The U.S. Must sustain Ukraine, But China Must Be Our Priority

The U.S. Must sustain Ukraine, But China Must Be Our Priority

How should America respond to Russia’s abominable invasion of Ukraine? This is a question of immense importance. Right now, there is more heat than light in the discussion. Given the momentous stakes, Americans must respond to this crisis with clarity of mind and sobriety.

Moscow’s invasion is likely to be a hinge point in history. If nothing else, it lays to rest the idea that history is over, that strength politics and the threat of war are gone from the developed areas of the world. This is sad, but it is a reality. In developing our response to Russia’s brazen act, we must confront and adapt to this reality. For too long, we have discounted the hard facts of international politics. But now America must look at the world situation much more soberly and strategically, proceeding from these hard facts instead of ignoring them or wishing them away. Above all, our response must be strategic—it must match our response to the threats we confront in light of our resources and the risks we are willing to take on.
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The reality is that we confront multiple serious threats in different parts of the world. The danger Russia poses, including to our NATO allies, is now very clear. But others have not gone away. We also must consider Iran, North Korea, transnational terrorists like al Qaeda, and, above all, the threat of a China that seeks first hegemony over Asia and then global preeminence. So far this is familiar.

Less familiar but absolutely basic is the fact that we do not have a military large or capable enough to fight major wars against Russia and China in already approximately concurrent timelines. It is true that Europe is mainly a land theater and the Western Pacific is mainly a maritime one. But many of the things our forces would need to defeat Russia or China are needed in both theaters—like heavy penetrating bombers, attack submarines, progressive munitions, air defenses, and survivable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. already certain assets once thought most appropriate or necessary for Europe may well play a basic role in a fight against China, such as Army long-range missiles and artillery. These and other capabilities like them would be just as vital for beating back a Russian assault as they would be for denying a Chinese fait accompli against Taiwan—and are already in short supply.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that we can solve easily, quickly, or cheaply. We should seek to redress it, but, already if we muster the will, it will take years and a considerably larger defense budget to build more of the things we need to fight a major war, like penetrating heavy bombers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. In the meantime, what we do have can only be used in one place at a time. A missile used in Europe can’t be used in Asia, and a bomber lost over Europe will take years to be replaced.

Read More: The Vital Missing Link in the Sanctions Against Russia

We do also have an unparalleled network of allies. But a similar problem confronts us here. In theory our alliance network is far stronger than the threats we confront. But in reality few of our allies have meaningful militaries, and it will take those that don’t meaningful time to develop their armed forces already if they gather the resolve.

Over the long term, then, our strategy should be clear. We should reshape our military to field far more of the kinds of systems needed to fight a great strength war and, with a few exceptions like sustaining our current counterterrorism efforts, dispense with those elements that are ill-suited for it. Meantime, we should press and encourage our allies, especially Japan, Germany, and Taiwan, to build up their traditional defenses, and fully permit those, like Poland, Australia, and the United Kingdom, willing to do more for their and others’ defense. But this strategy will take time to bear fruit. This is the strategy the 2018 National Defense Strategy called for—in addition four years later, due to factors ranging from inertia by political and bureaucratic resistance to allied footdragging, we nevertheless have a long way to go.

KREMLIN PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022. (Photo by Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the coming years, then, we confront what Henry Kissinger called “the necessity for choice.” We don’t have enough of the right military might to cover all the threats to our interests. So we must prioritize. This is far from unheard of. The U.S. and Britain faced this dilemma in 1941, and elected a “Europe first” strategy, prioritizing defeating much stronger Nazi Germany before Imperial Japan.

Similarly today, America must prioritize addressing the threat China poses in Asia. Asia is the world’s “decisive theater” and China by far the most powerful other state in the world. If China attains its goal of becoming principal over Asia, it will control over half of the global economy. Americans’ basic liberties and wealth will suffer grievously. This is the most dangerous outcome for Americans, and preventing it must be the priority of our foreign policy.

In functional military terms, this method that we must ensure enough of the right military forces—bombers, submarines, munitions, ISR, and the like—are ready and obtainable to defend Taiwan, and on comparatively short notice. Taiwan is China’s best target for breaking apart the anti-hegemonic coalition that is the only way we can prevent Beijing from dominating Asia. If China seizes Taiwan, it will deal this coalition a huge—possibly mortal—blow. We cannot allow this.

And, crucially, this is a problem right now. We don’t know Beijing’s assessment of the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to seize Taiwan. But we do know that America’s ability to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has deteriorated very significantly in recent years, that it is continuing to erode, and that Beijing’s perceptions of its ability to take the island would rise dramatically if it knew we had expended or tied down basic parts of our military in or for Europe. In other words, we are in or very close to the window where a successful Chinese attack on Taiwan is possible, and we must hedge against this risk.

