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United States has been using strategic ambiguity on Taiwan Strait issue by not clearly saying whether they would aid Taiwan with U.S. troops should Mainland China attack Taiwan, which intimidates China and leaves lots of room for themselves at the same time.

But for the issue of Ukraine, the leaders of United States kept saying they will not send troops to help Ukraine defend themselves and EU also said they won't make Ukraine a non-fly zone for Russia. Isn't it better for U.S./NATO to use the same strategic ambiguity in Ukraine situation, to intimidate Russia to some extent, even if they have already decided not to do so?

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    I don't think Putin needed public announcements of other nations' strategic intentions to have a pretty good idea that he didn't have to worry about direct military involvement from NATO members. But just to be sure, he threatened literal nuclear war. Was he serious about that? There's your strategic ambiguity. Mar 6 at 2:49
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    Isn't it a bit too late for ambiguity when the war is already in progress? The whole conditional tense makes no sense when you talk about something that is actually happening. Mar 7 at 15:22
  • @DmitryGrigoryev Well, maybe starting from now, U.S. can stop saying they won't send troops and do something like moving some troops in Europe towards Ukraine, or even enter the Western border of Ukraine where there is no presence of Russia military. That will still create some sort of ambiguity.
    – No One
    Mar 7 at 17:58
  • @DmitryGrigoryev The war between Ukraine and Russia has started, but there is no state of war between Russia and any NATO nation. So the US could still make ambiguous statements about its intentions.
    – nasch
    Mar 7 at 21:32
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    @DmitryGrigoryev No, not a NATO country, that's guaranteed. I think the idea is the US could have remained silent about whether they would send their own forces into Ukraine, rather than promising that they would not.
    – nasch
    Mar 8 at 16:18

6 Answers 6

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They are not the same situation, historically speaking.

Ukraine's situation needs to be understood in the context of the Cold War. It is similar to the crushing of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Given 2 major nuclear powers, both parties, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, had the mutual understanding not to be put their troops in direct hostile contact. That's what got the world through 50 years of much more significant threats than Putin's pointless victimization of a much smaller neighbor. Strategic ambiguity had a lot less value: red lines were drawn that signaled things not to do to avoid a nuclear escalation.

On the other hand, the phrasing and terms of US support for Taiwan was put in place when China was a very minor power, and was being courted by the US to counterbalance the USSR. China and NATO are still not in a Cold War. Arguably at some point in the future, the West and China may need to put in place behavioral protocols explicitly limiting the risk of a full on nuclear war between the 2. But in the meantime strategic ambiguity is not that harmful either - the diplomatic management of the whole Taiwan question is based on a whole lot of ambiguity - is it a country? does it have official representatives, etc... and it is not obvious what would be gained from changing that, aside from possibly provoking China, which to date has more or less behaved (with regards to Taiwan).

p.s. arguably Czechoslovakia was part of the Warsaw Pact, which Ukraine is not now, so it would have been more direct interference at the time. However, make no mistake most of the East European Warsaw Pact countries were entirely unwilling participants in the USSR's bid for global hegemony.

