organizations, the United States also encouraged European states to engage with Putin directly in order to try to dissuade him. This tactic not only empowered European allies but let them see that the United States was not the aggressor or instigator in the Ukraine dispute.
Beyond rhetoric, the United States sent U.S. troops to NATO nations in Eastern Europe; rushed defensive weapons to Ukraine; and encouraged U.S. partners and allies to do the same. Unfortunately, much more of this was needed in the decade leading up to the current tragedy and these more recent measures were not enough to deter Putin from launching an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
To be sure, Putin also benefited from the inherent challenges in building a coalition to oppose Russian aggression. While the U.S government consistently warned about Putin’s plans for an invasion, some Western allies expressed a stubborn skepticism. Many countries were slow to accept the possibility that Putin was massing troops on the Ukrainian border to invade, not just to conduct coercive negotiations with a view to gaining strategic and political concessions from the West. While the United States and its allies spent time debating the question of whether the priority was to prepare for and deter a Russian invasion on the one hand, or, on the other, to engage Putin to try to resolve differences and deescalate, the absence of a consensus played into Russia’s hands. Russia was able to control the pace and scale of escalation.
As a result, Biden had to devote as much energy to maintaining allied unity as he did to determining the nature and timing of sanctions in the event of an invasion. Putin, meanwhile, simply denied any aggressive intentions, went through the motions of negotiating with NATO countries, and spent weeks improving his tactical position on the ground. While the United States promised severe and wide-ranging sanctions, Putin knew that key European states preferred far narrower and more modest measures.
When an authoritarian leader is on the move, trying to second-guess his true objectives wastes time and creates division among allies, weakening collective efforts against the autocrat. Further, amassing tens of thousands of troops on the border of another sovereign nation constitutes in itself a gross violation of international norms and ought to be treated as if it were in fact the prelude to an illegal and illegitimate act of war. Otherwise, acts of overt coercion become normalized rather than being immediately condemned.
In particular, we already know what Xi and Putin want; therefore, their actions should be seen clearly as steps toward their objectives. Putin seeks the reversal of the East European status quo that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. Xi seeks to take Taiwan, then unravel the strategic order in Asia that was created after the Second World War. Both, if the opportunity arises, will use force to achieve these aims.
Applying the Lessons
How, then, can we build on our response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, sharpen it, and apply it to the Indo-Pacific region? A template should possess several key features.
First, the United States can expand its support for countering Chinese disinformation. A notable success in Biden’s approach to dealing with Putin’s disinformation has been his administration’s tactic of publicly releasing sensitive information on everything from Russia’s military build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border to its plans for various “false flag” operations. The intent has been to reveal Putin’s moves before they could be put into action, deprive him of his customary surprise and ambiguity, and mobilize public opinion against Russia’s actions. Taking a page from this playbook, the United States should publicly discuss Beijing’s mobilization of military assets and paramilitary forces against other states, its endemic interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, and its flagrant violations of international law. Doing so might not halt particular Chinese activities but can rally international support behind a more vigorous set of responses.
Next, Washington can prepare a list of the punitive sanctions it would impose on Beijing in a crisis. In the lead-up to the Ukraine invasion, there was an intense debate over whether to deploy crippling sanctions before Putin moved, as a deterrent, or afterward, as a punishment. There had also been a robust effort by multiple countries to draw up a list of possible economic targets, rank their severity, and synchronize imposition to maximize their effect. To have any hope of success in the future against a much more powerful economic opponent, such measures will have to be more severe than anything yet contemplated and will have to be acted on earlier. They will also require coordination ahead of time, as their utilization would have larger consequences for U.S. and allied economies.
Third, any nation concerned about China’s coercive activities will have to stockpile critical supplies. As Russia moved on Ukraine, it threatened to cut off European access to gas supplies. America responded by reaching out to other major gas-producing nations and companies to pull together alternative options for increasing gas production and delivering it to Europe. In the past, China has restricted other countries’ access to critical minerals when it was displeased with their political decisions. Prudence suggests sourcing such critical supplies elsewhere—in particular, building up strategic reserves of rare-earth minerals, energy supplies, and medical equipment to mitigate the threat that China could pose to those supply chains.
