Lessons for the Next War From Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: 12 Experts Weigh In
Predictions about the future of war follow narratives and intellectual fashions. At the beginning of the millennium, the emergence of high-tech drones—the U.S. military’s all-seeing eyes in Afghanistan—fueled futuristic visions of battles contested by robots and computers. By the mid-2010s, the success of Russian information operations, election interference, and weaponized corruption in Europe and the United States had given rise to the idea that even a major country could be controlled without the use of force. Others thought that mutual dependence on trade and commerce in a globalized age would render a major war unlikely—or keep it locally contained.
The outbreak of the largest and most brutal European war since 1945 has once again reminded us not to project our wishful thinking or extrapolate from the past. So much of what pundits, politicians, and journalists predicted in the early hours of Russia’s three-pronged attack on Ukraine was wrong: that Russia’s military machine would be overwhelming, that Ukraine would quickly collapse, and that the West’s response would be weak. Those were just the first surprises. Who’d have thought trenches and artillery would feature so prominently in a 21st-century war?
Drawing the right lessons from the first 10 months of the Russian invasion, then, not only matters for the survival of Ukraine. It is also vital for deterring and preventing a future conflict—and, if necessary, fighting one. The most obvious potential hot spot and one that involves even greater stakes is, of course, Taiwan. Yet for every parallel between Russia’s designs on Ukraine and China’s on Taiwan, there is a difference. Taiwan is a small island, whereas Ukraine is the second-largest country on the European landmass. China is a large and technologically sophisticated adversary, whereas most of us have been stunned to see how technologically, organizationally, and tactically unsophisticated the Russian military really is. Some of the lessons emerging from Ukraine will therefore be only marginally relevant. Others should be quite useful.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the only ongoing war in the world today, nor is Taiwan the only potential future one. What marks today’s conflict as generational is its nature as a war of conquest by a nuclear-armed power, its deadliness, and the fact that it has drawn in dozens of countries—if not as combatants, then as supporters. It is vital for humanity far beyond Ukraine that a war of this scale not become a new norm.
With the caveat that these are necessarily snapshots, Foreign Policy asked 12 experts to give us their views on the most important lessons of Russia’s war. Each writer is a prominent specialist in his or her field, and they answer a broad range of questions. Why did prevention and deterrence fail? What have we learned about strategy and technology on the battlefield? How do we deal with the return of nuclear threats? Some of these lessons are general, while others apply specifically to a potential conflict in Asia.
At the same time, the epic failure of Moscow’s war plan in Ukraine may also be a lesson for future aggressors about the many things that can go unpredictably wrong even for a major power with a bristling arsenal. If we’re lucky—and depending on the extent to which Russia realizes any of its aims via negotiation or in battle—this war may have made a future one just a little less likely. If so, that would be a very good lesson indeed.—Stefan Theil, deputy editor
An illustration shows a hand representing China reaching toward a sun-flag-shaped porcupine representing Taiwan.
Turn Taiwan Into a Bristling Porcupine
By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general and founder of the Alliance of Democracies
It is impossible not to draw parallels between Russia’s attack on Ukraine and China’s ambitions for Taiwan: a nuclear-armed autocracy threatening a smaller democracy, revanchist rhetoric about reuniting the motherland, a leader turning increasingly repressive at home and aggressive abroad. However, for every similarity there is a significant difference. China is now one of the world’s two predominant powers, and the global consequences of a war in the Taiwan Strait would be manifestly greater. A China-Taiwan war would quickly draw in other countries.
Both Ukraine and Taiwan sit outside of formal treaty alliances, and neither benefits from a security guarantee like NATO’s Article 5. This makes it even more important that the free world learns the right lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if it wants to deter any attempt by China to take Taiwan by force.
First, when you do not have a treaty to rely on, words matter. In the buildup to the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his ambitions explicit: “True sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” he wrote in July 2021. Days before the invasion, he called Ukraine an “inalienable part of [Russia’s] history, culture, and spiritual space.” Putin repeatedly denied Ukraine’s right to exist, yet Western leaders ignored the risk of a full-scale invasion.
The world cannot make the same mistake with China. When Chinese President Xi Jinping says Beijing has the right to use all measures necessary to “reunite” Taiwan with China, we should take him seriously. As we should when a Chinese ambassador says Taiwanese citizens will need to be reeducated after reunification. China’s actions in Hong Kong show what the “One China” principle means in practice. There should be no doubt of China’s ambitions or what they will mean for the people of Taiwan.
Second, any strategy for Taiwan to deter and, if need be, defeat an attack must be based on technological superiority. It was the Ukrainians’ bravery that repelled the initial advance, but turning the tide of the war was achieved with superior Western-made weapons. Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly turned to crude Soviet-era equipment, not least due to the Western sanctions now hobbling the Russian arms industry.
China, despite making significant progress in recent years, is still crucially dependent on the United States and its allies for the most advanced microchips and the machinery to develop them. The United States’ economic and technological advantages over China give the democratic world a significant military edge. Maintaining this edge will be vital to deterring any efforts to take Taiwan by force.
Third, allies and partners must act together. The free world has shown impressive unity in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine—a unity Putin surely did not expect. Significant sanctions were agreed in record time, not only by NATO allies but also by South Korea, Japan, Australia, and other countries. China, which is far more reliant than Russia on global supply chains, must understand that any attack on Taiwan would spark an equally unified response.
The lesson from Russia’s invasion is that deterrence will fail unless the messaging is strong and united before war starts. That’s why the economic consequences of a move against Taiwan must be made clear to Beijing now. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing last November with a group of CEOs in tow sent the opposite message. Xi is actively working to address China’s supply chain vulnerabilities—can Taiwan and its partners say they are doing the same?
Fourth, weapons are what counts. Although sanctions are important, it is the vast military aid provided predominately by the United States that has changed the reality on the ground in Ukraine. Superior weapons allowed the Ukrainians to repel the initial Russian advance and take back large swaths of territory. If Ukraine had had these capabilities before the war, Putin may have thought twice before launching a full-scale invasion. The same lesson applies to Taiwan. With the help of its partners, the island must become a porcupine bristling with armaments to deter any possible attempt to take it by force. China must calculate that the cost of an invasion is simply too high to bear.
