In at least one respect, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been helpful to western democracies.
This is because the top brass and the political class they advise in nearly all countries usually fight the current war based upon the experience of recent past wars – invariably with poor results.
The Russian military strategists no doubt had in their minds pictures of German Panzer tanks successfully tearing across an unprepared France and the subsequent big military parades along the Champs Elysees when they planned their attack on Ukraine. They even packed the ceremonial uniforms. The Russian strategists again thought the new war would be like the immediate past war and assumed it would be just like Crimea in 2014 – march in, occupy, annex and Ukraine would not resist and the West would do nothing.
But the Russian tanks mired in the mud. The dull Russian mid-ranking officers, whose initiative and lateral thinking had been suppressed by decades of authoritarian rule, had no response. The agile, highly motivated Ukrainian defenders picked them off with a variety of nimble weapons.
The attacking Russians, on the back foot, immediately lost their morale. Morale only stays high in an attacking army if it is being successful. Once an attacking army suffers successive defeats, morale is sapped. Why are we here? What is the point of trying to capture or retain lands that are not ours?
These are questions that were posed by Napoleon’s soldiers and Hitler’s soldiers on the frozen Russian land they invaded. The answer was “that megalomaniac’s obsession”. But the Russian soldiers knew why they were there: to defend Mother Russia: not communism or Stalin. That is why a defensive army’s morale can stay high even in the face of battlefront set-backs.
Now, like Russians in 1941, Ukrainian soldiers are defending language, family, culture, and the right to live in peace without a foreign invader. Now, Russian soldiers could not care less whether Russia conquers Ukraine. Put in their situation, they just want to stay alive and be paid. Indeed, that is exactly the attitude of the Wagner mercenaries who are all that prevents a Russian meltdown.
So, this is the new face of war. The idea that a big-economy state with a big army could easily invade, subdue, occupy, and impose regime change on a smaller state took another big hit.
It had already taken a bit of a hit in the idiotic US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and interference in Vietnam.
Meanwhile back in Beijing, the top military have been doing what all upper echelons of all militaries do: they have been studying the latest war and applying it to their present situation.
And when they look at what is happening in Ukraine, they must be having renewed thoughts about the ease or difficulty with which they could take over Taiwan.
Last week, the US Congressional Research Service produced an update on the defence and military issues relating to Taiwan.
The service is a bit like Australia’s parliamentary library, producing analysis and conclusions based on accurate facts (usually to be misused by the politicians they serve).
The report on Taiwan was hard-headed, but certainly not sabre-rattling. It cites the delicate balancing role the US plays – at once both deterring China from attacking but not provoking China into that very attack.
The war in Ukraine is doing an immense amount of good on the deterrence front. Ukrainian determination and technological genius have created an asymmetrical war machine that upturns the myth that numbers and overall economic strength will always win the day.
Chinese military strategists must have viewed with horror the attack earlier this month in which a Ukrainian missile, provided by Britain, destroyed the Rostov-on-Don submarine and the large landing ship Minsk in the Black Sea port of occupied Sevastopol.
It not only showed the clumsy vulnerability of big ships against drones and missiles. It also showed something even more profound. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2021 has put at risk its 2014 gains in Crimea.
Would a mainland Chinese attack on Taiwan put at risk all of its ill-gotten gains in the South China Sea; the Belt and Road initiative; and even Hong Kong and perhaps Tibet?
The first and be-all and end-all aims of the Chinese Communist Party and its autocratic leader Xi Jinping is to stay in power. Events in Ukraine suggest that they might well think that it is better to be in power over just mainland China than risking losing power by attempting to take over Taiwan.
The other deterrent effect the Ukraine war is likely to have on China is the power of western weapons. You can have as many tests and exercises as you like, but there is nothing like effective and powerful use of weapons in real war.
The asymmetry would alarm any great power with a large army thinking about invasion of a weaker nation. The Storm Shadow missile that destroyed the Rostov-on-Don submarine cost about $2.5 million. The Rostov-on-Don itself is a Kilo-class submarine that cost about $250 million each.
As it happens, last month, the US approved another $500 million arms sale to Taiwan – tip-toeing between deterrence and provocation.
But all that said, you never know what mad autocrats sitting in echo chambers of yes-men will do.
For Australia, the wise Taiwan policy is to do nothing. Principle is an overstated virtue. Let’s continue to peacefully acknowledge the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over the island of Taiwan so they do not lose face in a way that provokes war, while hoping the example of Ukraine and US arms supplies create an effective deterrent.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 26 September 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.