11.01.23 Review

Generals Preparing for a Future War: foreign policy experts identify lessons to be learnt from the war in Ukraine

Twelve prominent analysts in the fields of military policy, international security and nuclear safety have identified lessons to be learnt from ten months of Russia’s all-out war with Ukraine for Foreign Policy. With the advent of drones and the rapid development of telecommunications, it seemed that innovative technologies and cyber warfare would no longer play a decisive role in future conflicts. Clashes on the battlefield would become of secondary importance — no longer a key feature of warfare. However, the opposite has occurred in Ukraine: as the world looks on, a large-scale conventional war is being fought, with trenches dug and different generations of artillery systems employed. In fact, innovative weapons have so far played an auxiliary role in the conflict. To add to this, the idea that economic interdependence would deter modern powers from waging war has been debunked. The deterrent potential of the doctrine of mutually assured nuclear destruction has also been called into question. These issues do not only concern Russia. An essential part of the analysis presented by FP shares lessons that the US and the Western coalition need to learn in order to prepare for a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan, which, if it occurs, may have even more unpredictable and catastrophic consequences for the world.

The primary lesson from the last ten months of the Russian invasion can be summarised as such: nuclear weapons still matter, and still play a fundamental role in shaping relations between great powers. The Foreign Policy article opens with a discussion by Graham Allison, Professor of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, who dismisses as wishful thinking any claims that Russia's nuclear arsenal is inoperable, that Putin's officers may refuse to follow orders, or that the risk of radiation spreading into Russia would be too high for the Kremlin to take.

Developed during the Cold War era, the MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine remains the backbone of global security architecture. However, it renders countries that do not have nuclear weapons or are not members of nuclear alliances particularly vulnerable. As a result, the main legacy of the war in Ukraine, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, should be the replacement of the MAD strategy with MAC (mutually assured cyber destruction). If bombs destroy ‘material’ infrastructure, then digital weapons will destroy its virtual equivalent. If such weapons were to be used, they would shut down banks, bring production to a halt, cut off supplies to pharmacies and shops, and cut off the  water and electricity supply to homes. This would be much safer than a full-scale nuclear war.

Rose Gottemoeller, Professor at Stanford University and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, writes that the world needs a Russia that does not play with nuclear escalation or threaten nuclear catastrophe. If things continue along the current trajectory, the West may soon be dealing with a very large nuclear rogue state, with a supply of thousands of warheads and the necessary missiles needed to launch them. Therefore, the main objective of US policy should be to distract Moscow from nuclear sabre-rattling and compel it to return to the more responsible role it played in controlling nuclear weapons and preventing their proliferation after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary General of NATO and founder of the Alliance of Democracies, writes that, in the absence of formal treaties, words should be chosen especially carefully. Putin's statements about the impossibility of the existence of a separate and independent Ukraine were not taken literally or seriously enough. This was a mistake, just as it is a mistake not to take China's similar statements concerning Taiwan literally. It will be impossible to prevent a war unless strong and unequivocal signals regarding the potential consequences of military intervention are sent to the potential aggressor before the start of the conflict. Putin was counting on the fact that developed countries would not be able to agree on sanctions or to organise a united front; if they had given him a convincing warning of how events would unfold, the war might have been prevented.

The second key lesson to be learnt is that technological advantage plays a key role in such conflicts. Therefore, the United States needs to expand its measures to curb China's technological development. Rasmussen concludes that the democratic world is afforded a significant military advantage today thanks to the economic and technological advantages that the United States possesses over China. Moreover, the democratic world should not allow authoritarian regimes to establish new borders by force, as was the case in 2014. For the same reason, Russia cannot be allowed to gain new territory or to establish a new status quo. Lastly, the conflict has demonstrated the importance of arming countries at risk. Taiwan must be turned into a bristled porcupine as a warning to Chinese authorities of the extremely high cost of any potential invasion.

A crucial issue when preparing for war is time, agrees Lee Hsi-min, former Chief of the General Staff of the Taiwanese Armed Forces. The first Russian attack in 2014 played an important role, affording Ukraine the power to assess the reality of a future war and to begin preparing for it. If Ukraine had not been able to carry out its military reforms or to develop a military strategy to repel an attack, it would have been broken. China is unlikely to cede the same temporary advantage to Taiwan, so it is necessary to start preparing for a full-scale invasion immediately, considering its likelihood as a baseline scenario.

Maria Shagina, a Research Fellow in Sanctions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, believes that this conflict highlights the need for a much more thoughtful sanctions strategy than the one applied to Russia. China's level of integration into the world economy is much higher than Russia's, and imposing sanctions on it will prove to be extremely painful for the West. According to Shagina, severing ties with China could turn into an economic analogue of nuclear war: mutually assured destruction, in which everyone loses.

Therefore, the West needs to recognise its vulnerabilities now and devise methods to reduce the risks. China is also actively working to reduce its own vulnerabilities, seeking to weaken the role that the dollar plays in both its economy and international trade. For the first time since 2010, Beijing holds less than $1 trillion in US Treasury bonds. Five state-owned enterprises have been voluntarily delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, including energy giants PetroChina and Sinopec. The Communist Party has banned its officials from holding foreign accounts, as well as other property abroad, and Beijing has begun actively to promote the digital yuan, which can be used independently of the existing international payment system. Only a vast and reimagined sanctions coalition will be able to deter China from a possible attack in the future.