Three Lessons China Can Learn From Russia in Ukraine

Ukraine War offers China valuable doctrinal, leadership, and narrative lessons for a Taiwan conflict.

Since the start of the Ukraine War, China has been watching the conflict intently, gleaning valuable lessons that could prove helpful in the event of a Taiwan contingency. These learnings may include insights into established military doctrine, leadership structure, and using narratives to gain international support. 

Russia has an established attrition warfare doctrine to fall back on in Ukraine, but as for China, that is an open question in Taiwan. 

In the initial phase of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia attempted a large-scale version of its playbook in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. In those cases, Russia mounted a campaign of rapid dominance, brandishing an overwhelming military that might reassert authority over those countries quickly. 

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned out differently, as its attempt to seize Kyiv ended in a military catastrophe. Facing that, Russia has fallen back into its familiar attrition warfare playbook used in Stalingrad, Berlin, Chechnya, and Syria. Although the fighting in Ukraine has shifted to the country’s east and has degenerated into a partial stalemate, Russia has been making incremental gains in Donetsk and Luhansk at tremendous cost. 

In China’s case, it may attempt to seize Taiwan’s outlying islands and blockade its main island into submission. China is no stranger to island seizure operations. It can look into the operational lessons learned during the 1949 Battle of Kinmen, the 1950 Battle of Hainan, and the 1955 Battle of the Yijiangshan Islands. In terms of naval warfare, China’s last naval battle was during the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish, wherein China seized control of that feature from Vietnam. 

However, China’s experience in island seizure and surface warfare is dated. Given that, China has developed novel doctrines and strategies, such as “smart deterrence” and “intelligentized warfare.” These doctrines leverage emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, and machine learning to gain an information advantage over adversaries to outsmart them without having to fight. However, unlike Russia’s attrition doctrine, China’s novel doctrines must be tested. It is an open question as to what military doctrine China will fall back on should its attempts at reunification with Taiwan using force fail. 

The Ukraine War may have exposed the weakness of Russia and China’s top-down centralized leadership structure from the Soviet era, contrasting with the Western use of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) form the backbone of tactical-level leadership.

Russia and China’s Soviet-style centralized leadership structure is suited for large operations involving large formations. This setup is due to a perceived necessity to maintain tight political control of their militaries and fits their military doctrine based on mass mobilization. Their rapidly mobilized forces could not be reliably expected to perform sophisticated maneuvers, thus requiring top-down control from higher levels of command. Such a setup results in a flexible and adaptable military at the strategic level but not at the tactical level. 

However, Russia’s top-down military leadership setup may have resulted in repeated tactical errors, with combat units sticking to pre-determined plans while displaying little adaptability to changing battlefield situations, leading to unnecessary casualties. Also, that setup results in senior-level officers personally directing tactical-level operations, maintaining morale, and keeping unit cohesion. As a result, that practice exposes these critical personnel to unnecessary risk. For example, during the early months of the Ukraine War, Russia lost many senior officers due to their presence within the range of Ukrainian artillery, drones, and snipers, with unsecured communications allowing Ukraine to target and kill these vital personnel with relative ease. 

Learning from those losses, Russia has adapted its force organization in Ukraine, reorganizing its forces from Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) to smaller and more agile Assault Detachments, which gives lower-level commanders more independent decision-making and command responsibility. This setup also frees senior officers from tactical-level decision-making, allowing them to be positioned at command posts far from main battle areas. In the same vein, China has been applying the same approach to its pilot training, moving away from highly-scripted training scenarios and dependence on ground control to encourage its pilots to make their mission plans and perform strike missions more flexibly. 

Lastly, the Ukraine War has demonstrated that control of the information space is just as critical as winning battles in the physical domain, with all sides forwarding various narratives to win international support. 

From Russia’s perspective, the Ukraine War results from being cornered by a perceived existential threat brought on by NATO’s unabated expansion. Russia also forwards the narrative of “liberating” Russian-speaking populations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea from Ukrainian rule. Similarly, China frames the Taiwan issue as an internal matter, upholding the “One China” policy and denouncing US and allied support to Taiwan as violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity. From the Western perspective, support for Ukraine and Taiwan amounts to upholding the liberal international order established since the end of World War II. 

To boost the legitimacy of their respective positions, Russia, China, and the West seek to win the support of the “Global South,” a group of developing countries hosting most of the world’s population. In addition, Russia and China want to be perceived as challenging the Western-dominated international order that has kept much of the Global South at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the West. 

Some of the narratives Russia and China are employing to win support from the Global South include presenting a multipolar world order where the Global South has more say in international affairs, forwarding organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as alternatives to US-backed institutions, playing up anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiment, and drumming up resentment from Western sanctions. 

Given these learnings, China may seek to learn from Russia’s experience in Ukraine, rather than learning the hard way by itself.

[PLAN Yueyang (FF 575) frigate. Photo by U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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