Former defense official Eric Edelman on lessons for Ukraine, Taiwan

FAN Editor

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Eric Edelman, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Finland and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and likely lessons being drawn about the West’s response and the nature of the battle by the People’s Republic of China. Edelman and Morell discuss a range of possible future scenarios for the war in Ukraine, exploring its military, economic and diplomatic dimensions for both Kyiv and Moscow. Edelman also offers insights into how the conflict may inform China’s approach to coercive or forceful reunification with Taiwan. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • Avoiding escalation with Russia: “I think that the administration has been a little too concerned about the risk of escalation. And the risk of escalation works both ways, right, because we’re a nuclear power, too, right? So are our French and British allies. I don’t think that Putin and the Russians want to have a nuclear exchange. It would be devastating for everybody as all five of the nuclear weapon states reasserted just before the Russians invaded Ukraine. And nuclear war can and should never be waged and can never be won.”
  • Risks of protracted conflict: “[M]y reading of U.S. public opinion is that as long as people think there’s a prospect for success for the Ukrainians, they’ll be willing to support Ukraine. I think if it begins to devolve into something that looks like another frozen conflict, endless war, I worry that some of that support will dissipate. And then, of course, as we’ve been saying, if it goes long in time, actually favors Russia on the economic front, that could have very bad consequences as well.” 
  • Lessons China is learning regarding Taiwan: “[A]s we begin to focus on these Indo-Pacific challenges and particularly the challenge of China and Taiwan, we have to worry that Xi Jinping begins to become concerned that time might be running against the PRC, which has its own set of internal challenges – you know, demographic and environmental and otherwise, and that they decide that they need to go early rather than later.”  

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ERIC EDELMAN

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Eric, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.

ERIC EDELMAN: Michael. It’s always great to be with you. Thanks for having me back.

MICHAEL MORELL: You’re welcome. So, Eric, before we jump into Ukraine and where we are in the war, I want to ask you just two questions about your career.

The first is, I know that early in your career, you worked on the Soviet Union at both the State Department, and you served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And I’m just wondering to what extent that those experiences shaped your views of Russia today and how you think about Russia today?

ERIC EDELMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, it won’t surprise you that those experiences, you know, shaping in a very fundamental way.

I was on the Soviet desk in the State Department in the mid-eighties at the very, very height of the Cold War. I had been special assistant to Secretary of State George Shultz during the Able Archer episode, which arguably brought us close to a potential nuclear war.

And then I went to Moscow and served in the embassy in a period of high perestroika, a great optimism about change and reform in the Soviet Union, and then continued to work on those issues, including at the Pentagon, when the Soviet Union collapsed and then worked with Strobe Talbott and others on the process of NATO enlargement in the late nineties and reform in Russia as a kind of independent state.

And so, I was filled with lots of optimism about Russia in the 1990s. And then I got to observe from very nearby, as ambassador to Finland, as things began to turn in a different direction.

And as you can imagine, Michael, the Finns are very close observers of what goes on right across there; a roughly 800 mile border with with Russia. And from the get go, I have to say, I had a lot of concerns about Putin, as did a lot of my Finnish colleagues and friends who were close observers of Russia.

And unfortunately, I think Putin has taken the country in a very unhealthy direction by installing a kind of regime of, a kleptocratic regime of his cronies, most of whom come from the KGB. And really, the KGB took back the country after he became, first, prime minister and then president.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the second question I want to ask you, Eric, relates to the fact that you were the assistant to the Secretary of State, George Shultz. And I think he’s one of the best secretaries of state that we have had. And I wonder what you learned from the secretary that shaped your foreign policy thinking in general and how you approach an issue like Ukraine today?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I agree, Michael, with you that George Shultz was during my 30-year career in the State Department, the best Secretary of State who served, who I served under. And I used to joke, including with him, that there’s an old saying that, ‘No man is a hero to his valet,’ but as someone who schlepped George Schultz’s briefcases around the world for for two years, he was and remains my hero.