Moreover, frontline states need to build their military capabilities before the fighting starts. As Russia positioned its military, the United States, Britain, and others rushed to airlift sensors, weapons, and ammunition to Ukraine to help the Ukrainians defend themselves against invasion and make an attack as lethal as possible for the Russians. For frontline states in Asia, especially Taiwan but also the Philippines and Vietnam, acquiring and storing enough weapons, ammunition, spares, supplies, and fuel in advance of a conflict would increase these countries’ capacity to resist incursions. Helping them acquire certain types of weaponry, particularly short-range anti-air and anti-ship defenses, would make it substantially more painful for them to be swallowed by another country. Ukraine’s experience should accelerate efforts by Asia’s frontline states to acquire such capabilities—and for their friends to help provide them.
Finally, allied initiatives to increase and diversify their presence and diversify their posture around the Indo-Pacific region must accelerate. As Russia massed its military on Ukraine’s borders, America sent reinforcements to its allies Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania and sent an infantry battalion task force to the Baltic states. The Baltic states themselves have sent weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Britain announced it was doubling its presence in Estonia, sending RAF Typhoon fighter jets and Royal Navy warships to the Mediterranean and boosting Royal Marines in Poland. Also, several other NATO member states, including Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain, announced that they would deploy additional fighter aircraft and naval assets to Eastern Europe in order to increase their forward presence in the area and reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. Such moves are intended as a show of strength in the face of provocation and as a move to help contain any fighting that breaks out. A build-up will also be needed to support the fighting inside Ukraine, because supply routes and havens for fighters will invariably run through its neighbors.
Efforts like these, with the aim of increasing forward presence in the Indo-Pacific and distributing this presence more broadly, have been under way for a number of years—but have yet to yield meaningful results. The United States should begin rotating more of its resources into the region, as it has many times said it would. Japan and Australia can also begin to reinforce their projection capabilities—along Japan’s southern island chain and across northern Australia—in a way that would reinforce the Indo-Pacific’s eastern and southern perimeters.
In fact, the often heard lament that Asia lacks a collective security regime like NATO could be a blessing in disguise. The absence of a NATO removes the need for consensus, which can be unsuited to the fast-paced maneuvering of China. The United States does not need agreement from all of its formal bilateral treaty allies—Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand—before a strategy is adopted and executed. It is enough that those with the will and capability step up, which would in time tilt the balance more favorably and encourage others to follow suit.
No Time to Waste
To have any chance of success against a powerful authoritarian state bent on asserting its own sphere of influence, nations must act early and in concert. This will not be an automatic process that arises naturally as nations sense a growing challenge; rather, it needs to be the result of a decision that is actively chosen by countries that act as if they were already in crisis. Where the power imbalances are stark, as they are with China and its neighbors, coalition-building is especially critical.
In the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has mustered, coordinated, and led a European and, indeed, a global response. Planning and coordination must begin now for a similar crisis in Asia as it could be too late to take meaningful action when that crisis is occurring. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the knowledge of an imminent hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind; that is our situation now in the Indo-Pacific, with a number of current crises precipitated by Beijing’s aggressive and destabilizing activities against the territorial integrity and sovereign independence of the Philippines, India, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan.
Some of the initiatives can and, indeed, should begin happening now. Others will take longer; still others may be undertaken only in extremis. Actions undertaken under duress can of course have value; the United States and others have shown admirable creativity during the crisis in Ukraine. But actions taken before a crisis becomes acute and threatens to spread stand an even greater chance of success.
Charles Edel is Australia chair and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was previously a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the U.S. secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff.
John Lee is a non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. From 2016 to 2018, he was senior national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister.
Image: Golden Bridge (Vietnamese: Cầu Vàng), near Da Nang, Vietnam
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