What happens in Ukraine will not stay in Ukraine. That is the essence of an argument commonly made for why the United States and other nations must support Kyiv in resisting Russian aggression. As Washington Post columnist Marc Theissen argued, “Failure to save Ukraine would decimate our credibility in defense of Taiwan, thus making war more likely.” Taiwan’s own representative in Washington, Bi-khim Hsiao, echoed this view, stating, “Ukraine’s survival is Taiwan’s survival. Ukraine’s success is Taiwan’s success. Our futures are closely linked.” The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and current presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, extended the argument in a recent campaign town hall, saying “this is bigger than Ukraine … When Ukraine wins, that sends a message to China with Taiwan, it sends a message to Iran that wants to build a bomb, it sends a message to North Korea testing ballistic missiles, it sends a message to Russia that it’s over.”
Is it really the case that failure to stop Russia in Ukraine will have such implications globally? Would it have such dire consequences for the reputation and credibility of Washington’s support for its allies that it will induce Bejing to authorize the invasion of Taiwan, embolden Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon or give any number of countries the impression that they can pursue their interests with aggressive impunity? The answer to all these questions is no, for three reasons.
First, it’s important to keep in mind what kind of precedent an eventual Russian victory might set. Suppose that Russia did ultimately gain from its invasion, such as by maintaining control of the occupied territory it now claims to have annexed in eastern and southern Ukraine. It will have done so at immense damage to its military and harm to its economy, both of which are due in no small measure to the actions taken by the U.S. and its allies to this point. This would not set a precedent of impunity. To the contrary, the lesson for any other country watching from the sidelines would be that the pursuit of even marginal territorial gains against a U.S. partner state could leave its military decimated and its economy devastated.