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Acting too aggressively on Ukraine may endanger it — and Taiwan

Get Ukraine horribly wrong, and a true strategic nightmare could result.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address in Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)

As Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s eastern border, prominent politicians and policymakers are urging the White House to defend Ukraine more assertively. Some claim the stakes justify escalation with a nuclear peer. But others argue that America’s broader “credibility” is on the line: If the United States fails to check Russian aggression against Ukraine, the argument goes, it may embolden China to invade Taiwan.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former military leader of NATO, asserts that “China will be watching U.S. support to Ukraine, and it will inform their calculus regarding Taiwan.” Making concessions to Russia would deal a “blow” to “U.S. credibility from Kyiv to Taipei,” warns Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) likewise worries that if the United States acts too passively toward Russia, “China would conclude, ‘Boy, the West sure isn’t going to come to the aid of Taiwan if we were to do something on Taiwan.’”

Such arguments are doubly mistaken, at once misdiagnosing the Ukraine crisis and getting the Taiwan connection backward. What has brought about a crisis for the United States over Ukraine is not so much passivity as a legacy of overexertion, more of which would pose acute dangers. A better path lies in the live-and-let-live approach through which the United States has managed the potentially explosive issue of Taiwan. Right now, though, the United States is degrading that policy just when it needs it most, increasing the risk of a showdown over Taiwan akin to the one in Ukraine.

Threatening to invade Ukraine will help Putin at home. Actually invading won’t.

The present crisis has its roots in a long-brewing contest over Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine became independent but for decades joined neither with Russia nor with the West. The United States, for its part, expanded its NATO alliance but initially sidestepped Ukraine. It recognized that Russia, sharing deep ties and a 1,426-mile land border with Ukraine, might oppose such a move by force. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” William J. Burns, then U.S. ambassador to Russia and current CIA director, cabled from Moscow in 2008. “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

Later that year, however, President George W. Bush pressured NATO to pledge that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” Although momentum toward membership stalled for multiple reasons, Ukraine pursued an association agreement with the European Union that moved more quickly. When, in 2014, Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity replaced a Russian-oriented government with a pro-Western one, Russia swiftly annexed Crimea, home to its Black Sea naval base, and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s moves were aggressive, unjustified and destabilizing. They were also responses to Ukraine’s efforts to join the West. In parallel with an expanding E.U., NATO had already undergone three rounds of enlargement, extending across Eastern Europe and ballooning its ranks from 16 members in 1991 to 28 by 2014.

U.S. policy since then has reinforced the problem. Although Ukraine’s candidacy to join NATO is lagging, Secretary of State Tony Blinken affirmed in June that the United States continues to “support Ukraine’s membership in NATO.” The United States also has provided the country $2.5 billion of security assistance and helped to train the Ukrainian army. By sustaining the possibility of Ukraine’s close alignment with the West, U.S. actions exacerbate the concerns that triggered Russia’s condemnable, but predictable, incursions.

To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in the current crisis are difficult to discern. He may turn out to be bent on war, whether for strategic purposes or to regain the prize that Ukraine represents in Russia’s national narrative. But the United States must also understand that flirting with a security commitment for Ukraine helped to bring that country under threat.

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What should the United States do now? For inspiration, it can look to another geopolitical problem: Taiwan. In the 1970s, the United States changed its approach toward Taiwan to one it and China could both tolerate. To do so, Washington acknowledged Beijing’s position that only “one China” exists (while papering over which government should rule Taiwan). The United States then imposed limits on its alignment with Taipei, terminating a treaty obligating it to defend the island and declining to integrate it into the formal U.S. alliance system. This did not mean giving Beijing a blank check: The United States opposed any effort by China (or Taiwan) to alter the status quo by force and sold weapons to Taiwan for self-defense. Together, these measures have helped to preserve peace for decades.

As the United States respected China’s red lines over Taiwan, so should it respect Russia’s long-standing red lines on Ukraine by keeping the country from entering too closely into the Western orbit. First, the Biden administration should openly state that Ukraine will not join NATO. Such opposition by the United States would obviously foreclose the possibility of Ukrainian membership, even if NATO does not accept Russia’s demands to formally bar other countries from ever joining. Other NATO allies long opposed to Ukrainian membership, including Germany and France, could amplify the pledge.

Meanwhile, the United States could agree not to place troops in Ukraine. It could also maintain its present policy of limiting arms sales to Kyiv and refocus its military assistance on professionalizing Ukrainian forces. Depriving Ukraine of armaments would weaken its defenses against Russia, but these are unlikely ever to be sufficient in the face of a committed Russian invasion. An international agreement to respect Ukraine’s independence would be a sounder defense. It would also make sense for Washington to try to rekindle negotiations to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

These measures, paired with the threat of further economic sanctions, stand a chance of defusing the present crisis. Even were this course of action to fail, it would nevertheless disentangle the United States from the conflict and help to avoid the outcome truly unacceptable for U.S. interests — a war with Russia. Such a war would cause untold casualties. And Russia, with greater interests in Ukraine, and thus a higher tolerance for risk, might well win.

American involvement in a war for Ukraine might also have broader consequences: It could damage peace in Asia. Many factors inform Beijing’s calculations toward Taiwan; events in Ukraine are unlikely to be decisive. But if it were to fight for Ukraine, or even just threaten to do so, the United States could give China more incentive to be belligerent rather than restrained. Although Beijing would see that the United States is willing to fight, it would also see Washington pushing to revise existing geopolitical arrangements without regard for the vital interests of other powers. China might then fear that Taiwan would be next. Left with less reassurance, Beijing also could face reduced deterrents, if conflict with Russia absorbed American resources and attention.

In recent years, moreover, the United States has been degrading its own effective policy toward Taiwan. By increasing contacts with Taiwanese officials and inviting Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, the United States has chipped away at the “one China” policy. This month, a U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs called Taiwan “critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests,” suggesting that Taiwan lies within America’s defense perimeter and must not ever reunify with China. Members of Congress are pushing for a greater U.S. commitment and have even proposed to pre-authorize the president to use force to defend the island.

Get Ukraine horribly wrong, and a true strategic nightmare could result: two crises, and perhaps two wars, against two great powers at once. Ironically, the United States would have gotten there for fear of facing exactly the dual catastrophes it brought about.

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A better alternative is available: Support Ukraine’s independence through diplomatic and economic statecraft, but neither intervene nor attempt to anchor Ukraine to the West. President Biden has taken a positive step by stating that the use of force by the United States “is not in the cards.” Yet, publicly accepting limits, and sticking to them, runs counter to much recent U.S. foreign policy, as demonstrated by U.S. actions toward Ukraine and Taiwan alike.

Even if the latest confrontation is defused, the United States is setting itself up for grave crises in the future. Do Americans really wish to risk war with other great powers, near those countries’ borders and over issues of questionable importance to America’s security and prosperity? If the answer is no, the United States should halt the expansionist drift of its post-Cold War policies. The only frontiers left to cross are wrapped in bright red lines. Behind them lies ruin.

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