What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
Kyiv is still standing. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still leading. Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, has still not brought Ukraine to its knees.
Contrary to the grim predictions and prognoses of Ukraine’s fate by many analysts, the Russian military has underperformed, and Ukrainian forces have repeatedly proved their mettle. Ukrainians have inflicted devastating losses on the Russian invaders, dominated the information war, and inspired significant action on the part of the international community, which had demonstrated relative apathy toward Ukraine in the eight years since Putin first invaded the country. It is impossible to overstate the significance of, among other things, the monumental surge in transatlantic unity, the about-face in Germany’s hitherto pacifistic foreign policy, the raft of new anticorruption measures enacted by Western democracies, and the renewed interest from Finland and Sweden in NATO membership.
All of these developments, however, trace back to Ukrainian resolve in the face of Russian aggression. In recent years, the world has been locked in a struggle between democracy and resurgent authoritarianism. Ukraine’s victory over Russia could prove to be a turning point in this struggle.
Yet Ukraine cannot hold out on its own. The Kremlin has suffered catastrophic losses in terms of personnel, vehicles, and equipment, but the Russian military has significant reserves to replenish its forces. Meanwhile, Ukraine will run short of fuel, ammunition, antitank weapons, air defense systems, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), and aircraft long before its manpower is exhausted or its morale breaks.
Ukraine cannot hold out on its own.
Western democracies have the necessary resources to close this gap and ensure that Ukraine prevails. Talk of supporting a hypothetical Ukrainian insurgency is premature and counterproductive while the Ukrainian army and territorial defense battalions remain far from defeated. To give those forces a fighting chance, Washington and its allies should establish a lend-lease program modeled on the one that provided arms and assistance to U.S. allies in Europe during World War II. This program would allow the United States and other NATO members to loan or give aid to Ukraine at little or no cost; such aid could include medium- and long-range air defense systems, antitank weapons (beyond the Javelins that have already been provided), advanced extended-range antiarmor capabilities, coastal defense systems, high mobility artillery, and critically important UCAVs. Kyiv could also benefit from systems that could be leased from the United States and its allies, albeit with the understanding that the weapons and equipment would not necessarily be returned after the war.
Ironically, the chief beneficiary of the original lend-lease program was the government in Moscow: at the time, the Soviet Union was a bulwark in the fight against fascism. Today, however, the Kremlin has become a fascist threat, and it is Ukraine that is leading the charge to defend Europe—a fight that the world cannot afford to let the Ukrainians lose.
A new lend-lease program would expedite the transfer of much-needed lethal aid and equipment to Ukrainian defenders. Establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine may be too provocative, but if the West is unwilling to stage that sort of intervention, then it ought to supply Ukraine with the tools it needs to control the skies itself, including ones that would allow Ukraine to strike Russian warehouses or staging areas holding aircraft, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles beyond Ukraine’s borders. This would include UCAVs with air-to-surface and air-to-air capabilities, as well as fighter jets, such as the MiG-29s and Su-25s that Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia had proposed to transfer to Ukraine before backtracking for reasons that remain unclear. (Unconfirmed media reports suggest that Washington may have pressured those countries to reverse course.) If NATO members express concerns over transferring fighter jets because of potential gaps in their own air defenses, then the United States and NATO should step in to provide donors with advanced air defense capabilities and more modern fighters, with corresponding training.
The long-term aim of a lend-lease arrangement would be to create stockpiles of military aid along Ukraine’s borders. Ideally, any time Ukraine would submit a request for support, the necessary materiel would be readily available for transport rather than subject to a lengthy procurement process. The most daunting hurdle to this proposal would likely be the initial stages of passing legislation and coordinating plans with allies. But bureaucracy should not stand in the way of waging an existential fight for democracy. Historically, providing aid to Ukraine has been a strong point of bipartisan cooperation, and majorities in both parties understand the importance of Ukraine’s victory in this war. Therefore, the Biden administration is well positioned to mobilize bipartisan support for a new Lend-Lease Act, much as President Franklin Roosevelt did in 1941 despite isolationist opposition. Doing so could even provide a rallying point for Washington after years of domestic polarization.
For such a plan to succeed, officials in Washington and in European capitals must not become paralyzed by a sense of defeatism as they listen to doomsayers foretell the fall of Kyiv, Zelensky’s death, and Putin’s subjection of Ukraine to the brutal measures he used to level Grozny during the Chechen wars and Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. War is unpredictable; nothing in this fight is predetermined. A narrative of inevitable Ukrainian defeat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Washington and its allies must not shrink from taking the actions that will help now in favor of steps that might be helpful only after Ukraine has already fallen. It is still well within the West’s ability to influence the outcome of this war; Western leaders must realize the agency they hold.
A narrative of inevitable Ukrainian defeat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another barrier to a new lend-lease agreement would be posed by the frequent overestimation of the risks involved in arms transfers to Ukraine. In confronting Russian aggression for the past two decades, Western policymakers have generally chosen to reduce short-term risks at the expense of long-term stability. This approach directly contributed to the catastrophe currently unfolding in Ukraine. The truth is that there are no risk-free options right now, and the longer the West waits, the worse the options will become. Accepting the risks of escalation now will prevent the need to confront greater risks in the future.
Putin has menacingly invoked Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a warning to the United States and its allies to stay out of the war. But ending this conflict as quickly as possible by directing massive resources to Ukraine is more likely to preclude a NATO-Russian confrontation than to hasten nuclear war. This does not mean the West should be reckless. But it is important to keep in mind that deconfliction channels, incentives among the military establishments on both sides, and the widespread acceptance of the idea that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought would all reduce the likelihood of a doomsday scenario.
Existing pledges on the part of Western democracies to provide Ukraine with antitank weapons, man-portable air defense systems, small arms, body armor, and munitions are necessary but insufficient to meet the demands of the battlefield. Moreover, although the Biden administration has formally asked Congress for $10 billion to support Ukraine, only a fraction of this sum will be earmarked for increased lethal aid, and it remains unclear if this aid will include the kinds of capabilities Ukraine desperately needs. Reacting to events on the ground with a steady stream of Band-Aids is not a sustainable strategy, and help that arrives only at the eleventh hour will be too late. A new Lend-Lease Act would help resolve this issue by codifying a long-term aid program of the kind that has been painfully absent throughout the entirety of Putin’s eight-year war on Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is shaping up to be a protracted struggle because the Russian military has been unable to quickly achieve its objectives. Ukrainians are resisting in battle and through civil disobedience and protests. Morale will be a decisive factor. Despite immense destruction and suffering in Ukraine, the flight of more than a million refugees from the country, and the Russian military’s despicable war crimes, Ukrainians are holding firm in their belief that they will prevail. In contrast, the Russian economy is imploding without any prospects for relief, and morale remains low among the Russian military. It may be too soon for optimism, but there is still reason for hope. And although hope is not a strategy, hopelessness guarantees defeat.