I mean, he was very calm and very collected and very considered. And he never lost his cool. But he was very analytical. He brought a wealth of experience. He’d been multiple cabinet secretaries – been Secretary of Labor, Secretary of the Treasury before he became Secretary of State. He’d been the head of a Fortune 500 corporation. He’d been the dean of the business school at the University of Chicago, an economist. He just had an enormous amount of – head of the Policy Council. He’d been just very, very experienced. And he brought all of that to bear.
And I learned a lot of different things from him. One of the things I learned from him was that demography is destiny. And as a result of his tutoring, I have remained very interested in demographics of various countries ever since. And he had a great strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union, which entailed a very broad array of issues. It wasn’t just arms control, although he pursued arms control with the Soviet Union, but it was human rights. It was pushing back against Soviet proxies in the Third World. It was economic.

He had a variety of different tools in the toolbox to deal with the Soviet Union under President Reagan. And a strategy that, ultimately, I think was very successful and paid huge dividends, not just during the Reagan term, but during the term of George H.W. Bush, when the Soviet Union ultimately first saw its external empire collapse and then it collapsed as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Let’s switch to today, Eric. In just a few weeks, we’re going to hit the six-month mark since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was February 24th. And as we approach six months, we’ll talk about where the conflict stands today and maybe we can break it down into three pieces as we go through this.
One is, where are we on the battlefield? Second is, where are we in the economic struggle that’s associated with this war between Russia and the West, which captures Ukraine in the middle? And then where are we in the fight, for want of a better phrase, the hearts and minds of swing countries around the globe regarding Russia’s behavior here?

So let’s take those one at a time and maybe start with the battlefield.

ERIC EDELMAN: Sure. Those are – it’s a great way to break it down, I think. So on the battlefield, of course, the Russian maximal objectives of, as they put it, demilitarizing and ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, which essentially meant regime change in Ukraine and turning it into a Russian vassal state or diminishing a rump Ukraine in the west and absorbing most of the eastern part of the country – That is no longer feasible, I don’t think, for Putin, because the military has performed so poorly and because the Ukrainians have performed so well.

I mean, it’s not just that the Russians have performed poorly – and a lot of that goes to the corruption in the society. I mean, every military is a expression of the society out of which it grows. And corruption is endemic in Russia. It’s not a flaw in the system. It is the system. That’s not surprising that that would also manifest itself in the military and that that would have enormous deleterious impact on the ability of the military to actually execute a fairly complicated combined arms operation.

I think there was some concern in the last few weeks that as the Russians sort of regrouped and pursued some more limited objectives – which appeared to be fully conquering the Donbas, that’s the two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the southeast of Ukraine – that the Russians would be able to succeed in doing that, perhaps annex those portions of Ukraine and then hold the areas in the south of the country that they’ve seized, essentially a land bridge between the Donbas along the coast down to Crimea, which of course, was seized and annexed in the 2014, 2015 war.

What I think is now happening is there was some limited Russian advances in Luhansk, which they’ve basically now got most of Luhansk under their control. But in Donetsk province they’ve had great difficulty moving very far. Some of that has to do with just the exhaustion and depletion of their forces after five months of war. And they’ve taken enormous casualties.

I mean, I saw yesterday, I’m sure you did, Michael, as well, the revised estimates by the U.S. government that the Russians may have lost 75,000, killed and wounded in this military operation, which is about 50% of what they started out with.

I actually think those are probably conservative estimates. I suspect the losses are probably higher. And what that raises is the question of what military experts like to call the culmination of the Russian advance, where they’re no longer able to actually move forward anymore.

Now, there have been a lot of predictions about this offensive in the Donbas, culminating, and so I don’t want to add another prediction, but it does seem that they’re having great difficulty actually moving very far.
And a lot of that has to do with the very smart way the Ukrainians have been fighting and the way they’ve been using the military equipment that we have provided them, particularly the HIMARS, the high mobility artillery system that we’ve provided them with, that has basically rocket-powered artillery shells, the so-called GMLRS.
These are very precise rounds, which have a range of about 80 kilometers. And they have very systematically attacked the weakest point of the Russian military operation, which is the logistics. And they’ve made it very difficult for them to operate.

