School’s in Session
What Russia’s experience in Ukraine may teach China.
The Lessons We Learn
After conquering Gaul (primarily present day Belgium and France) and serving as its governor for an unprecedented 10-year term, Julius Caesar believed he’d earned the opportunity to lead Rome as consul. By 49 B.C., he had built massive wealth and an enormous army, and this gowing strength and influence was a growing concern for the established powers.
The sitting consul, Pompey, and the Roman senate eventually demanded that Caesar disband his army, return to the capital city, and face charges of misconduct—some of which carried the penalty of death. Humiliated, angry, and ambitious, Caesar responded with a civil war that lasted four years and ended with him becoming dictator perpetuo (dictator for life).
Later, reflecting on these events in his Commentaries on the Civil War, Caesar observes, “Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The general’s commentaries make clear that the established order hoped he would be reasonable and peaceful. That his future choices would be shaped by Rome’s notions of his interests, by the negative consequences of his previous conflicts with authority, and by the failed rebellions of others. But this is not the lesson taught to Caesar by these experiences, illustrating a simple but profound truth: Experience can teach different things to different people.
In our time there is another rising power amassing wealth and armies. It too feels humiliated, angry, and ambitious. And, like Caesar, China’s Xi Jinping believes his time of glory and influence is long overdue.
China’s rise has been the focus of a great deal of American policy and commentary over the last decade. As with Caesar’s exploits in Gaul, the world has watched Beijing marshall its armies of political manipulation, economic predation, and military intimidation to spread its influence throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.
While the West initially appealed to China to put away these armies and to join the community of responsible nations, Xi’s continued aggression is now provoking a more confrontational response. This is seen most clearly in his repeated calls for the “reunification” of Taiwan with mainland China—by military means if necessary. Accordingly, the possible taking of Taiwan now occupies a central place in American military strategy and planning.
Some argue Xi will move against the island in the next five to 10 years. Others say he cannot do so for at least 20 years. Experts in one camp believe China is ascendant and will invade as soon as it concludes its military is sufficient for the task. Other experts argue the nation is already in decline and may attack sooner for fear that its window of opportunity might be shrinking. Still others say China is biding its time and will wait decades if it must.
But all of this was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Now there is a growing chorus arguing that Moscow’s labored invasion will throw cold water on Beijing’s designs for Taipei and may have even bought the estranged island another decade to prepare its defenses. Those holding this view point to the Russian military’s losses and struggles against an entrenched opposition and say that Xi would be foolish to embark on his own misadventure across the Taiwan Strait. They cite the catastrophic sanctions and other coercive actions being laid on Russia and conclude that it simply would not make sense for China to risk similar reprisals.
Perhaps. These would certainly be valid conclusions from the invasion of Ukraine. But they are not the only lessons that might be learned.
For example, Xi could see Russia’s growing economic and political isolation and conclude that, even if he had the military capacity to invade or blockade Taiwan, such operations would take too long and would allow the United States and others to counter this strategy and to exact unacceptably high reprisals. Instead, he might opt for a brutal strategy of overwhelming missile strikes and bombings to quickly eliminate Taiwan’s government and defenses and to bloody any opposition. Adding to the logic of this strategy is the likelihood that much of Taiwan would likely be destroyed in an invasion anyways, so why not preserve Chinese forces and raze the island from a distance.
Xi could also note how the slow, deliberate build up of a 150,000 Russian soldiers along Ukraine’s border allowed Kyiv, the United States, and NATO to make preparations, and so instead choose a strategy of surprise—again suggesting a devastating campaign of missiles and bombs might be preferred. Don’t forget, many experts thought Putin would use such a bombardment to “soften” Ukraine before crossing its borders and were flummoxed when this did not happen, because its efficacy is obvious. Xi has seen this too and may not make the same choice.
Importantly, this kind of attack could likely be done before the United States and other parties are able to meaningfully respond and such a fait accompli would also help to mute any domestic opposition inside China. Sure, there would be denunciations and sanctions; but, once it’s done it’s done and the world has little choice but to live with the consequences.
China is also far more influential within the global economy, and so it is not safe to assume the United States, Europe, or the rest of the world would be willing or able to politically and economically decouple from Beijing as quickly and extensively as has occurred with Moscow. Most notably, any response is likely blunted by the fact that China has nuclear weapons and we are already seeing with Putin how this reduces our strategic military options.
