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The U.S. Must Support Ukraine, But China Must Be Our Priority

11 minute read
Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press.

How should America respond to Russia’s abominable invasion of Ukraine? This is a question of immense importance. Right now, there is more heat than light in the discussion. Given the momentous stakes, Americans must respond to this crisis with clarity of mind and sobriety.

Moscow’s invasion is likely to be a hinge point in history. If nothing else, it lays to rest the idea that history is over, that power politics and the threat of war are gone from the developed areas of the world. This is sad, but it is a reality. In developing our response to Russia’s brazen act, we must face and adapt to this reality. For too long, we have discounted the hard facts of international politics. But now America must look at the world situation much more soberly and strategically, proceeding from these hard facts rather than ignoring them or wishing them away. Above all, our response must be strategic—it must match our response to the threats we face in light of our resources and the risks we are willing to take on.

The reality is that we face multiple serious threats in different parts of the world. The danger Russia poses, including to our NATO allies, is now very clear. But others have not gone away. We also must consider Iran, North Korea, transnational terrorists like al Qaeda, and, above all, the threat of a China that seeks first hegemony over Asia and then global preeminence. So far this is familiar.

Less familiar but absolutely critical is the fact that we do not have a military large or capable enough to fight major wars against Russia and China in even roughly concurrent timelines. It is true that Europe is mainly a land theater and the Western Pacific is mainly a maritime one. But many of the things our forces would need to defeat Russia or China are needed in both theaters—like heavy penetrating bombers, attack submarines, advanced munitions, air defenses, and survivable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. Even certain assets once thought most appropriate or necessary for Europe may well play a critical role in a fight against China, such as Army long-range missiles and artillery. These and other capabilities like them would be just as vital for beating back a Russian assault as they would be for denying a Chinese fait accompli against Taiwan—and are already in short supply.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that we can solve easily, quickly, or cheaply. We should seek to redress it, but, even if we muster the will, it will take years and a significantly larger defense budget to build more of the things we need to fight a major war, like penetrating heavy bombers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. In the meantime, what we do have can only be used in one place at a time. A missile used in Europe can’t be used in Asia, and a bomber lost over Europe will take years to be replaced.

Read More: The Vital Missing Link in the Sanctions Against Russia

We do also have an unparalleled network of allies. But a similar problem confronts us here. In theory our alliance network is far stronger than the threats we face. But in reality few of our allies have significant militaries, and it will take those that don’t significant time to develop their armed forces even if they gather the resolve.

Over the long term, then, our strategy should be clear. We should reshape our military to field far more of the kinds of systems needed to fight a great power war and, with a few exceptions like sustaining our ongoing counterterrorism efforts, dispense with those elements that are ill-suited for it. Meantime, we should press and encourage our allies, especially Japan, Germany, and Taiwan, to build up their conventional defenses, and fully enable those, like Poland, Australia, and the United Kingdom, willing to do more for their and others’ defense. But this strategy will take time to bear fruit. This is the strategy the 2018 National Defense Strategy called for—yet four years later, due to factors ranging from inertia through political and bureaucratic resistance to allied footdragging, we still have a long way to go.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022. (Photo by Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)KREMLIN PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT

In the coming years, then, we face what Henry Kissinger called “the necessity for choice.” We don’t have enough of the right military might to cover all the threats to our interests. So we must prioritize. This is far from unprecedented. The U.S. and Britain faced this dilemma in 1941, and elected a “Europe first” strategy, prioritizing defeating much stronger Nazi Germany before Imperial Japan.

Similarly today, America must prioritize addressing the threat China poses in Asia. Asia is the world’s “decisive theater” and China by far the most powerful other state in the world. If China attains its goal of becoming dominant over Asia, it will control over half of the global economy. Americans’ fundamental liberties and prosperity will suffer grievously. This is the most dangerous outcome for Americans, and preventing it must be the priority of our foreign policy.

In practical military terms, this means that we must ensure enough of the right military forces—bombers, submarines, munitions, ISR, and the like—are ready and available to defend Taiwan, and on relatively short notice. Taiwan is China’s best target for breaking apart the anti-hegemonic coalition that is the only way we can prevent Beijing from dominating Asia. If China seizes Taiwan, it will deal this coalition a huge—possibly mortal—blow. We cannot allow this.

And, crucially, this is a problem right now. We don’t know Beijing’s assessment of the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to seize Taiwan. But we do know that America’s ability to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has eroded very substantially in recent years, that it is continuing to erode, and that Beijing’s perceptions of its ability to take the island would rise dramatically if it knew we had expended or tied down critical parts of our military in or for Europe. In other words, we are in or very close to the window where a successful Chinese attack on Taiwan is possible, and we must hedge against this risk.