Finally, the most important way to deter a Chinese move on Taiwan now is to ensure a Ukrainian victory. If Russia can gain territory and establish a new status quo by force, China and other autocratic powers will learn that the democratic world’s resolve is weak. That in the face of nuclear blackmail and military aggression, it chose appeasement over confrontation.
This outcome would make the entire world a more dangerous place. That is why all those who believe in a democratic Taiwan and a rules-based international order must work to ensure Ukraine prevails.
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An illustration shows hands choking off supply to a China star representing economic sanctions.
To Deter War, Have a Better Sanctions Plan
By Maria Shagina, research fellow on sanctions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
Despite threatening Russia with massive sanctions in the run-up to its full-scale attack on Ukraine, the West failed to deter the Kremlin. Whether Moscow did not think the threats were credible or the signaled costs weren’t high enough, sanctions are now aimed at a different purpose: constraining Russia’s financial, economic, technological, and military capabilities as the war goes on.
China, Taiwan, and the West are each drawing their own lessons. Western governments, for one, have learned that sanctions alone are unlikely to prevent or stop military aggression. Russia has shown a high threshold for pain. China, too, would be willing to accept significant economic costs to pursue its declared goal of unification with Taiwan, by force if need be.
For the West to use economic statecraft against China, whose GDP is 10 times as large as Russia’s, would be exceedingly difficult. Unlike Russia, China is so enmeshed in the global economy that any attempt to wage economic war would create considerable backlash, putting Western unity to the test. While Russia can weaponize energy and other commodities, China has many more options for retaliation. Cutting ties with China could turn into the economic version of nuclear war: mutual assured destruction where everyone loses.
But if China’s global integration now works like a shield for Beijing, the tide is gradually turning as more Western countries reconsider their exposure. Identifying chokepoints and decreasing vulnerabilities will enable the West to exert pressure more assertively. As the Europeans are learning this winter with respect to Russian energy, domestic resilience is the bedrock of statecraft.
The Russian case has shown the importance of a broad sanctioning coalition. This not only sent a strong symbolic message to Moscow, but it was also instrumental in freezing more than $300 billion in Russian foreign reserves and cutting off Moscow’s access to advanced Western technology. To target China, building a multilateral coalition would be just as essential but much harder. Bringing Asian and European allies on board would be particularly tricky due to their close economic relations with Beijing. With so many economic interests at stake, crafting exemptions—and the right combination of flexibility and toughness—would be key to keeping a sanctions coalition together.
For now, the United States is going ahead unilaterally using its unique position in semiconductor supply chains. Washington’s sweeping export controls on advanced computing chips to China will stifle the country’s ability to advance its capabilities in emerging technologies—including those with military applications.
Taiwan, keenly aware of the failure of deterrence as it pursues its contingency planning in case of an invasion, has been working on assembling a coalition of like-minded countries to stand up against China. In particular, the Taiwanese government is keen to build a multilateral sanctions coalition to send a strong message to Beijing about the high costs incurred by any potential aggression.
Beijing, in turn, has been carefully watching the sanctions against Russia unfold—in particular, the West’s weaponization of finance—in order to prepare its own strategy regarding Taiwan. China is very conscious of its weakest spot: its high reliance on dollars and other Western currencies for international trade and foreign reserves.
China has taken several steps to reduce its exposure to the dollar system. For the first time since 2010, China now holds less than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds. As part of China’s financial decoupling, five state-owned enterprises voluntarily delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, including energy giants PetroChina and Sinopec. The Chinese Communist Party has banned its officials from owning foreign accounts and other property abroad, a step aimed at minimizing the impact of future sanctions. Beijing is also advancing the digital yuan, which would be independent of the existing global payments network and could help China evade the sorts of sanctions introduced against Russia.
However, seriously reducing dollar dependence would require many other regulatory, governance, and institutional changes that Beijing does not appear ready to implement—not least because the leadership has prioritized political stability. Still, Western financial sanctions have given Chinese efforts a boost insofar as they have raised the yuan’s appeal for other countries hoping to sanction-proof their economies. Any development to price oil or other commodities in yuan—as opposed to merely using the yuan as a settlement currency—has the potential to trigger a snowball effect in de-dollarizing other sectors.
The limitations of Western economic statecraft against China make planning all the more important. The United States and its allies should start to design a proactive policy of economic statecraft today. As Russia’s war in Ukraine makes clear, not having a credible sanctions coalition and endgame in place greatly reduces the chance of deterring, stopping, or winning a war.
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An illustration shows missile-shaped scopes trained on each other to indicate nuclear treaties and oversight.
A New Push for Nuclear Guardrails
By Rose Gottemoeller, lecturer at Stanford University and former NATO deputy secretary-general
The world needs a Russia that is not playing with nuclear escalation and threatening nuclear holocaust. If Russia continues on its present course, we will be dealing with a very large nuclear pariah state with thousands of warheads and the missiles to deliver them. A major goal of U.S. policy must therefore be to move Moscow away from nuclear saber-rattling and back to the more responsible role it has played since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in controlling nuclear weapons and avoiding their proliferation. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to avoid nuclear escalation.
The United States has also been looking for ways to talk to China about its nuclear intentions, but thus far, Beijing has kept silent. The Chinese are pursuing a rapid nuclear modernization, including the construction of more than 300 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles and a major expansion of their warhead arsenal, from fewer than 500 today to more than 1,000 by the 2030s.
The meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November hopefully broke the ice. Although the two leaders did not announce any planned nuclear talks, they did discuss nuclear policy, agreeing that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought—and that nuclear weapons should not be used in Eurasia, widely seen as a direct reproof to Moscow. China also endorsed a statement by the G-20 that threatening the use of nuclear weapons, as Russia has done, is “inadmissible.”
Perhaps the renewed specter of nuclear weapons use during the war in Ukraine will open the door to nuclear consultations with China. An interesting place to begin would be the proposal that Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin put on the table in February 2022, as they met in Beijing just before Russia’s invasion. In their joint declaration, the two leaders broached the idea of a moratorium on intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, an agreement that could replace the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
China owns a significant number of intermediate-range missiles and might be willing to consider some controls on them—in return for reciprocal controls on U.S. and Russian weapons. That will depend, of course, on what exactly Xi had in mind when he suggested a moratorium on such missiles in Asia.