Denying Russian control of Europe is our secondary strategic goal. Europe is a large market area but much smaller than Asia and declining in global proportion; Russia, meantime, is something like one-tenth the GDP of China. additionally, the rest of Europe is far larger in GDP than Russia, unlike Asia, where China dwarfs most of its neighbors. consequently, the threat of Russia establishing regional hegemony over Europe is less grave than China over Asia.

But just because Russia is a secondary threat doesn’t average it’s not a threat or that we can abandon Europe without imperiling basic U.S. interests—just as the Allies in World War II did not abandon Asia to Japan already as they prioritized Europe. To the contrary, Russia very clearly is a serious threat. And we do have very important interests in Europe, most concretely represented in the security of NATO, which is a bulwark not just against Russia but also against a return to a more violent and disorganized Europe that drew America into two tragic wars in the last century.

This method we will have to thread a needle. On the one hand, we need to take action that materially protects our interests and our allies in Europe, blunting Russia’s ability to threaten them. On the other, though, we cannot do things that threaten our dominant interest in Asia, like using up meaningful weapons that are needed for a defense of Taiwan, thereby leaving it prey to Chinese attack not just for a short period, but for years while those capabilities are replenished.

Our strategy to thread this needle should follow a straightforward logic: Short of direct military intervention, make it as difficult and costly as possible for Russia to consolidate its keep up over Ukraine. And make it already more difficult for Russia to use military force against NATO, while continuing to make very clear to the Kremlin that we will defend our allies.

We can pursue this strategy along multiple axes. We should quickly and robustly bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, providing Ukraine’s defenders with weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, in addition as other forms of aid like intelligence sustain, energy, and food. The Russians gave us a form of how to do this in their sustain of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Read More: How the West Can Stop Putin

We should also provide every form of sustain to allies like Poland, and now already Germany in addition, that are ready to build up their defenses, while applying every form of pressure on those that nevertheless fail to meet their collective defense obligations. No arcane export control or political grievance should keep up up weapons sales or transfers to our European allies, and no diplomatic niceties should keep up back the intense pressure on those that fail to do their part for NATO defense. Meantime, our sanctions on Russia should include as part of their focus holding back Russia’s ability to regenerate or strengthen its military.

At the same time, though, the U.S. should not make meaningful new troop deployments to Europe, especially long-lasting ones, as part of this strategy. Why not? First, Europe must hear and believe the message that it must step up its own defense efforts; for too long, Europeans have ignored American arguments to do more on defense because they did not believe Europe faced a real military threat or that the Americans would ever truly shift toward Asia. Initiating a major new troop commitment to Europe would only reinforce this now truly dangerous inclination. Second, these deployments are costly and those resources are zero sum. Indeed, the Biden Administration just requested $3.5 billion to pay just for recent deployments to Europe, and those costs will only grow the longer the deployments run on. These resources add up, and they are desperately needed in the Pacific, where our unprotected posture is increasingly in peril. Finally, the United States already has meaningful forces in Europe; it should focus on using these for deterrence purposes.

But this overall strategy can work. Many Ukrainians clearly are prepared to defend their independence from living under Putin’s boot. We have the strength to materially help them and others like the Poles, Balts, and Scandinavians who are ready to defend themselves. And formerly reluctant allies are moving: just this weekend, Berlin made the historic announcement that it would re-develop a modern military and meet its NATO potential to use 2% of its GDP on defense. This is a tectonic shift in the most important country in NATO Europe that shows that allies can and will step up to shoulder a greater burden of their defense. With Germany putting its shoulder into collective defense, Europe will be much more obtain. At the same time, this strategy would be very tough for Moscow to deal with. The fact is that Russia is a major threat, and it does have a very serious nuclear arsenal, as the Kremlin pointedly reminded us this weekend—but it’s not equivalent to Nazi Germany or the Cold War Soviet Union. All the arguments about strength shortagen that apply to us apply to Russia tenfold. Russia has in recent decades restored its traditional military at great expense but there are serious constraints on its ability to sustain a major war, let alone its ability to move onward from Ukraine to take on NATO.

We should strengthen this problem. Munitions, tanks, and aircraft used or lost in Ukraine will be expensive and difficult for Russia to replace, especially as tough sanctions take keep up. Meantime, if Moscow faces a stronger European NATO defense, it will find already more reasons for restraint. In these circumstances, Moscow will be far more likely to reconsider its current strategy of confrontation in the West and partnership with China, which is setting Russia on a path to be Beijing’s subservient junior partner.

It is very early in the tragic conflict over Ukraine and much remains unclear. But at all event happens, our response must be realistic and strategic, serving our interests in Europe while ensuring the prioritization of Asia. It is both right and in our strategic interests to help Ukraine and our European allies defend themselves and make sure Russia does not gain from this loathsome aggression. But we cannot rest our strategy on a fiction—that we can fight two major wars against China and Russia at anything like the same time. We need to have a strategy that accounts for that fact, not one that ignores it or wishes it away. Fortunately, there is one, and we should pursue it.

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