What they’ve also done in the south, which is going to be very important for the next topic we’ll talk about, which is the economic war – they have been isolating the Russian forces in Kherson City, and I think they’re making it very difficult. Again, going after the logistics, taking out bridges through which the Russians are resupplying their forces.

They’re going to make the position of these forces in Kherson untenable. And I think there’s a likelihood that they will take back Kherson City. Now, whether they can move to a broader counteroffensive from that, I don’t know. But I would basically say from the point of view of the battlefield today, Ukraine is doing very well, Russia not so well.

My own view is we ought to be giving the Ukrainians more equipment and faster, more HIMARS, more rounds. I would also be in favor of giving them the ATACMS rounds, which have a 300 kilometer range. There are issues we can talk about with regard to escalation and also whether they can attack Russia that are involved there. But that would be my view.

I think, as our former colleague Eliot Cohen has written, the idea of titrating out, in little drops, the equipment we’re giving the Ukrainians is not, I think, the best way to go about this. on the economic side.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, Eric, let’s switch to the economic fight.

ERIC EDELMAN: Yeah, on the economic side, I have more concerns. And there’s no doubt that the Russian economy has been hard hit by the sanctions. They’ve managed to keep the value of the ruble from completely collapsing, but I’m not sure that’s the only measure. There was a recent study out of the Yale School of Management by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld about the state of the Russian economy, which is very dire in terms of the ability of the economy to actually produce things.

I mean, automobile manufacturer, for instance, has virtually ceased in Russia. So Russia is definitely feeling the heat of the sanctions.

But, even if you believe some of the most dire predictions, the Russian economy is going to contract by somewhere between 15 to 30% this year. The Ukrainian economy has already contracted by 45 to 50%. And in particular, as you know, Michael, they have 22 million tons of grain in silos. They’re about to start the the summer harvest, which means more grain is going to be piling up and that’s an issue both for Ukraine in order to be able to earn the export earnings – they’re one of the largest wheat and sunflower oil exporters in the world. And so there are knock on effects to global food security. But just for the economy to be able to survive, they need to get that out.

Now, there’s an agreement that’s just been reached among Turkey, the U.N., Russia and Ukraine, although not a direct agreement between Ukraine and Russia, to open the port of Odesa and get some of this stuff out. I mean, the ink was not even dry on the agreement when the Russians were shelling some of the port facilities, grain storage, etc., which raises the question of how effective the agreement is going to be and how easy it’s going to be for for Ukraine to survive economically.

The government is running an $8 to $9 billion deficit a month, some of which is being plugged by money from the $40 billion that the U.S. Congress appropriated. And there’s some money coming from the E.U. But none of that, I mean, it doesn’t add up to plugging plugging the gap.

So, Ukraine, of course, is, I think, fighting a war for survival. And that means that you can maybe survive really dire circumstances. But I worry that as time moves on, as we get into the fall, as the weather gets colder, you might start to see some of the allied unity begin to break down on the sanctions front.

And whether Ukrainians can persist in this heroic resistance against Russia, I don’t know. So I’m fairly confident about the military battlefield. I’m less confident about the economic battlefield. And that’s one reason why, as I was saying before the break, I think it’s imperative to get the Ukrainians as much military materiel and arms as we can.

It would be very important if they can actually just win this on the battlefield by the end of the summer or in early fall.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Eric, I want to jump now to the third piece, which is, there’s a large number of countries in the world that are kind of on the sidelines here. A small number of countries that have joined arms with the United States and imposed sanctions. But a much larger number of countries who are just on the sidelines.
Why is that, number one? And is there any chance of changing that, number two?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, first, let me just say that I think the Biden administration deserves a lot of credit for maintaining an extraordinary degree of allied unity in terms of NATO and the European Union.