With both Russia and China, the goal should be to move both countries away from threatening nuclear behavior and back toward a shared interest in controlling nuclear weapons and avoiding their proliferation. This goal will be easier to accomplish if negotiators can focus, at least to begin with, on pragmatic and narrow objectives—resuming inspections under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, resolving Russian concerns about U.S. implementation of the treaty, figuring out what makes sense for a new treaty, and understanding the ideas behind China’s proposed moratorium. Grander, more ambitious discussions of what makes for nuclear stability in the future can wait.
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Members of a Ukrainian drone unit watch the sky while hunting for Russian positions to target.
Counter Russia’s and China’s Playbook
By David Petraeus, former CIA director and retired U.S. Army general, and Vance Serchuk, executive director of the KKR Global Institute
One of the most powerful military lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine is that China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s strategy to keep the United States out of their respective backyards can also be employed against these revisionist powers in defense of the U.S.-led world order.
The concept of anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, first emerged in the late 1990s, as Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran sought to devise asymmetric ways to thwart Washington’s ability to deploy its forces into what these geopolitical rivals considered their rightful spheres of influence. Having watched the United States decisively evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and sail the U.S. 7th Fleet unmolested around Taiwan during the 1995-96 crisis over the self-governing island, U.S. adversaries went to school on the U.S. way of war and began investing in systems designed to disrupt that model at its weakest points.
In particular, China, Russia, and Iran started amassing large numbers of ever more capable precision-guided munitions, including cruise, ballistic, and surface-to-air missiles, hypersonic weapons, and, more recently, drones and loitering munitions, along with over-the-horizon targeting capabilities. These armaments offered the tantalizing promise of overwhelming the relatively small number of U.S. military bases and aircraft carrier strike groups that form the backbone of U.S. power projection in the Persian Gulf, Western Pacific, and other regions and of closing the skies to U.S. aircraft. Better yet, these weapons could be acquired at a fraction of the cost of the exquisite U.S. assets they put at risk. Thus, the many and the cheap began to stack up favorably against the few and the expensive.
In an ironic twist, however, it is the Ukrainians who have now successfully thrown up a kind of A2/AD bubble to frustrate the Kremlin’s power projection. Rather than attempting to match Moscow with aircraft, ships, and combat vehicles in a head-to-head contest, Ukraine has devastated the Russian invasion force and its vulnerable supply lines through relentless, large-scale application of short- and long-range precision firepower. This includes anti-tank guided missile systems, guided multiple launch rocket system rounds, precision artillery munitions, suicide drones, guided anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-ship missiles such as the Neptune cruise missile that sunk the prized flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in April 2022.
Also indispensable to Ukraine’s battlefield success has been the tactical virtuosity with which its soldiers have wielded these asymmetric weapons. Throughout history, military struggles have often been decided less by the balance of material resources than the creativity and determination with which they have been employed. By making its units both dispersed and highly mobile—firing and then rapidly repositioning themselves—Kyiv has been able to carry out relentless, withering strikes on Russian targets while evading counterfire. Conversely, Russian forces have achieved their greatest success in their ruthless attacks on Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure—stationary, vulnerable targets such as power stations, water treatment plants, and electrical grids. But while the Russian attacks are inflicting terrible suffering on the Ukrainian population, they appear to have strengthened public resolve to liberate the country from the Russian invaders.
The Western Pacific is very different from Ukraine: predominantly maritime, encompassing vastly greater distances, and contested by combatants with far more technologically advanced capabilities. Yet the principles of A2/AD to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggression are equally applicable. In particular, Ukraine points to the imperative for the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies to prioritize the near-term ability to field large numbers of relatively inexpensive, highly mobile anti-ship and anti-air missiles that can be dispersed and maneuvered throughout the first and second island chains against Beijing’s increasingly formidable naval and air forces. Large quantities of unmanned air, sea, and ground systems can amplify these missiles in the U.S. order of battle.
Russia’s war also underscores the need for an allied industrial base that can sustain production of these weapons at scale and with speed. Kyiv has been rescued by the impressive willingness of Washington and other Western backers to draw down their own arsenals to arm Ukraine, as well as by its land borders with NATO countries, which facilitate this resupply. But in the event of conflict in the Western Pacific, no one will come to the rescue of an understocked U.S. military that runs out of munitions. Russia’s invasion has thus delivered an invaluable wake-up call to Defense Department planners and congressional appropriators that the post-Cold War defense industry infrastructure and workforce are inadequate for the kind of sustained warfare that the new era of great-power competition may compel.
Lastly, the devastating effects inflicted by long-range fire in Ukraine are likely to spur even greater focus on significantly upgrading the protection, resilience, and redundancy of critical U.S. and allied bases, headquarters, and logistical depots, as well as the development of more effective integrated anti-missile and counter-drone defense systems—including accelerating disruptive defensive technologies such as directed energy and high-power microwave weapons. These may hold the greatest long-term potential to disrupt the current military balance favoring A2/AD weapons by providing inexpensive and affordable ways to interdict them.
Out of the tragedy unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is possible to envision the emergence of a set of military capabilities that not only beat back Russia’s assault on Ukraine but also dim other revisionist regimes’ dreams of conquest. If so, the West will owe thanks to the Ukrainians for showing how the A2/AD playbook developed to defeat the United States and its allies on the battlefield can instead prove their salvation.
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Ukrainian soldiers train in the Kharkiv region.
Taiwan Must Make Up for Lost Time
By Lee Hsi-min, former chief of the general staff of the Taiwanese armed forces
The most important lesson from Russia’s war in Ukraine concerns the role of time. After licking its wounds following heavy losses to Russia in 2014, Ukraine implemented sweeping reforms to its military force structure and training to enable the resistance we are seeing today. This did not happen overnight. To be similarly ready to resist a Chinese attack, Taiwan needs to seriously prepare now.
Ukraine began its defense reforms with holistic, interagency reviews at the strategic, operational, tactical, and—importantly—institutional levels. The 2016 Strategic Defense Bulletin identified key shortcomings in Ukraine’s national security architecture and priorities for transformation, including alignment with NATO principles and standards as well as reforms to force planning, cybersecurity, C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), procurement, logistics management, military training, and more. Among many important changes, a reserve force was established to augment and fill gaps in the regular military’s operations during war.
