Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.
Last weekend, about 70,000 Czechs gathered in Wenceslas Square in central Prague for a “Czech Republic First” demonstration, marking the first big rally to take place in a NATO country to oppose support for Ukraine. The crowd demanded a new agreement with Moscow over energy, and an end to arms supplies for Ukraine.
The organizers were the usual suspects: the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party and the quite-far-left rump of the formerly ruling Communist Party. They certainly don’t represent a majority of Czechs – at least, not yet – but winter is coming, and many of them fear that they will face a choice between financial ruin or freezing in the dark. Natural gas prices have tripled and will go still higher as Russia cuts its gas exports to NATO’s European members to almost nothing. Inflation in the Czech Republic is already at 18 per cent.
It’s not just the Czechs. Kyiv is quietly terrified that as the temperature drops, the gas supplies dwindle, the rolling blackouts multiply, the factories shut down and the jobs disappear all over Western and Central Europe, Europeans’ willingness to support Ukraine with arms and money will shrink to nothing.
Canada and the United States are less vulnerable to this erosion of the will, because they are energy-independent. But some of the wobblier European governments might well respond to a “winter of discontent” by trying to force Kyiv into a ceasefire with Moscow, which would freeze the lines where they are – and effectively give Russia most of Ukraine’s coastline.
Ukraine’s armed forces have done well in defence, but the great counteroffensive will not happen this fall or winter. They may be able to make small inroads into Russian-held territory, and maybe even recapture the port city of Kherson, but Ukrainian forces don’t yet have enough modern weaponry to take back territory on a large enough scale to make the Russians consider a face-saving deal that might return things to the pre-February status quo.
But things could be looking a lot better for Ukraine eight months from now. The question is whether or not it can get there, all that time away.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s approach to arms deliveries for Ukraine can be exasperating – increase them by 20 per cent, wait a month to see if Moscow overreacts, then increase them another 20 per cent if it doesn’t, and so on. But even so, Ukraine will likely have some serious offensive capabilities by next spring. And by next May, sanctions will also likely be hitting the Russian economy very hard, if the July analysis from the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute is correct.
There’s little doubt that the Ukrainians can hang on militarily until then. There is a small chance that the Russian army could just collapse, but nobody’s counting on it. So the real question is whether support for Ukraine in NATO countries will stay solid for the next eight long months.
There is hope on that front. The European Union’s governments have done a lot to buttress their societies for the coming winter by scrounging up alternative sources of oil and gas – including by temporarily restarting some nuclear and coal-burning power stations – and calling for citizens to turn the heat down, take shorter showers and not drive so fast. By next spring, too, the peak inflation in energy prices will be over, and the demand for power will be falling to summer lows.
So keeping the world’s assistance for Ukraine on track until then will mainly depend on price freezes for energy and temporary cash subsidies to see vulnerable consumers through a harsh winter.
Remarkably, those measures are starting to come through. France has already frozen the gas price at the level from last October, and it has limited electricity price hikes to 4 per cent at least until the end of the year. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently announced another €65-billion (about $85.4-million) in measures to help households and businesses cope with soaring energy prices. And newly installed British Prime Minister Liz Truss has announced that her government will limit what energy firms can charge consumers for the next two years.
Such radical government measures to ease a cost-of-living crisis would have been unimaginable had we not seen how well they worked during the COVID-19 crisis. Certainly, they are still experimental enough that something could go badly wrong in the markets, but they stand a good chance of turning the winter of discontent into a season of tolerable inconveniences. That’s a good thing, because abandoning Ukraine would cost a lot more in the long run.
Meanwhile, echoes of Ukraine’s high-stakes winter are resonating on an island in the Pacific Ocean, 8,000 kilometres away. Taiwan has become Chinese President Xi Jinping’s legacy project, just as Ukraine became Russian President Vladimir Putin’s – and so Taiwan, too, has been pressed into playing for time.
Taiwan’s long-term survival prospects are much worse than Ukraine’s, however. Russians outnumber Ukrainians only about 3 to 1, whereas the population of the People’s Republic of China is 60 times bigger than Taiwan’s. Nevertheless, Ukraine and Taiwan are essentially in the same boat: Powerful neighbours are determined to destroy them, and their supporters (Western democracies plus Japan and South Korea, in Taiwan’s case) won’t actually commit to front-line fighting in their defence. Taiwan’s friends will sell or give it some state-of-the-art weapons in peacetime, but in wartime the island state would probably have to show an ability to hold its own for a few weeks without help before arms aid started to flow, and still – as Ukrainians well know – there would be no active military help.
The decades-old confrontation across the Taiwan Strait has gradually drifted from safely frozen to potentially very active indeed, and it’s because successive governments in Taipei have failed to respond correctly to two quite obvious trends. One was the inexorable growth of China’s naval, air and missile power, which was only to be expected as the country’s economy grew. The other was the growing reluctance of the U.S. Navy to commit major assets close to the Chinese coast, a shift concealed by the inconsistent and longstanding U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” around Taiwan.
Even if Washington never told Taipei that it would probably not fight China to defend Taiwan in so many words, any competent Taiwanese military commander would have understood what was happening over the past couple decades and told his civilian superiors there was a remedy – albeit a very expensive one.
An assault landing on a well-defended coast across a stretch of open ocean is the most complex and difficult of all major military enterprises. So an invasion of Taiwan would be a more demanding operation than D-Day, and for a long time China was simply not capable of such an operation. Now it is – but Taiwan is not well defended at all.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Taiwan was spending 7 per cent of its GDP on defence, but over the years it has fallen to only 2.1 per cent, which is about the same as Australia. Similarly, compulsory military service for young men has slipped from three years to just four months, and a significant proportion of eligible candidates can avoid it entirely by doing some sort of social service instead.
These arrangements would have made sense 20 years ago, when the U.S.’s military guarantee was reliable and the PRC seemed willing to let the status quo last indefinitely. But they make no sense now, when Beijing regularly declares its determination to “reunite” the island with the mainland by force if necessary, the American guarantee is questionable at best and Taiwan would be hard-pressed to hold out for even a week against an all-out Chinese invasion attempt without the U.S.’s help.
The outcome of a war is never certain. However, if Taiwan could demonstrate its ability to prevent or at least contain Chinese amphibious and airborne landings for three or four weeks on its own, recent U.S. actions around Ukraine suggest that some American military support could follow – enough, at least, to make Beijing doubtful about the success of such an operation in the first place. Deterrence would then be restored, in other words.
However, it would probably take Taiwan five years of defence spending at 5 per cent of GDP, significant amounts of foreign-arms buying, a return to several years of conscription and large active reserves in the Israeli model to achieve that posture. There might be popular support for such a policy now that the Taiwanese are waking up to the threat, but five years is still a very long time from now.
Adopting this policy might even just speed up the Chinese timetable for an invasion, though It’s impossible to say; other factors, such as the kind of trade embargo that has been imposed on Russia, would also play a role in any decision from Beijing. But the only long-term alternative for Taipei, barring an improbable change of heart or leadership in Beijing, may be a negotiated surrender. Ukraine’s options are a good deal better than that.
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