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    I really like this historically perspective! I have never thought about this.
    – No One
    Mar 4 at 18:31
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    "Putin's pointless victimization of a much smaller neighbor" It's not pointless. Putin's made his reasoning for the war very clear in his statements. The point of the war is to prevent further expansion of Western (NATO/EU) influences into Eastern Europe.
    – nick012000
    Mar 6 at 0:06
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    @nick012000 It is ambiguous because he could have asserted the same desire by just reinforcing control over Donbas and Crimea. The this more ambiguous (aka: crazy) because these military actions are now basically all over the Eastern part of the country including near Kyiv. If Putin doesn’t want NATO expansion, that is a diplomatic POV. But if Russia somehow takes over all of Ukraine, what reason does NATO have for not increasing troops and armaments in Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. This is why this is scary: The raw aggression can only serve to make other countries more trigger happy. Mar 6 at 2:54
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    @nick012000 It is pointless because it had no chance of succeeding. Make no mistake, even if he had deposed Zelensky early on, the Ukrainians hate his guts. He would have easily gotten an Afghanistan out of it and have to babysit their economy like he does Belarus. And he's driving Sweden Finland and Georgia to NATO. It's just a bad call, which is why I call it pointless. Not saying that he didn't have a stated reason - it's just that his actions precipitated more problems for Russia, and that's before he managed to eff up his invasion. Genius? Hah! Mar 6 at 6:14
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    @nick012000 It's pointless because it's had exactly the opposite effect. Every country neighbouring Russia or its allies, if it's not already a NATO member then they're now considering joining ASAP. Meantime every country neighbouring Russia and it's allies is now on a full war footing, and their defence spending is going through the roof. The lesson of Ukraine is that the only way to be protected is to be a NATO member, and Putin has directly caused that. All to counter an imagined threat which literally never existed anywhere except in Putin's head.
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 17:36
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I'm guessing it's because it's a bit late for that. Facing 200,000 Russian troops would requite a sizeable army that simply isn't assembled. Also, such an intervention is unpopular in the US, from the polls I've seen. So politicians would take a hit back home for simply making such statements, and the Russians would just laugh it off.

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    I know I know, but Sun Tzu says "All warfare is based on deception". I suppose if Biden makes a phone call to Putin right now, just saying "Hey Vladmir, we are changing our mind, if you don't stop the war, we may send troops to Ukraine". I believe that will already make Putin unable to fall asleep tonight.
    – No One
    Mar 4 at 17:44
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    @user24711: well, the Russians have spy satellites too. Even if they take seriously a US/NATO statement "We'll take back Ukraine", they can monitor troop movements or the lack thereof and infer a schedule.
    – Fizz
    Mar 4 at 19:51
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    "We'll take back Ukraine" is not strategic ambiguity. The true strategic ambiguity is "We may take back Ukraine and we will let you guess"
    – No One
    Mar 4 at 23:27
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    Speaking of those 200k, or more likely 150k Russian troops. Russia's ground forces are 280k according to wikipedia, so that's likely most of their combat troops being held up. Winter aggression wars against small countries are about as good a fit for Russians as cooking is for Brits. Mar 5 at 0:05
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    @user24711, in the case of Taiwan, the US has between one and three carrier task forces in the area at any given time -- enough force to prevent any amphibious attack on Taiwan should they choose to get involved. A comparable force for Ukraine would be a minimum of five Army divisions, about half the active force. It takes several months to deploy that sort of force, and the level of activity involved would be quite obvious to Russian intelligence services.
    – Mark
    Mar 5 at 20:19
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Because Russia has made it clear that a war with NATO will be viewed as an existential risk to Russia, and they will respond by firing nuclear weapons.

Russia's policy on nuclear weapons is that they will only be used in the event of a nuclear attack, or in response to a conventional conflict that is an existential risk to the Russian state.

When Putin ordered his nuclear weapons to step up to the second-lowest level of readiness, he was sending a clear message to the West: if the West were to declare war on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, they would pose an existential risk to Russia, and Russia would retaliate by launching nuclear weapons. Putin has more-or-less explicitly stated as such, when he warned of severe consequences the likes of which the world has never seen when speaking about the possibility of a West enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

As such, the West making statements like "we may intervene militarily to retake Ukraine" will simply result in Putin calling it as the empty bluff it is: "no you won't, we'll nuke you if you do." Therefore, any sort of "strategic ambiguity" ploy by the West would be useless - there would be no ambiguity there, since the West will never risk a nuclear war.