Ukraine’s reforms were initiated with clearly stated strategic and operational objectives and expected outcomes, alongside institutional and legal changes that would support their implementation. They were complemented with frequent, realistic training to practice and test operational concepts. Training was bolstered by U.S. and other NATO militaries through initiatives such as the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, established in 2015. Mentoring and advising Ukrainian military trainers as well as implementing effective training systems and facilities bolstered Ukraine’s self-reliance on the battlefield. Command post exercises with allies and partners laid the groundwork for future communications and intelligence sharing.
Reforms and training take time to implement and institutionalize. Without time, Ukraine would not have achieved the level of combat readiness to resist Russia that it has today. Taiwan, facing an existential threat from Beijing, should learn from this example and clarify its defense strategy now, integrating three key elements: effective equipment, effective training, and strengthened will to resist.
An asymmetric defense strategy, like Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept, is anchored on denial and buoyed by mobile, dispersed, lethal, and survivable defense systems. It remains the basis for Taiwan’s ability to resist an all-out invasion by China. Taking into account escalating Chinese coercion, Taiwan’s military should allocate its limited resources toward weapons systems most suited for Taiwan to defend against both invasion and coercion. The joint operational plan should be flexible to accommodate different wartime scenarios. Taiwan’s military must be able to fight under decentralized command in a communications-denied environment. An all-volunteer territorial defense force should be established to train civilians in crisis responses, educate the public on national defense, and strengthen the will to fight. This would lay the groundwork for an all-of-society response during war.
In Russia’s war of attrition in Ukraine, stockpiling and the constant flow of military supplies have benefited from Ukraine’s unique geographic advantages, including its vast territory and land borders with NATO countries. Taiwan, on the other hand, sits 100 nautical miles off China’s coast and would be cut off for resupply at the onset of war. Therefore, Taiwan must stockpile munitions, spare parts, other key military equipment, fuel, and food to survive a prolonged conflict—and build hardened, distributed facilities to protect this materiel. Even if Taiwan receives billions of dollars in security assistance from the United States and other like-minded nations, the first time a U.S. ship delivers supplies to Taiwan should not be during war. Communications and logistics networks, including access to commercial ones such as the Starlink satellite network, would be difficult to introduce and set up in the heat of war. In fact, Chinese countermeasures against Starlink are already being discussed, making it urgent for Taiwan to develop counter-countermeasures and redundant communications. China presents a more technologically and militarily sophisticated threat to Taiwan than Russia is for Ukraine, and its intentions cannot be calculated accurately. Timely stockpiling and other preparations need to be undertaken now.
Taiwan must reorient its priorities as soon as possible, and the United States could support reforms as it did for Ukraine after 2014. A U.S.-Taiwan joint working group could be established at both the policy and working levels to support reforms of force structure, weapons acquisition, military doctrine, operational planning, logistics management, tactics, and training. Bilateral contingency simulations and exercises could identify key operational challenges and guide this transformation. With an almost $19 billion backlog in U.S. weapons deliveries to Taiwan, a bilateral steering group on defense industrial cooperation and supply chain security could better identify and streamline processes for maintenance, repair, and overhaul, as well as joint manufacturing of weapons in Taiwan and collaborative research and development. Moreover, U.S. support could signal other allies to lay the foundation for intensified cooperation with Taiwan.
Russia made a strategic error when it attacked Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine’s defeat laid bare its mistakes and shortcomings, and the devastation caused by Russia’s invasion strongly motivated Kyiv to overhaul its military and prepare it for the fight we are witnessing today. While lessons from the current invasion are still being written, it is becoming abundantly clear that the Chinese Communist Party cannot afford to give Taiwan the time to reflect and rebuild as Ukraine was able to do. This could very well be the reason why China has incrementally raised the level of coercion against Taiwan, while keeping it below a threshold that would raise panic in Taiwan and elsewhere. For its part, Taiwan cannot afford to wait for a catastrophe like Ukraine’s to stimulate the massive but slow-moving reforms it needs. Taiwan needs to act now to be ready for when Chinese leader Xi Jinping decides to attack.
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An illustration shows missiles shooting out of a bullhorn to represent the weaponization of information.
Ukraine’s Victory in the Information Space Is No Reason for Complacency
By Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and columnist at Foreign Policy
On Dec. 3, 2021, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence was predicting an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. When December came and went without an attack, people began dismissing the reports—until the spies were proved right on Feb. 24. But the United States’ willingness to share its detailed knowledge of Russia’s war plans with the world put the Kremlin on the back foot from the start. Since most military attacks depend on the element of surprise, U.S. intelligence sharing made Russia’s invasion far less potent than it could have been.
Strategic communications—the delivery of a unified message by governments through formal channels and information operations—have always been a powerful tool in war. But today, with belligerents and other interested parties able to target their messaging directly at population groups of their choosing, these kinds of information operations stand to become an even more crucial weapon.
Today, belligerents in a war can spread deception, flooding the information space with disinformation that at least some in the targeted audience will believe. Russia was long seen to have mastered the dark art of strategic communications laced with falsehoods, a key factor in its successful 2014 takeover of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, during which many Western audiences were confused by competing claims. This time, Kyiv’s communications teams have handsomely beaten Moscow’s with their upbeat messaging focusing on the Ukrainians’ strengths. While the Russians primarily rely on traditional communications, such as news outlets Sputnik and RT (now banned in many Western countries), in addition to stilted posts on social media, Ukraine’s communicators excel in Hollywood-style videos, catchy memes, and messaging full of up-to-date colloquialisms and even humor. They’ve succeeded in making the Russians look as modern and credible as Brezhnev-era Soviets.
None of this, however, can prevent falsehoods—including those shared by social media users in the belief that such content helps their side—from contributing to a dangerous fog of war that muddies the perception of publics and decision-makers alike. The limitless availability of information and citizens’ inability to verify it (how many of you have completed information literacy training?) only compound the problem. What if people can’t tell whether a war has broken out in their country? That’s exactly what happened in Poland in mid-November, when a missile struck Polish soil and killed two people. For a few febrile hours, Poles feared their country was at war, a feeling fueled by news and social media around the world. Only when U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained that it was most likely a Ukrainian air defense missile that had strayed across the border did Poles feel safe.