I think that in terms of the transatlantic relationship, I’m not sure, given, all the uproar over the last several years about the U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe, that one would have predicted that in the face of this military invasion, this unprovoked war of aggression by Putin, that you would have as much allied unity as you’ve had.
And so I think the administration deserves a lot of credit for that, particularly Secretary Blinken, who I think has done an extraordinarily good job of alliance management, which is especially –

MICHAEL MORELL: Especially through Japan and South Korea –

ERIC EDELMAN: Yeah. And I mean, I include them as part of the West, really. And I think that’s right.
I think what you’re talking about is in the third world where – what we used to call the third world or the nonaligned world – where the attitudes are much more ambivalent. And there, in some places like sub-Saharan Africa, some parts of the Middle East that are actually – or in East Asia, which are actually very dependent on some of these agricultural exports.

I think the Russians have done a pretty good job of muddying the waters about who’s really responsible for this. I mean, you and I would look at this and say, ‘Well, there’s not even a question here. This is all because Russia started this war, because they were blockading the ports, southern ports of Ukraine.’ A blockade is an act of war, even though Putin has said this is a special military operation, not a war.

But, you know, they, in fact, have been blockading. They’ve moved their ships back a little bit since the command ship of the Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, was sunk by by the Ukrainians using anti-ship cruise missiles.
But they’re still responsible. But they’ve done a great job of saying, ‘Well, no, it’s really NATO that’s responsible for this. It’s the U.S..’ And that, I think, falls on relatively fertile ground. And there’s always a current of anti-Americanism in the post-colonial world. And we have, I think, not been as on our toes fighting this in the public diplomacy realm as we should be.

Some of that, I think, is from chronic underfunding of the State Department’s platform. Some of it’s because we’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing that kind of thing. And I think that’s a real problem going forward. I think we’re going to have to be much more active countering this Russian offensive.

I mean, you’ll note that Foreign Minister Lavrov has been touring Africa, trying to reiterate this Russian line of of argument that this is not their fault – and I think the reason that they reached this agreement with the U.N. and with Turkey to open the ports is in part to, run counter to the argument that we have made, that this is Russia’s fault.

And so they’re saying, ‘Look, see, we’re negotiating the opening of the port. Don’t blame us.’ Of course, the fact that they then immediately shelled Odesa, which may in part be an effort to drive up the insurance costs that make it prohibitive to get Ukrainian grain out of of the port of Odesa belies all that. Yeah, but there you go.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Eric, we’re going to come back to the question of U.S. policy. And I’d say, and I think you’d agree with me, that several things should be driving us. One is our policy objectives. What do we want to achieve here? How much of an economic price do we want to pay and how much risk are we willing to take with regard to escalation? And I’m wondering if you would add anything to that list.

And then, more importantly, how do you assess how the administration has thought about those things as it’s put its policy together? Are we thinking about all those the right way, particularly escalation and our policy objectives?

ERIC EDELMAN: Yeah. I mean, the only thing I would add, Michael, is I think one of our policy objectives is a broad strategic one, which has to do with global order and allowing unprovoked, premeditated aggression to take place between two countries where the United States is not completely outside of this.

We signed a number of agreements at the end of the Cold War with Russia, with Ukraine, that had to do with Ukraine giving up its claim to the nuclear weapons that were left on its soil after the breakup of the Soviet Union, which assured them that the United States – and Russia and Britain and France were also associated with this in different ways – that Ukraine would be allowed to exist within its then-existing borders, which included not just the Donbas, but also Crimea. And that they would not be threatened with the use of force.

Now, Russia has violated all that. That’s a major blow, I think, to the nonproliferation regime, which is a major U.S. interest, global interest and objective. And it just tears at the fabric of international order and provides an incentive, potentially, for instance, to the PRC when it looks across the strait at Taiwan or to the DPRK or to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And so in terms of global order, making sure that Putin fails, it seems to me, is an absolutely overriding U.S. objective. There is a concern about escalation, and I accept that. I mean, Russia is a nuclear power. It’s an enormous nuclear power. It actually has a nuclear arsenal that, at least numerically, is larger than ours by a few warheads.

