US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recently suggested that Ukraine should start peace negotiations with Russia. The Ukrainian government expressed reluctance to do so. One way the US could promote eventual talks is to draw from its experience protecting Taiwan.
Imagine it is November next year, and Ukraine has recovered most, but not all, the territories Russia seized in 2014 and this year. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy might fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks the war has been profitable. He might worry that, after signing a peace treaty, Russia would rebuild and attack Ukraine again.
Zelenskiy would need international support, but what if the West had grown tired of the matter? For Zelenskiy, the best solution is Ukraine’s admission to NATO.
However, Ukraine would not garner the necessary support for admission from all NATO partners. This is where the Taiwan precedent could come into play.
In 1979, the US simultaneously ended diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, and inaugurated such ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
However, the US did not abandon Taiwan. In April 1979, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). In it are two basic security commitments.
First, the US would “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Second, the US would “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
PRC leaders must be under no illusion about the first provision — Taiwan, if the need arises, would have advanced US weapons. The second provision is less transparent. Still, PRC leaders probably ask why the US would legally maintain the military capacity to defend Taiwan if it was not also willing to use that capability.
Let us assume it is early next year. The US Congress and US President Joe Biden pass a “Ukraine defense act” (UDA) that includes both of the provisions described above, but applied to Ukraine.
Assume that the UDA includes a provision offered by Republicans that requires oversight to ensure lawful expenditure of relevant US funds, and supervision of the transfer and storage of US and allied weapons provided to Ukraine.
With the first provision, Zelenskiy would know that, regardless of what happens with Russia, his military arsenal would be amply stocked with US weapons. He could also be aware that Putin might worry that with the second provision there would be a chance that the US would step in if Russia invades Ukraine again. That a politically polarized US political system has made these commitments would render them all the more serious to Putin, and thus all the more credible to Zelenskiy.
Finally, Zelenskiy would see that nothing in the UDA would preclude accession by Ukraine to NATO at some point.
With these calculations in mind, Zelenskiy might be more likely to conclude that a peace treaty with Russia is not a prelude to being invaded by that country. For his part, Putin might grudgingly accept the UDA rather than risk a full-blown US-Ukraine security pact — as the US has with Japan and South Korea — or, even worse, early entry of Ukraine into NATO.
A UDA could give Zelenskiy the confidence to accept talks with Russia while not spooking Putin away from them.
Joseph Grieco is a professor of political science at Duke University; Giacomo Chiozza is the Sir Easa Saleh Al-Gurg Professor of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah.
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