Imagine if China wanted to frighten Taiwan into submission. Freedom House ranks Beijing’s influence on Taiwanese media as being “very high,” so China could begin by spreading, via Taiwanese media and on social media, accounts of Taiwanese government ineptitude and incompetence. Beijing could then share accounts of Chinese plans to attack Taiwan. Ordinary citizens would not be in a position to judge the difference between a credible military plan and mere deception. If an attack were to take place, China would then count on many Taiwanese to be too dispirited to contribute to the island’s defense.
Just as a military’s readiness to defend against an attack depends on constant exercising, ordinary citizens can train their information defense. In 2018, as Russian aggression above and below the military threshold was growing, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency published “If Crisis or War Comes,” a leaflet that teaches the country’s population about crisis preparedness and how to know whether a war has started. Swedes now know that their government will communicate an attack via radio, television, and push notifications on mobile phones. Imagine if every liberal democracy had similar leaflets and instructions. Instead of relying on media speculation and Twitter hysterics—possibly influenced by a belligerent state and its sympathizers as part of an information operation—citizens would know exactly what to look for. Citizens would also have a better idea of how to verify information. “What is the aim of this information? Who has put this out?” the Swedish leaflet asks. That kind of information literacy is good advice for peacetime and war alike.
While some countries, such as Finland, teach information literacy in schools and consider it a civic competence, many others lack a comprehensive strategy to help their citizens understand the information coming at them. This informational chaos is fertile ground for subversive efforts by state and nonstate actors. Taiwan, too, has recognized this risk and launched a string of media literacy initiatives in 2021. One can only hope they take root very soon.
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A multiple rocket launcher fires toward Russian positions near the front line in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Lessons for China’s Defense Industry
By Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation
The Russia-Ukraine war has cast a dismal light on the state of the Russian defense industry, especially the limitations of its conventional weapons sector. The wide range of arms and equipment produced by the aerospace, naval, ordnance, electronics, and information warfare sectors have not provided the decisive edge for Russia to defeat a far smaller and technologically inferior enemy. As Russia’s stocks of advanced weaponry have dwindled, its forces are increasingly relying on old Soviet-era arms that are far less reliable and precise. Russia’s strategic weapons systems, however, have performed with devastating effect, as cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles pummel cities, civilian infrastructure, and military targets.
With the establishment of a special coordination council in October 2022, Moscow has begun the urgent task of revamping its defense industrial base to meet the expansive needs of the armed forces in the ongoing war. This initial step will likely lead to a far-reaching makeover of Russia’s conventional defense industry in order to meet the enormous task of thoroughly rebuilding and rearming a broken military establishment.
For the Chinese defense industry, the starting question in assessing the war’s implications is the extent to which it is a useful template for future military conflict. Beijing’s pathway of long-term defense technological and industrial development is largely laid down by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine of “informatized local wars”—a term describing high-tech intensive wars in an information-centric environment with limited attention paid to industrial-era mechanized warfare. This is fundamentally the inverse of the Russia-Ukraine war—a classic industrial-era attritional war with pockets of 21st-century innovation, such as the creative use of drones. China’s military doctrine draws more on lessons of conflicts such as the U.S.-led campaigns against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. As China has already invested considerable effort and resources to build a defense industry whose central focus is information-centric warfare, increasingly deploying various disruptive technological capabilities emerging in the artificial intelligence age, the long-term impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Chinese defense planning may be limited.
One obvious lesson for the PLA from this war is the need to ensure adequate munition stockpiles for a prolonged war. As China has not fought a major war since invading Vietnam in 1979, it has little institutional know-how on how to sustain a war.
For all of Beijing’s efforts to forge an indigenous defense industrial base, the Russian defense industry and its Soviet predecessor still cast a long and influential shadow on the Chinese system. The organizational and industrial foundations of the Chinese defense-industrial complex were imported almost wholesale from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and China has imported tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, components, technological know-how, and industrial capacity from Russia since the early 1990s, both legally and illicitly. Russia’s military-technological imprint is clearly visible across the PLA’s front-line arsenal, in which numerous types of Chinese fighter aircraft, transport planes, air defense systems, and naval vessels are derived from Russian models.
As the Russia-Ukraine war and Western sanctions will likely turn Russia into a net military importer for the foreseeable future, a golden opportunity has opened up for China to displace Russia as a top-tier arms exporter. The timing could not be better, as the Chinese defense industry is in the process of upgrading its brand image from a manufacturer of good-enough, lower-quality, affordable arms to a supplier of higher-end weapons. If this market grab is successful, it could create a highly lucrative income stream to help support China’s ambitious defense transformation.
For now, the Russia-Ukraine war has paused the Sino-Russian defense industry relationship as Beijing has sought to avoid getting dragged into the conflict and to protect its companies from becoming entangled in Western sanctions on Russia. But this hiatus is likely to be short-term. The question is not if but when, at what scale, and in which domains Sino-Russian cooperation on defense technology will resume.
The development of strategic deterrence capabilities, primarily directed against the United States, is where there appears to be the greatest convergence of mutual interests between the two countries. Moscow’s latest defense modernization plans have placed top priority on the development of new generations of intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles, laser weapons, nuclear submarines, and autonomous systems—all areas of great interest to Beijing.
The Chinese and Russian leaderships know they have a far better chance of successfully meeting the challenges posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and intensifying techno-military competition with the United States together than separately. If their similarly state-directed defense industries are able to forge an effective and enduring defense technological and industrial relationship, they will pose a far more complex and credible military challenge to the United States.
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A Ukrainian soldier peers out of a captured Russian tank near the front line in the Donetsk region.
Don’t Fight the Last War
By Craig Singleton, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping likely understands that he cannot wage a future conflict over Taiwan by replicating the strategy that failed Russia in Ukraine. Instead, rather than risk a similar stalemate, Xi will almost certainly double down on the nonmilitary, less visible, and more cost-effective war that Beijing is already waging—and, in many ways, winning.
By declaring last September that the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked, U.S. President Joe Biden complicated Xi’s calculus about an amphibious invasion—Beijing’s most ambitious and aggressive option to pursue reunification. No doubt the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is trending in China’s direction. One day, the pace of China’s military modernization and the poor state of Taiwan’s defenses could render an invasion a rational decision for Beijing.