But I think that the administration has been a little too concerned about the risk of escalation. And the risk of escalation works both ways, right, because we’re a nuclear power, too, right? So are our French and British allies. I don’t think that Putin and the Russians want to have a nuclear exchange. It would be devastating for everybody as all five of the nuclear weapon states reasserted just before the Russians invaded Ukraine. And nuclear war can and should never be waged and can never be won.

That remained the case during the Cold War, when both sides had even larger arsenals of nuclear weapons. We fought proxy conflicts in Korea and in Vietnam and elsewhere around the world and escalate that to nuclear exchange. I think it’s possible to manage this now without worrying about it. And I think the administration has been so worried about what might provoke Putin and so busy describing what it won’t do because it might provoke Putin that they haven’t really, I think, done something very fundamental, which is try and raise concerns in his mind about what he might do that would lead us to escalate.

And I think, you know, Henry Kissinger has for years pointed out that deterrence, what we think deters people is not important. It’s really what goes on in their minds. And you can never really know that. So you really have to focus on trying to deal with their perceptions rather than put your perceptions in the place of of what they might be thinking.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Eric, this is a bit of a tough question, but let’s give it a go anyway. Can you talk about what you see as the most likely scenarios over the next several months? Are we stuck in a stalemate here? Can the Ukrainians actually win? Is there a way for Putin to get his momentum back? How much of what the United States does really matters to these scenarios? Can you kind of paint a picture of where we might be going?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I think let me start with the last, Michael. I mean, what we do matters enormously, and it already has mattered. It’s as we were saying earlier in the conversation, U.S. assistance first, in the form of javelins and stingers in the early stages of this war, and now with the with artillery and particularly the HIMARS, we’ve made an enormous difference on the battlefield.

That’s not to take anything away from the Ukrainians. I mean, they have shown themselves to be very adept at using what we’ve given them and and very creative in the way that they have dealt with this Russian aggression. But we’ve made a huge difference and we can still, I think, make a huge difference.

I think it’s going be very difficult for Putin to get the initiative back, in – certainly in a military sense, because of the damage that’s been done to his forces, and it’s really the personnel and the leadership – there have been enormous losses of leadership, general officers, colonels, lieutenant colonels. They’re finding it – because he doesn’t want to declare a national mobilization and doesn’t want to say that this is a war, they’re having a lot of difficulty replacing the forces that they’ve lost. And I think that’s going to continue. So I think it’s going be very hard for them to recover the initiative.

The big military question and I don’t have an answer for it, is whether the Ukrainians can move from the strategic defensive, which they’ve executed pretty brilliantly, I would argue, and transition from that to a counter-offensive that would either drive Russians forces out back to the pre February 24th lines, which would still leave Russia occupying about a third of Luhansk and Donetsk, which they occupied before February 24th. And I don’t know whether the Ukrainians are going to be able to do that.

And then the other issue is whether this does turn into kind of a frozen conflict, a sort of stalemate, as you were suggesting. And I worry about that because that would then maybe put this conflict on to the kind of economic basis that we talked about earlier, where, as I said, I have some worries about the long-term issue of who has time on their side, whether it’s Russia or Ukraine. We don’t know the answer to that.

But I worry that the Russians might be able to make time work for them. And again, that’s one reason why I would like to maximize the effort we’re putting into doing it. There might be, I think, a temptation in some quarters to play for a tie, to say, ‘Well, you know, stalemate is okay because it means Putin has not achieved his objectives.’ But I worry that a stalemate could be bad both on the battlefield and at home for the battle for public opinion in the United States, because there’s been very good support publicly for supporting Ukraine.

But my reading of U.S. public opinion is that as long as people think there’s a prospect for success for the Ukrainians, they’ll be willing to support Ukraine. I think if it begins to devolve into something that looks like another frozen conflict, endless war, I worry that some of that support will dissipate. And then, of course, as we’ve been saying, if it goes long in time, actually favors Russia on the economic front, that could have very bad consequences as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Eric, I want to actually go backwards in time here and talk about how we ended up here. So, as you know, Putin came to power in 2000. He served as the Russian president for all but four of the years since. And during those four years, he served as prime minister. And I’m wondering if you think that where we are today was inevitable, given who Putin is as a person and given the degree of Russian nationalism and perceived Russian grievances.