Denying Russian control of Europe is our secondary strategic goal. Europe is a large market area but much smaller than Asia and declining in global share; Russia, meantime, is something like one-tenth the GDP of China. Moreover, the rest of Europe is far larger in GDP than Russia, unlike Asia, where China dwarfs most of its neighbors. Accordingly, the threat of Russia establishing regional hegemony over Europe is less grave than China over Asia.

But just because Russia is a secondary threat doesn’t mean it’s not a threat or that we can abandon Europe without imperiling critical U.S. interests—just as the Allies in World War II did not abandon Asia to Japan even as they prioritized Europe. To the contrary, Russia very clearly is a serious threat. And we do have very important interests in Europe, most concretely represented in the security of NATO, which is a bulwark not just against Russia but also against a return to a more violent and chaotic Europe that drew America into two tragic wars in the last century.

This means we will have to thread a needle. On the one hand, we need to take action that materially protects our interests and our allies in Europe, blunting Russia’s ability to threaten them. On the other, though, we cannot do things that jeopardize our primary interest in Asia, like using up key weapons that are needed for a defense of Taiwan, thereby leaving it prey to Chinese attack not just for a short period, but for years while those capabilities are replenished.

Our strategy to thread this needle should follow a straightforward logic: Short of direct military intervention, make it as difficult and costly as possible for Russia to consolidate its hold over Ukraine. And make it even more difficult for Russia to use military force against NATO, while continuing to make very clear to the Kremlin that we will defend our allies.

We can pursue this strategy along multiple axes. We should quickly and robustly bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, providing Ukraine’s defenders with weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, as well as other forms of aid like intelligence support, energy, and food. The Russians gave us a model of how to do this in their support of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Read More: How the West Can Stop Putin

We should also provide every form of support to allies like Poland, and now even Germany as well, that are ready to build up their defenses, while applying every form of pressure on those that still fail to meet their collective defense obligations. No arcane export control or political grievance should hold up weapons sales or transfers to our European allies, and no diplomatic niceties should hold back the intense pressure on those that fail to do their part for NATO defense. Meantime, our sanctions on Russia should include as part of their focus holding back Russia’s ability to regenerate or strengthen its military.

At the same time, though, the U.S. should not make significant new troop deployments to Europe, especially long-lasting ones, as part of this strategy. Why not? First, Europe must hear and believe the message that it must step up its own defense efforts; for too long, Europeans have ignored American arguments to do more on defense because they did not believe Europe faced a real military threat or that the Americans would ever actually shift toward Asia. Initiating a major new troop commitment to Europe would only reinforce this now truly perilous tendency. Second, these deployments are costly and those resources are zero sum. Indeed, the Biden Administration just requested $3.5 billion to pay just for recent deployments to Europe, and those costs will only grow the longer the deployments run on. These resources add up, and they are desperately needed in the Pacific, where our vulnerable posture is increasingly in peril. Finally, the United States already has significant forces in Europe; it should focus on using these for deterrence purposes.

But this overall strategy can work. Many Ukrainians clearly are prepared to defend their independence from living under Putin’s boot. We have the power to materially help them and others like the Poles, Balts, and Scandinavians who are ready to defend themselves. And formerly reluctant allies are moving: just this weekend, Berlin made the historic announcement that it would re-develop a modern military and meet its NATO pledge to spend 2% of its GDP on defense. This is a tectonic shift in the most important country in NATO Europe that shows that allies can and will step up to shoulder a greater burden of their defense. With Germany putting its shoulder into collective defense, Europe will be much more secure. At the same time, this strategy would be very tough for Moscow to deal with. The fact is that Russia is a major threat, and it does have a very serious nuclear arsenal, as the Kremlin pointedly reminded us this weekend—but it’s not equivalent to Nazi Germany or the Cold War Soviet Union. All the arguments about power scarcity that apply to us apply to Russia tenfold. Russia has in recent decades restored its conventional military at great expense but there are serious constraints on its ability to sustain a major war, let alone its ability to move onward from Ukraine to take on NATO.

We should exacerbate this problem. Munitions, tanks, and aircraft used or lost in Ukraine will be expensive and difficult for Russia to replace, especially as tough sanctions take hold. Meantime, if Moscow faces a stronger European NATO defense, it will find even more reasons for restraint. In these circumstances, Moscow will be far more likely to reconsider its current strategy of confrontation in the West and partnership with China, which is setting Russia on a path to be Beijing’s subservient junior partner.

It is very early in the tragic conflict over Ukraine and much remains unclear. But whatever happens, our response must be realistic and strategic, serving our interests in Europe while ensuring the prioritization of Asia. It is both right and in our strategic interests to help Ukraine and our European allies defend themselves and make sure Russia does not gain from this loathsome aggression. But we cannot rest our strategy on a fiction—that we can fight two major wars against China and Russia at anything like the same time. We need to have a strategy that accounts for that fact, not one that ignores it or wishes it away. Fortunately, there is one, and we should pursue it.

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