China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles on display during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

As the Ukraine war approaches its eighth week, it has become conventional wisdom that Russia’s debacle will serve as a cautionary tale for China vis-à-vis Taiwan. At minimum, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will conduct a thorough internal review of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), ensuring it avoids the difficulties Russia has encountered, and buying the West valuable years to arm the island-republic and coordinate a coherent strategy. 

At best, in is assumed, the Kremlin’s failure will eliminate the Zhongnanhai’s ambitions, demonstrating the risks of military action – particularly the economic risks – far outweigh the rewards of conquest.

These assumptions confirm an unfounded Western bias. In fact, the CPC will take one major lesson from the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Mild nuclear threats are enough to set the terms of engagement and blunt American intervention. Vladimir Putin’s core success in brandishing merely the scabbard of a nuclear sword over Ukraine will embolden Xi Jinping’s CPC.

Both Taiwan and Ukraine are small powers at the blurred edge of the US defense perimeter menaced by a great-power American rival. While Ukraine was solidly beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Taiwan lacks a concrete military commitment beyond US President Joe Biden’s televised gaffe in October 2021. 

With both Taiwan and Ukraine, the hostile great power aims to absorb the target state in toto, and is unlikely to accept Finlandization. Conquest is the objective, military force the means.

Russia’s confidence in Ukraine stemmed from severe miscalculation verging on strategic irrationality. The Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin’s pet KGB clone, was responsible for intelligence collection on the invasion. It is secret police, not an external intelligence agency, making its assessments self-flattering and nationally chauvinistic. 

Indeed, Russia’s logistical issues have blunted the invasion, but had Russian intelligence informed the Kremlin of the actual state of Ukrainian morale and military capabilities, Putin would have directed a very different plan, one that emphasized maskirovka, speed, decision, and concentration over Russia’s six distinct axes of advance. 

Regardless, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CPC elite may conduct an audit of the PLA and Chinese intelligence agencies, ensuring they do not repeat the mistakes of their Russian counterparts.

Russian failure in Ukraine, however, has obfuscated a central Russian success. It failed on the battlefield but succeeded in shaping the terms of escalation.

The Kremlin’s nuclear threats are a well-established element of Russian military policy that has perplexed Western observers for the better part of a decade. Terminological formulations differ: escalate-to-deescalate, escalate-to-terminate, the crude escalate-to-win. However, these formulations dance around the central point. Russia’s purpose is to control escalation through its nuclear threats.

Kinetic or otherwise, the conflict should be understood as an activity waged in stages, albeit stages that often bleed into each other. As it stands, Russia is fighting a limited war with the West. All limited wars have terms that bound each combatant’s actions. 

Russia is allowed to use virtually unlimited force in Ukraine, although unconventional weapons – chemical, biological and nuclear – seem off the table. Ukraine is allowed similar levels of force, although its capabilities restrain it: Only twice has Ukraine conducted a confirmed attack in Russian territory. 

The US and its allies, meanwhile, may send arms to Ukraine, but must refrain from intervening kinetically. In return, Russia will not interrupt NATO arms shipments before they reach the Polish-Ukrainian border. 

As of this writing, it still appears that Russia is avoiding NATO arms convoys, although this likely stems from Russian aerial limitations and surviving Ukrainian air defenses, not escalation sensitivity.

Consistent nuclear threats have allowed the Kremlin to lock in limited war conditions that it deems favorable to its forces. Indeed, the US folded before contact, declaring well in advance of February 24 that it would not respond kinetically to an invasion of Ukraine, and that any intervention, from a “no-fly zone” upwards, would trigger “World War III,” that nebulous term Biden invokes partly because he was born in the last World War’s third year.  

Fortunately, Ukraine’s military was competent enough to withstand the Russian onslaught armed with light Western-supplied weapons. Russia need have no fear of Western intervention, despite Biden’s escalating accusations of war crimes and genocide – see, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron’s public break with Biden on this question. 

If Russia accepts Western sanctions punishment and refrains from striking arms shipments before they enter Ukrainian territory, it need not fear US or allied intervention.

The CPC will grasp this lesson. A cross-Strait conflict has a higher chance of US intervention than the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Taiwan is geographically more relevant to US strategy, given its location at the First Island Chain’s hinge. 

The US has long-standing connections with Taiwan, and the Congressional Taiwan Caucus remains the largest caucus in the US House of Representatives and has broad bipartisan membership. Moreover, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is crucial to global economic stability: the US would be loath to surrender Taiwan to the CPC for this reason alone. 

Ukraine, by contrast, is a young and poor country, with some geographic relevance, but nowhere near that of Taiwan.

It is thus of the utmost importance for the CPC to circumscribe the terms of a conflict with the US. The Zhongnanhai can win a cross-Strait conflict if the United States’ only support to Taiwan consists of arms shipments. 

Sanctions, currently unthinkable, would damage the Chinese economy, but a global recession would provide the CPC some schadenfreude. By contrast, American and allied intervention would force China to fight a general Pacific war, one that could easily spiral into an Indo-Pacific war, and thereby force China to defend three fronts simultaneously, a tall task for even the world’s most populous country.

China can thus be expected to make robust nuclear threats at the outset of a cross-Strait crisis. It has already begun to expand its nuclear arsenal and will deploy nuclear-armed submarines immediately to pressure US targets. 

If Chinese nuclear threats can preclude American intervention, the CPC can dodge the thorny question of striking the United States and its regional allies. By bounding the terms of war, China can stack the deck in its favor, potentially without firing a shot.

President Biden and/or his successors should neither remove any option if a Taiwan Strait crisis develops nor remain mute if China imitates Russia in nuclear signaling. Nuclear deterrence can be strengthened by ambiguity. It can only be weakened by an irresolute silence. 

Follow Seth Cropsey on Twitter @sethcropsey.

Seth Cropsey

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a US naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the navy, and is the author of the books Mayday and Seablindness.