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  • This is a good point. Russian leaders are definitely more baddass than Chinese leaders.
    – No One
    Mar 6 at 0:52
  • One issue with this answer when you say, “When Putin ordered his nuclear weapons to step up to the second-lowest level of readiness…” What exactly do you mean? When Putin said, “So I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty.” some inferred that means “high alert” but there is no clear practical meaning to that as discussed here. There is no such designation. To some it means warheads are actually place on missiles. To others it means that sea and air forces with nukes are readied. (1/2) Mar 7 at 4:53
  • Many people believe it is just a bullying and media tactic designed to scare common people whole experts dismiss it as a meaningless words. It is as if he is saying, “I will insist nuclear missile staff be doubled and we get extra coffee…” On a practical level, so what? And in the car of sea and air forces in play, that could mostly be detected by foreign intelligence pretty quickly. Much of this is a game being played by Putin to push buttons and see what happens. He’s not exactly winning this… Unless his goal is to toy with Ukraine and then bomb it into the stone age. And then what? (2/2) Mar 7 at 4:56
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    "This is a good point. Russian leaders are definitely more baddass than Chinese leaders. – user24711 yesterday" Sorry, threatening civilian massacres the size of which our world hasn't yet seen* is not badass, it's stupid. (*oh wait, maybe Stalin... but it took him years not seconds)
    – MER
    Mar 7 at 20:16
  • @MER I mean, he's not wrong. You don't see Xi Jinping doffing his top to go horseback riding...
    – nick012000
    Mar 8 at 7:46
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You should consider the different steps of the situation in Ukraine:

  • Before any invasion/independence recognition: The situation, if you take facevalue of what was said, was only a training of Russian forces. They were training in their own territory. Of course NOW we know they were preparing an attack. The American will was to ensure the Russians don't enter Donbass undercover as they did in 2014, so president Biden kept saying that the Russians were preparing something. And it was backed by intelligence that was correct. American soldiers could not be sent, even as ambiguity, because it would appear as reinforcing Russian speech about NATO ingerence.
  • When Putin recognized Donbass independence: this announcment was considered, alone, as a path for Russian forces to enter Donbass. But again, since Donbass was in fact in a secession, sending American troops in Ukraine could still support the Russian speech.
  • When Putin invaded Ukraine: This is where Americans could have used ambiguity, but apparently president Biden wanted to reinforce the status of defensive NATO alliance and the American strategy to focus on Asia-Pacific region. That's why “ambiguity” is used for Taiwan and not for Ukraine.
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It probably wouldn't have worked.

In Taiwan's case, China does not feel threatened. They want to occupy Taiwan, but don't view the Taiwanese government as a threat to their existence. This does not apply to Ukraine, where Putin has used language such as "Russia has 'nowhere to retreat' over Ukraine". In other words, Russia is apparently willing to risk World War III to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. You can see other indications of this when Putin warned foreign powers of unprecedented consequences if they interfere.

If the US had tried strategic ambiguity and Russia invaded anyway, they'd either have to not intervene (and watch their reputation crumble) or intervene and possibly start WW3 - which is effectively where we currently are, with extra downside for the US if they don't intervene.

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    Putin claiming that it's a threat to Russia's existence and Russia actually actually viewing it as a threat to their existence are two different things. And the whole point of strategic ambiguity is to leave yourself the option of not intervening without your reputation "crumbling". Saying you definitely will intervene is no more strategic ambiguity than saying you definitely won't. Mar 6 at 7:19
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Speculation: If we assume the situation is similar (it is, in a sense, the differences are pointed in the other answers), it may be that US is in a position to experiment with different approaches.

The strategic ambiguity is expensive in terms of maintaining the ability (or at least the optics of ability) to do both things.

On the other hand, declaring that US will not deploy troops in Ukraine is still some kind of strategic ambiguity in the eyes of the Russian leadership. They simply don't trust the US.

The message, on the other hand, is important for their European partners that have bigger stakes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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  • "The strategic ambiguity is expensive in terms of maintaining the ability (or at least the optics of ability) to do both things." That hits the point! I wish someone could say that earlier
    – No One
    Mar 7 at 0:47
  • Your question was rethoric, wasn't it?
    – fraxinus
    Mar 7 at 6:35
  • Well, I am swinging between two sides...
    – No One
    Mar 7 at 18:02

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