There’s simply not much we’d be able to do if Xi moved quickly and decisively, except escalate.
Pressing on in this worst case scenario, if Xi opted for this strategy there is a logic arguing it should be implemented sooner rather than later. If Russia’s miscalculation in Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO’s and Europe’s defense postures, then it makes sense to attack Taiwan before this new seriousness produces tangible military improvements and before the West is able to acclimate to this new Cold War.
Beijing is also incentivized to preempt Taipei’s defense preparations. In February, the U.S. approved the sale of $100 million in equipment and services to Taiwan, including important upgrades to the island’s Patriot missile defense system. Why wait for these and other capabilities to come online? Even more, the flow of American military equipment into Ukraine now threatens to siphon key capabilities away from Taiwan—including advanced fighter aircraft that are critical for its defense—and China could choose to act before this imbalance is corrected.
None of this is certain and there are many compelling arguments as to why China would take the experience of Russia and Ukraine and learn the lesson of restraint. But, this is not the only lesson that may be learned and we would do well to remember another observation attributed to Caesar: “What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.”
This will be a great temptation with China and Taiwan. We look at Russia’s troubles in Ukraine and we wish that such tragedy can be turned to our advantage, if not in Europe then perhaps in Asia. We hope Xi Jinping will think as we do and choose another path, one that does not include death and destruction. But, history is replete with ambitious leaders, like Caesar, who defied convention and embraced risk in pursuit of glory.
This too is a lesson from experience that we cannot afford to forget.
Cyber Mission Teams in Ukraine
This weekend, the New York Times reported that “cybermission teams” from U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) have deployed around Eastern Europe to “interfere with Russia’s digital attacks and communications.” But what is a “cybermission team” and what do they do?
In 2012, the Department of Defense created the Cyber Mission Force (CMF), which now includes 6,200 personnel divided into 133 teams: 68 national mission teams, 13 cyber protection teams, 27 combat mission teams, and 25 support teams.
National mission teams defend the nation against strategic cyberattacks, cyber protection teams focus on defending DoD networks, combat mission teams conduct tactical cyber missions in support of combat operations, and support teams provide planning and analytic assistance.
Of these forces, the Army provides 41 teams, the Navy provides 40 teams, the Air Force provides 39 teams, and the Marine Corps provides 13 teams.
In the context of Ukraine, combat mission teams are in theater and helping Kyiv harden its networks against attacks, find and expel hostile cyber attackers, and proactively degrade Russia’s military effectiveness. Meanwhile, members from the national mission teams are likely watching and engaging Russia’s state and non-state cyber groups to prevent them from attacking the U.S. homeland or our partners and allies.
Finally, cyber operations are among the most sensitive and highly classified activities in which our military engages, which means our victories are rarely publicly known. But I’m increasingly convinced that it is because of these digital warriors that much of the anticipated cyber carnage in Ukraine has not occurred, and we should all be proud of their service.
Who is Anonymous?
Several of you have asked for more information about Anonymous, a secretive group of hackers reportedly “waging war” on Russia in the wake of that country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Here is a brief primer.
Anonymous is not a formal group of hackers. It’s a “collective,” where all one has to do to be a part of Anonymous is claim to be a part of Anonymous. The group has no founding documents, no membership requirements, and no orienting worldview. There are no leaders and there are no followers—just individuals taking diverse actions in the name of the collective. Sometimes these hackers cooperate and sometimes they act independently.
Anonymous first came to prominence in 2003 and is best understood as a collection of hacker activists (aka “hacktivists”). While members of the collective are taking action against Moscow at the moment—including hacking Russian state TV to show footage of military operations in Ukraine—members using the moniker have also targeted government agencies in the United States, Israel, Tunisia, and Uganda, as well as private companies like MasterCard, PayPal, Visa, and Sony. Dozens of Anonymous members have been arrested in the United States, Australia, India, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
The group had largely faded by 2018 but has had a bit of a resurgence since the killing of George Floyd, when members of the group are suspected to have attacked the websites and networks of the Minneapolis police department. Last year, hackers associated with the group also targeted the systems of the Texas state government after the passage of its controversial Heartbeat Act.
So, to summarize, the Anonymous hacker collective is a diverse group of actors with an equally diverse set of motivations and skills. While those marching under this banner occasionally take laudable actions, many of the hacks done in its name are illegal and counterproductive. They’re vigilantes at best, not heroes, and they often make things more complicated, not better.
That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week!