For Chinese leaders, however, the war in Ukraine has laid bare the undeniable risks and prohibitive costs associated with a full-scale assault on Taiwan. Trying to distill only the military lessons of Russia’s war therefore distracts from much more likely Taiwan scenarios.
Indeed, Beijing has long recognized that a direct military engagement with Washington and its allies over Taiwan could result in a decisive defeat for China or lead to nuclear war. Beijing likewise understands that conventional conflict escalation often leads to strategic and political failure—even for a superpower. With these lessons in mind, China has hewed closely to a broad-spectrum gray-zone campaign focused on disrupting the Taiwanese government’s functions, paralyzing the island’s infrastructure, and leveraging an unrelenting disinformation campaign to undermine Taiwan’s political processes and bolster pro-unification narratives.
Yet the status quo remains politically untenable for China, as Taiwanese sentiment on reunification drifts ever further from Beijing’s goals. Moreover, China’s short-of-war strategy, in which pressure necessarily begets more pressure, has thus far failed to achieve the degree of political control or military supremacy that Beijing requires to shift its focus toward more conventional military operations. Russia demonstrated the importance of establishing these prerequisites when it successfully invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. In all likelihood, therefore, Beijing’s coercive campaign against Taiwan will reach new heights in 2023.
To undermine the Taiwanese public’s faith in the ability of the armed forces to protect the island’s sovereignty, China’s near-daily aerial and naval incursions will likely increase in number and intensity. So, too, will media images broadcast by Beijing about threatening military exercises—for instance, depicting Chinese forces storming a replica of Taiwan’s presidential palace. Beyond straining Taiwan’s defenses, such actions relentlessly reinforce China’s narrative that reunification is inevitable, one way or the other. Nevertheless, what seems like the next logical step in the coercion campaign—applying an aerial or naval blockade—appears less likely, because doing so could galvanize separatist sentiment and international sympathy for Taipei, neither of which Beijing is currently prepared to counter.
With an imminent military scenario increasingly unlikely, the bulk of China’s strategy will fall to its Central Propaganda Department, which trains cyberarmies and disseminates disinformation aimed at demoralizing and dividing Taiwanese society. In further weaponizing the information space, Beijing will progressively leverage social media platforms, online chat groups, and traditional media companies to bolster its reunification narrative. It will also use these channels to draw investment and tourists away from Taiwan and toward China. Additionally, Beijing will escalate cyber- and other network attacks against Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, financial institutions, and other targets. The goal is to exploit the island’s asymmetric economic dependence on China to pressure its politicians from pursuing policies that would bring Taiwan closer to formal independence.
Lastly, China will escalate its nonmilitary war of attrition on Taiwan’s political processes and international standing. Beijing will continue covertly funding pro-unification political parties and candidates before Taiwan’s next national election in 2024. China will similarly sustain its efforts to diplomatically strangle Taiwan, principally by degrading its participation in international forums and further winnowing down the small number of countries that recognize Taiwan.
Xi’s problem in all this—which he may not yet realize—is that China’s aggressive attempts at maneuvering below a crisis threshold could have the unintended effect of catalyzing the very superpower crisis he seeks to avoid. Gaming out these gray-zone efforts suggests that seriously escalating these provocations could lead the United States and its allies to embrace more forceful counter-responses in the future. In other words, unchecked hybrid war against Taiwan runs the real risk of resulting in a hot war with Washington, perhaps sooner rather than later. Should that happen, all bets are off. Just ask Russia.
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An illustration shows ones and zeros with zeros in the shape of coffins to represent the gravity of real war over cyberwar.
Real War Trumps Cyberwar
By Chris Krebs, partner at Krebs Stamos Group and former director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency
An especially intriguing aspect of the Russia-Ukraine war is the apparent absence of Russian cyberwarfare success. Many cybersecurity experts have been wondering why. Did we overestimate the abilities of the Russian cyberjuggernaut? Were the Russians simply incompetent? Or is there something about the Ukrainian defenders? The answer may provide valuable lessons going forward—not just for the current war but a potential future one as well.
There is no question Russia has demonstrated prior ability to disrupt systems. Russian cyberattacks shut down the Ukrainian electricity grid in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the NotPetya attack on Ukrainian banks, ministries, and other targets, ultimately spreading to many other victims, caused more than $10 billion in total damages. At the start of the invasion last February, Russia was therefore expected to integrate cyberattacks into the conflict. But the Russians were no longer operating against unsuspecting, unprepared, and overmatched opponents. The Ukraine of 2022 was no longer the Ukraine of 2014.
Scoring the impact of cyberattacks in conflict is always a challenge. What we know is that Russia deployed several destructive attacks at the onset of hostilities. They knocked Ukrainian government websites offline, disrupted telecommunications capabilities, and paralyzed key government and industry networks. The cybersecurity industry immediately swooped in to tear apart the Russian malware, revealing an array of powerful toolkits that suggested years of development, diversification, and refinement. Moscow’s failure to disable communications networks allowed the Ukrainian government to coordinate military defenses, communicate with Ukrainian citizens, dominate the information space, garner international support, and battle on.
What explains the Russians’ lack of cyberdominance? Did their teams lack the necessary time to plan and get in position? Was it their hubris, thinking Ukraine would be easily occupied in a matter of days? Did they want the networks to be intact for their own use after the invasion? All are possible, and only the Kremlin knows the answer.
Part of the answer may lie on the side of the defenders. Like their military preparations, the Ukrainians had improved the nation’s cyber-resilience. It’s well known in the tech industry that Ukrainian software engineers are some of the best around, so it should come as no surprise that they were able to stand up and defend their digital sovereignty. Also new to the equation were U.S. Cyber Command’s Defend Forward teams, which had moved into Ukraine as war seemed imminent in December 2021. They helped kick Russian hackers out of vulnerable Ukrainian networks in advance of Russian military operations.
The private sector, too, sprang into action. Companies tooled up to protect their own operations in Ukraine and throughout Europe. Where Ukrainian domestic capacity wasn’t enough, the global cybersecurity community stepped up. Innovative new partnerships emerged to help defend Ukrainian networks, including the Cyber Defense Assistance Collaborative, which brought together more than a dozen companies.
