Early Lessons for the United States from Russia’s Second Ukraine Invasion

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the long-held assumption that states, especially powerful states, no longer invaded others in wars of territorial conquest. The war has already created profound and long-lasting impacts on the international system. It has cemented European concerns about Russia’s intentions, so long as Vladimir Putin retains influence in his government. It has reshaped concepts of how economics can be leveraged to isolate a state that flaunts international norms and signals it no longer desires to participate in the international community. There are several lessons worth pulling forward before the conclusion of the war, as countries begin redoubling their efforts to bolster their defense. There are four initial long-term lessons that can be drawn from the present conflict as governments begin to also consider conflicts that may come later.

First, alliances matter. Americans are widely supportive of U.S. alliance commitments in the world, and a bipartisan majority in Congress has defended these alliances in recent years. Despite this, there has been a simmering argument that U.S. alliance commitments in Europe are somehow at odds with U.S. security interests in Asia. The allied response to Russia’s second invasion of the Ukraine should put such a strategic rhetoric to rest. Alliances are reassured by sticking with other allies when they are threatened. As evidenced by Russia, the risk is no longer hypothetical that autocracies are willing to isolate, punish, and even invade neighbors for the audacious crime of remaining sovereign.

One of the main reasons that Ukraine has been able to hold on as long as it has is because of a concerted effort among the United States and its allies to delay Russia’s invasion. The effort included several prongs, many of which were captured in reports about how to compete against gray zone actions. These efforts include exposing Russia’s planned disinformation campaign, undertaking an integrated action both across societies—as Ukraine has done—and coordinating among allies and partners as NATO and the European Union have done.

Being patient with allies is also important. Following Russia’s initial invasion, many in Washington (and other European capitals) were calling for harsh economic consequences for Russia, such as denying it access to SWIFT. This sharply diverged from NATO’s stance that it would not become militarily involved in a non-member state’s conflict with Russia. Leaders in Germany and Italy were unsure of the consequences to their own economies from taking such actions and so were reluctant to charge ahead. There have been times in living memory when such reticence from an ally would have resulted in standoffishness and remonstrations from Washington. Instead, the Biden administration and its allies maintained steady dialogue and allowed the severity of Russia’s invasion to become clear to the European public. Within 48 hours, countries on both continents were unified in removing Russia from SWIFT—and indeed far more dramatic steps.

Second, leadership matters. Strong leadership is has preserved Ukraine’s will to fight and galvanized the world to stand against an unprovoked invasion. First, good leadership can come from surprising places. Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, is the president of Ukraine. Few believed he would be able to lead Ukraine successfully to avoid annexation by Russia. Instead, not only has he galvanized a strong public armed defense of Ukraine, his diplomacy created one of the most unifying moments in European history: collective resistance to Russia’s second invasion of his country.

The United States, the European Union, and NATO have been similarly well led. Focusing on diplomacy first, setting clear parameters for success and engagement, each nation has worked effectively to promote individual and shared interests. The United States has led through early and continuous diplomatic efforts to unify the coalition’s support to Ukraine. NATO and EU countries have increasingly focused on identifying ways to support Ukraine through humanitarian efforts and the provision of military equipment Ukraine can use to defend itself. The European Union led with its strongest suit: economic tools. In a surprise to many, the European Union also expanded its engagement to include military support to Ukraine.

Third, unity matters. Avoiding “my way or the highway” ultimatums has allowed states to come around to policy proposals on their own (surprisingly rapid) timelines. The NATO-EU consensus on Russia has allowed both organizations to present a strong, united front in the face of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. This combination of multilateral alliances (one military, the other political and economic) and effective and supple leadership has enabled the most robust response since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Even historically neutral states, such as Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, have taken actions to support both Ukraine and the principle of sovereignty that Russia is ignoring. Calm, steady diplomacy allowed states to make decisions based on their own interests and values, without forcing European leaders to appear subject to a dictate from Washington.

Finally, preparing for the future matters. Comparisons between Ukraine’s and Taiwan’s situations began shortly after Russia’s troops began massing in Belarus. Analysts who know Asia well can attest that Taiwan has pushed back on those comparisons. Taiwan, which has been self-governed since 1949, has a long tradition of democracy, rule of law, and a political culture independent of its larger neighbor. Last year, China’s leader Xi Jinping noted that China has not ruled out the use of force to compel Taiwan to politically reunify with mainland China. Should China take a step as disastrous as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is unlikely that the world would have a similarly long buildup to weigh options. Taiwan will also not have the benefit of a long land border with a sympathetic state like Ukraine does with Poland.

To avert a potentially similar disaster in Taiwan, efforts should be redoubled to bolster Taiwan’s defenses, learning lessons from Ukraine and applying them in Taiwan’s context. Several initial lessons stand out. First, small, mobile, and distributed forces with effective (enough) hardware can be very successful. Ukrainian forces equipped with Javelin missiles—and sometimes TOW missiles—are credited with destroying numerous Russian tanks and other vehicles. The same concept could apply to Taiwan’s efforts to slow mainland China’s ships, aircraft, and eventual land vehicles. Second, preparations must precede the onset of the crisis. Particularly since Taiwan is an island, it must have stores of equipment—including necessary humanitarian equipment—on hand before a conflict begins. Third, international response in Ukraine has been rapid in part because it leveraged existing cooperation mechanisms (NATO and the European Union) to rapidly develop consensus. Taiwan lacks land access to supportive countries, and Asia has no extant multilateral defense body with the experience necessary to provide such a rapid response. Maintaining strong diplomatic, economic, and defense connections among regional states will be critical to developing and executing effective international response plans should crisis strike.

Lessons from Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from Russia’s invasion are still emerging. The world should not wait to start working toward providing solutions to the clearest issues from Ukraine to avoid a similar situation in Asia. The United States can and should begin working toward these elements now.

John Schaus is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

John Schaus
Senior Fellow, International Security Program