Or do you think the circumstances of the last 22 years brought us here, or perhaps at some combination of all of that? So how do you think about how we got here from where we started way back in 2000?

ERIC EDELMAN: Yeah, I think it is a combination of things. I think if you look at something like Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People, she was the former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, very well-connected. Or the late Karen Dawisha’s book, Putin’s Kleptocracy. It seems pretty clear that there was a core of folks from the KGB who, even as the Soviet Union was collapsing, were both taking advantage of their privileged position in the system to both enrich themselves, but also to plot and plan to take over the state to further their own, largely personal interests. Although I don’t doubt that it’s got a mixture of kind of Russian nationalism and nostalgia for great power status and what what have you.

And that, I think, was inevitable. I don’t think there was much we could have really done about that. I mean, we probably could have been a little more vocal about some of the violations of rule of law, the arrest of, you know, Khodorkovsky and jailing of Khodorkovsky for ten years, the crushing of the independent media. I mean, we could have been more outspoken about that, I suppose, but in the end of the day, I’m not sure that would have changed anything that much.

And there is also, you know, circumstance. I mean, I think there are some things that we did, some that at the time people may not have even appreciated as much. I’m thinking, for instance, of our recognition of the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, which the Russians have subsequently used as an excuse for, for instance, recognizing separatists in Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and to some degree, same argument they’re making in the Donbas and in Crimea and in Ukraine. So there were some of the things we did.

There’s no doubt there are other things we did that were irritants. But the biggest thing that happened, and I don’t think we could have controlled that, was the eruption of the color revolutions, in particular the color revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005. And I think that was extremely unnerving to Putin because his conclusion was erroneously, I think, that, A, the U.S. was behind it, and B, that our ultimate objective was to impose a color revolution on Russia and overthrow him.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right. Absolutely.

ERIC EDELMAN: And the other thing I would say that I think kind of brought us to this pass was the way we responded in 2014 and 2015. I think the Obama administration, which did impose sanctions – and I don’t want to be overly critical, but I think it was pretty clear that President Obama, who did not, for instance, favor giving Ukraine lethal military assistance, believed that as several people who spoke to him about this at the time have told me, that Russia always was going to care more about Ukraine than the United States, that Russia had escalation dominance because Ukraine was very close to Russia, very far from the U.S., and that therefore we should not get into any kind of proxy conflict there.

My own view at the time was – and today remains – that we should have been providing more assistance to Ukraine, we should have been making it much more difficult for Putin. And in part, I think, because in terms of deterrence, we would have wanted him to be thinking, ‘If the Americans are willing to do this for a country that they’ve offered assurances to but have no treaty obligation to, what would they do to defend countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to whom they have an actual treaty obligation?’ So as as part of deterrence, I think making life difficult for him in Ukraine was an important step. And I think we missed that opportunity in the period after 2014.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, last couple of questions, Eric. I want to ask about China. As you know, the Chinese supported this invasion and they still do, at least rhetorically. So, really two questions. One is, have you learned anything new about China? How you think about China based on how it handled this invasion? Or have you just had your prior beliefs reinforced about China?

ERIC EDELMAN: Question one – yeah, it’s an interesting question. So right before the February 24th invasion, Putin and Xi met and they declared an endless partnership. What’s interesting, since the war began, the endless partnership might have been consummated had the Russians actually achieved their objectives in 72 hours as they hoped to, and kind of just rolled over and decapitated the Zelenskyy government and occupied Kiev and Kharkiv and most of the eastern Ukraine and just dismembered the country.

But when it proved to be more difficult and the sanctions started to be applied to Russia, I think the Chinese have been very careful. I mean, they certainly provide lots of rhetorical support for the Russians, but they haven’t produced a whole lot. They haven’t really provided a lot of material support to the Russians. And I think they’re watching this, you know, very closely.

