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Taiwan Can’t Be the Excuse for Abandoning Ukraine

An M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank with 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires its 120 mm smoothbore cannon during a live-fire event as part of Exercise Eager Lion 2015 in Jordan, May 9, 2015. Eager Lion is a recurring multinational exercise designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships, increase interoperability between partner nations, and enhance regional security and stability. This is similar to U.S. tanks given to Ukraine. Image: Creative Commons.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols/Released)

Summary: The article critiques America’s wavering commitment to its allies, highlighting the dangerous trend of strategic and political short-sightedness. It contrasts current political divisiveness with past bipartisan efforts to support global democracy, emphasizing the erosion of reliable American promises to allies. The narrative focuses on Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, defying the Alma-Ata Protocols and the Budapest Memorandum, to underscore the importance of U.S. support for sovereign states facing existential threats. It challenges the misconception of Ukrainian culpability for Russian aggression, stressing the broader implications of Russian and Chinese territorial ambitions. The piece argues against American isolationism and the false dichotomy of prioritizing China over Ukraine, advocating for a robust defense strategy that does not compromise on supporting global democratic values. It warns that failing to support Ukraine and Taiwan equally could embolden adversaries, undermining U.S. credibility and security in the long term.

Ukraine, Taiwan, and the Test of American Resolve

Abandoning allies and strategic attention deficit disorder is becoming an American characteristic. Part of the problem is the politicization of national security. Gone are the days when President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill could reach across the aisle to do what was right for the country and its allies in the fight against tyranny and terror. Point scoring now trumps principle and American promises have an expiration date of at most eight years.

On December 21, 1991, Russia signed the Alma-Ata Protocols in which all the states of the former Soviet Union with the exception of Georgia and the Baltic states agreed to recognize their existing borders. The Kremlin, therefore, not only agreed to accept that Crimea was Ukraine, but also Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Beyond simply invading Ukraine two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin exposed his hypocrisy by lecturing Armenia on the Protocols to justify Russian peacekeeper inaction upon Azerbaijan’s September 2023 ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous Armenian population.

In 1994, the United States was a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In exchange for agreements by Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to forfeit their legacy Soviet nuclear weapons, the United States and other signatories agreed to support them should they suffer threats to their sovereignty. Even if diplomats quibble over the Budapest Memorandum text and question “what the meaning of “is is,” there should be no question about forceful U.S. support for Ukraine as it faces an existential threat. Defending sovereign states against annihilation—not oil—historically explains the U.S. decision to go to war, be it in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Bosnia, or Kosovo. Indeed, the historical exceptionalism in Ukraine is that it neither needs nor demands U.S. troops. Rather, Ukrainians are willing to embrace the onus of the fight themselves; they simply want the ammunition to do it.

The notion that the Ukrainians are somehow responsible for Russian aggression is akin to blaming the victim of domestic violence for not warming a pot roast sufficiently or for a poorly placed doorknob. In his prescient Winter is Coming, former chess grandmaster and Russian oppositionist Garry Kasparov put to rest the notion that Putin was merely reacting to Western provocation. After all, as he noted, at the end of the Cold War the West neither demanded reparations for Russia’s ravishment of Eastern Europe nor its decimation of Ukraine. Forcing the forfeit of all legacy nuclear weapons from every former Soviet republic but Russia guaranteed Russia top dog status. Add into the mix billions of dollars in aid and loan guarantees and the idea that the West was not generous in victory is perverse. 

Nor does what happens in Ukraine stay in Ukraine. Ideologically, Putin is an irredentist who believes in reconstituting the Russian empire and sphere of influence at its greatest extent. He seeks to blindfold Russians with a nationalist flag so that they do not see the fruits of his quarter-century dictatorship. The problem is every military adventure drains the treasury further, forcing a quicker return to military action. First, it was Georgia in 2008 and in 2014 and 2022, Ukraine. If the West does not draw the line, it is only a matter of time before Russians move into Moldova, northern Kazakhstan, and the Baltics, NATO or not. American isolationism does not bring peace; it simply guarantees that when the United States must fight the war, it will do so from a less advantageous position.

While many opponents to the Ukraine war couch their opposition in the false belief that aiding Ukraine diverts funds from the southern border or from their own wish list of domestic projects, some Republican internationalists – notably the Marathon Initiative’s Elbridge Colbyargue that Ukraine is an unhealthy distraction from the real threat: China.

The analogy between Russia and China is easy. Russia rejects Ukraine’s independence just as China does Taiwan’s. Americans can repeat the “One China” policy as a mantra, but even Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong acknowledged Taiwan was a different nation, deserving of independence. International law also favors Taiwan. Both Russia and China’s Communist leaders despise democracy.

Colby is right that China is a grave and growing threat that deserves U.S. focus, but he is wrong to believe that America has an either/or choice. The same isolationist forces that make excuses to stand down in the face of Russian aggression would do the same should the People’s Republic of China invade Taiwan. Indeed, the opposition to aiding Ukraine that now crystalizes in Washington two years after Russia’s invasion simply signals to Beijing that, should they launch their attack, they need only weather a response for two years before Americans lose interest. 

Colby is also wrong that China would go big on Taiwan or go home. Russia embraced China’s roadmap for territorial conquest. Rather than go big, China salami-slices, taking small islands and making claims that have cumulative impact but do not individually rise to the threshold of war. Hence, Putin began with Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk before launching his drive two years ago for Kyiv itself. China would likely begin with Pratas Island and the Dongsha Atoll, Taiwanese islands far from the mainland. Beijing would test American mettle and, as with Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, unleash influence operations on social media, pay off think tanks and universities, to catalyze American domestic opposition.

Against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war and President Bashar al-Assad’s conventional and chemical bombardments of his civilian population, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured the Middle East. He repeatedly told American allies like President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt that, while Americans hector him on human rights and threat aid, Russia even stands by their allies no matter what they do domestically. China did likewise, cultivating Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, then the target of progressive animus in the United States. When Iranian-backed militias targeted civilian airports and even the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Biden administration was silent for weeks, reinforcing the notion in the United Arab Emirates the United States was an unreliable ally. The White House may like to forget the abandonment of Afghanistan, but the rest of the world remembers. For Washington now to turn its back on Ukraine and Eastern Europe would be a blow from which the reputation of the United States would never recover. 

The question should never have been Ukraine or Taiwan, but both. If the defense budget is not large enough to tackle both crises or to match China’s military buildup, the response should not be surrender, but rather enhanced defense. Such spending may force tough choices on social service spending, but the status quo is not tenable. Failure to meet the challenge will only mean a greater cost down the road. Leadership is not appeasing partisan echo chambers, but rather reaching across the aisle to sway and prepare all Americans for the challenge that all must meet.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Rubin 

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).