This defensive surge paid off. Even under constant Russian attacks, Ukrainian network defenders avoided catastrophe. One key lesson: Preparation, prevention, and resilience are possible in the face of a digital onslaught by a formidable adversary. Russia’s persistent engagement with Ukrainian networks over the years allowed Ukrainians to practice defending against them.
When considering China’s designs on Taiwan, there is no doubt they are both learning from Russia’s experience in Ukraine. Although it is not certain that China will invade, the costs of being wrong are high. Defensive measures in the digital domain won’t snap into place overnight, so planning and implementation by governments and businesses must begin now.
The main takeaway from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might be that cyberwarfare is more of a contributing factor than a deciding one, although even contributing factors can make an impact. The Ukrainians understood this relationship and, with help, prepared accordingly. In the absence of a clear, decisive, cyber-enabled victory over Ukraine, the Russians have demonstrated the most important limitation of cyberwarfare: In war, violence still dominates.
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Police officers look at collected fragments of Russian rockets that hit Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Beware of Wrong Lessons From Unsophisticated Russia
By Mauro Gilli, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich
The starting point for drawing lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war is the fact that Russian forces were significantly limited by the insufficient quality and quantity of their technology and capabilities. China, Taiwan, and the latter’s allies are technologically more sophisticated and, most importantly, possess precise munitions. Looking at how accuracy and precision in battlefield sensors and munitions have shaped the war, we can extrapolate trends and derive important implications for the Taiwan Strait.
Modern sensors and precise munitions have made close combat extremely deadly, a trend that began with the firepower revolution of the late 19th century. Today, ground forces are exposed to a multitude of active and passive sensors that can detect their presence and expose them to enemy fire. Small commercial drones and larger military drones, for example, have played a critical role in the war by scouting the territory, detecting and geolocating enemy forces, and enabling precise targeting with various weapons systems. Satellite-based radars have also played an important role, including radars that can penetrate tree foliage, which deprives ground forces of an easily accessible option for concealment. The posting of videos and photos in soldiers’ social media accounts and the creation of online baits have created new opportunities for geolocating enemy forces, which further exposes them to fire.
Russia’s lack of technological sophistication and capabilities should not obscure the fact that all weapons are targetable. With modern sensors and munitions, any platform that is not survivable in contested territory is a target. This trend started in the 1950s and became self-evident in the 1970s, when U.S. Army strategist William DePuy wrote: “What can be seen, can be hit. What can be hit, can be killed.” Recent technological advances have further strengthened these trends. The Ukrainian government, for example, developed a mobile app that allows its citizens to provide real-time information about incoming missiles and aircraft flying at low altitude to avoid other forms of detection.
The growing availability of sensors, drones, and satellites, as well as advances in artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning, will further enhance the ability to detect and locate enemy targets. Whether the target is a drone, a piloted aircraft, a ship, an artillery unit, a multiple rocket launcher, or an air defense system, any conventional military platform is vulnerable to being detected, identified, tracked, geolocated, and targeted by counter-battery fire, surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, and the like. That’s why widespread hype about “game-changing” weapons systems (such as Turkish TB2 long-endurance drones) is dangerously misplaced. No single system can, by itself, win battles, let alone wars.
The implications of these dynamics for a future conflict are straightforward. First, the overwhelming technological imperative driving military engagements will continue to be the competition between, on the one hand, detecting and precision-targeting the enemy at increasingly longer range and, on the other, avoiding detection by enemy sensors. This is true for land, air, and naval forces. For Taiwan, this imperative entails deploying air defense and sea denial assets that can threaten incoming Chinese air and sea power while avoiding suppression and destruction by Chinese fire.
Second, the competition between hiding and finding requires, first and foremost, highly competent, proficient, and disciplined personnel. As the historian Kenneth Werrell put it in his book Archie to SAM: “High-technology weapons demand high-quality personnel.” As Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown, the lethality of modern precision weapons has dramatically shrunk the margin for error; a single cellphone on a public network, for example, can quickly doom a unit. This is why, in addition to supplying weapons, the United States has also helped Taiwan with training in recent years.
Third, in the age of long-range engagements, communications are going to play an even more critical role in military operations; providing accurate real-time information about incoming missiles and other weapons, for example, is a necessary condition for survival.
Fourth, the role of sensors and real-time targeting will make reliability and redundancy in communication networks even more important in future conflicts, which in turn requires competition in electronic warfare. In 1973, Soviet Navy Adm. Sergei G. Gorshkov predicted that “the next war will be won by the side that best exploits the electromagnetic spectrum.” Gorshkov’s prediction proved right in Syria in 1982, in Iraq in 1991, and in Ukraine in 2022. The Russian military’s technological backwardness shouldn’t distract the parties in any future conflict from this essential fact.
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An illustration shows a nuclear cloud rising from the dustbin of history.
Nuclear Weapons Still Matter
By Graham Allison, professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons are like a flash of lightning illuminating the international chessboard. They provide a stark wake-up call to the brute fact that nuclear arsenals containing thousands of warheads remain foundational in shaping relations among great powers. While experts, commentators, and many others have been urging Washington to discount or even ignore Putin’s threats, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team know better. Claims that Ukraine lacks good targets, Russian bombs might not work, Putin’s officers could refuse to execute orders, or the risk of radiation spreading into Russia would be unacceptable are dangerous wishful thinking. Biden, CIA Director William Burns, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have concluded that Putin is deadly serious. As Sullivan acknowledged last September, “We have communicated directly, privately, at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia.”
What does Biden know that makes him take Putin’s threats so seriously, and what does that tell us about any future conflict? First, Putin commands a nuclear arsenal that can literally erase the United States from the map. During the Cold War, strategists coined the acronym MAD—mutual assured destruction—to make vivid the ugly reality that a major nuclear power can destroy its adversary but doing so would trigger a retaliatory response in which the attacker would be destroyed as well. Even in the 21st century, we must still survive in a MAD world.
Second, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s grand imperative still holds: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Why is the United States not sending Americans to fight on the battlefield alongside Ukrainians? Because that would mean killing Russian troops, and as Biden has repeatedly insisted, the United States will not fight World War III for Ukraine. In considering whether and how the United States enters a future conflict—say, against China over Taiwan—U.S. presidents know that Americans’ essential national interest is the survival of their country.