And obviously, they have other considerations in mind. They are a couple of different lessons that the Chinese could be learning from this. And I don’t think we know the answer to this, Michael. I mean, maybe you and perhaps some of your former colleagues who are still in government today have a better idea of this than I do.

But, on the one hand, they could be learning the lessons that I think a lot of our colleagues in the Department of Defense have told me they think that the Chinese are learning: Combined arms operations are actually really difficult. You know, if your military hasn’t fought in a war in a long time or if the last time they fought was 1979 against the kind of smaller power and they didn’t do that well, maybe you want to think twice about launching an amphibious operation against Taiwan, which is, of all the combined arms operations you can do, perhaps the most challenging and difficult.

You know, maybe the folks on Taiwan will react kind of the way the Ukrainians have and resist. That might be kind of difficult. And so all of those sort of cautionary lessons could be what people in Beijing are drawing from this, and certainly Xi Jinping may be drawing from this.

I worry that there could be other lessons that are being learned. One of which is, if you start making a lot of nuclear threats, particularly if you’re developing a nuclear force that now is, you know, not maybe the equal of the United States, but much closer to peer status than it’s ever been historically, since Americans are very concerned about nuclear escalation, you make a lot of nuclear threats early and maybe you impose a blockade around Taiwan very quickly to make the Americans bump up against the risk of escalation very early. And then maybe you decapitate the government of Taiwan, so, Mrs. Tsai, or whoever succeeds her can’t rally the people to resist you. And I don’t know which set of lessons they’re learning or whether they’re learning some of both.

But what I worry about – because you and I served on a commission four years ago that looked at the defense posture of the United States. And at that time, we expressed concern that we might have a conflict over Taiwan, which the United States would be very hard pressed to defend. And in the last four years since we issued that report, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think things have improved that much on that score. Perhaps a little bit, but not nearly enough to banish the worry that we could find ourselves faced with a very difficult situation.

And what I worry about is, as we have been increasing the military budget in the last two years – the first two years of the Trump administration, we had two years that were flat – and now two years of growth under President Biden. But as we begin to focus on these Indo-Pacific challenges and particularly the challenge of China and Taiwan, we have to worry that Xi Jinping begins to become concerned that time might be running against the PRC, which has its own set of internal challenges – you know, demographic and environmental and otherwise, and that they decide that they need to go early rather than later.

And you see some worrying signs of that, including these warnings to the Biden administration about the prospective visit of Speaker Pelosi to Taipei. Right. And I worry that – I think all of us on the commission were worried – that we might be looking in the second half of this decade at a period of time of that would be particularly worrisome.

MICHAEL MORELL: And Eric, we’re running out of time here. So maybe ask you one more question. We’ve been talking about what lessons China might be taking away. And I’m wondering if you can answer this in a minute or so.

What lessons do you think we need to take away from our experience with the Russians over the last eight years as we apply them, as we think about our policy toward China?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I would just make a couple of points, Michael. One is, I mean, deterrence is important. And thinking about deterrence in a rigorous way is important. And frankly, I think we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing that since the end of the Cold War, and I think we need to get back into that habit.

Second, I would say this is something we pointed out in our report, too. We’ve tended to be prepared for very short wars, you know, 30 days. And you can see this in our own munitions – stocks and munitions we’ve been supplying to Ukraine are in very short supply. And it’s going to be very difficult for our defense industrial base to make us whole in any kind of reasonable amount of time for a lot of complicated reasons that we don’t have to get into – but basically, we lack the shop floor space and the skilled workforce to be able to produce a lot of these things rapidly.

And we may need these things in very large numbers, as we’re discovering, from what’s going on on the battlefield between Russia and Ukraine. And in some cases, it’ll be different kinds of munitions that we might need for an Indo-Pacific conflict. But the general proposition remains that we have to be prepared for potentially a very long conflict if we get into one.

MICHAEL MORELL: Eric, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. And thank you for joining us; been a terrific conversation.

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, thanks for having me. 

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