Third, Putin’s nuclear arsenal includes about 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons designed for use at shorter range. With an explosive impact equivalent to the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, a single weapon striking Kharkiv or Kyiv in Ukraine could match the 140,000 deaths caused by the first atomic bomb.
Fourth, as students of strategy know, nuclear weapons are a weaker power’s equalizer. During the Cold War, when NATO faced 100 Soviet divisions poised to attack West Germany and reach the English Channel in less than a week, how did the United States attempt to deter them? By deploying hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons to stop the Soviet advance—and announcing its readiness to use them. While the United States has largely phased out tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, Russia has made them a major pillar of its security posture.
Fifth, seven decades after the first and last use of nuclear weapons in war, what is now called the “nuclear taboo” has led many to believe that nuclear weapons are no longer usable in war—despite the fact that both the United States and Russia continue to rely on the threat to use nuclear weapons to defend themselves. This is the essence of nuclear deterrence. Moreover, the United States also provides a nuclear umbrella to protect treaty allies that choose not to acquire their own nuclear weapons by guaranteeing that the U.S. arsenal will be used to defend them. Ukraine, Georgia, and Taiwan, however, have no commitment from the United States to use nuclear weapons in their defense.
Finally, it is hard to deny an uncomfortable echo of similarity between Washington’s nuclear umbrella over NATO allies and Putin’s threat of nuclear retaliation against any attack on newly annexed territory. Both cases raise questions of credibility. During the Cold War, West Germans wondered whether the United States, in responding to a Soviet invasion, would really risk Boston for Bonn. If U.S.-backed Ukrainians overrun Ukrainian territory that Putin now calls Russia, would Putin order nuclear strikes to stop them? Until it is challenged, it is difficult to distinguish between a serious threat and a bluff.
The United States is fortunate to have a seasoned Cold Warrior at its helm, applying lessons of statecraft and strategy from the defeat of the Soviet Union, recognizing the unique danger posed by nuclear weapons, thinking clearly about vital U.S. interests, and, at the same time, finding ways to meet challenges like Putin’s without stumbling into nuclear war. Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught us that the nuclear age did not end with the Cold War. As far as any eye can see, nuclear arsenals will remain a major pillar of the international security order.
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An illustration shows pixelated pointer icons leaving rocket-like trails over a cityscape to represent the use of cyberwar as a deterrent in place of nuclear weapons.
Put an End to Brinkmanship
By Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America
2045 will mark the first century of the nuclear age. The nations of the world should come together to make it the last. They should look at the Russian brinkmanship over Ukraine and past nuclear standoffs and say: enough.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened nuclear escalation, emphasizing that “this is not a bluff.” If Russia were to cross the threshold—most likely with a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield, rather than an intercontinental strategic nuclear weapon—the United States would most likely respond with a conventional attack on a target in Russia or on the Russian navy. And the world would once again hold its breath as the clock ticks toward Armageddon.
Even as Putin wields his threats, Iran continues its march toward nuclear power status, and North Korea steps up its missile tests designed to remind neighboring nations of the consequences if those missiles were nuclear-tipped. It is just such proliferation that led former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn to publish a joint call for a “world free of nuclear weapons” in 2007. They warned of a world of 30 or more nuclear powers and concluded that relying on nuclear weapons to deter war was becoming “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”
The Kissinger-Shultz-Perry-Nunn declaration contrasts sharply with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s 1967 speech announcing that humanity’s future would be “overshadowed with the permanent possibility of thermonuclear holocaust.” To forestall that eventuality, he said, the United States had developed an “assured-destruction capability” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The era of mutual assured destruction—rightly known as MAD—was officially launched. Despite arms control negotiations, treaties, and the appeals of statesmen and activists, it is still with us.
A principal legacy of Russia’s war in Ukraine should be the replacement of MAD with MAC—mutual assured cyberdestruction. Countries of all sizes can now develop the capability to bring one another’s societies to a grinding halt by depriving them of electricity, including the backup generators that keep vital emergency services running. In the coming era of electric vehicles, such an attack would bring transport to a halt as well.
If physical bombs destroy physical highways, digital bombs destroy data highways. Banking would stop, manufacturing would stop, and the delivery of medicines to pharmacies would stop. Grocery stores would run out of inventory and be unable to restock. Water treatment plants would cease to function. Communications would cease. Imagine the pandemic lockdown—but without internet, phones, transport, or essential services.
The resulting chaos would be the slower-acting equivalent of a neutron bomb, killing people while leaving buildings untouched. Death would be indirect, caused by the failure of systems designed to keep people alive rather than by actively killing them. The survivors of this mass death would gradually be able to return to preindustrial ways or, where there is enough nondigital resilience built into existing systems, to a pre-cellphone, pre-internet era. Either way, the economic and social devastation would end life as we know it.
Military planners around the world have long assumed that the opening move of any conflict is to knock out enemy communications by disabling satellites, cutting undersea cables, destroying cell towers, paralyzing internet servers, and so on. Russia preceded its invasion of Ukraine with multiple cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites and has waged a cyberwar against the Ukrainian energy, media, finance, business, and civil sectors, even as it continues its attacks on the government.
To date, these attacks have succeeded, above all, in stiffening the Ukrainian people’s will to resist. Hacks can be repaired, and defenses against them can be steadily strengthened. Like the evolution of nuclear doctrine, effective cyberdeterrence depends on the ability of each adversary to deliver a knock-out first strike. States are thus racing to perfect electromagnetic pulse bombs and other weapons that would paralyze the digital flows keeping infrastructure and economies alive.
This new arms race has plenty of dangers. The growing capacity of some powers to threaten others with total cyberdestruction could become more credible than the threat to use nuclear weapons, thereby destabilizing the balance of power. But compared with the use of even a fraction of today’s nuclear arsenals, all-out cyberattacks would be more manageable. MAC is still safer than MAD.
Even as the Russia-Ukraine war grinds on, as Ukrainians push Russians out of territory they have occupied, and as governments begin to imagine what a postwar peace might look like, it is not too soon to look further down the road. It is time to end the specter of thermonuclear holocaust once and for all.
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This article appears in the Winter 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.