- - Thursday, December 16, 2021

Dictatorships are on the march, at a level of intensity unprecedented since the Second World War. With no tolerance for free speech or political dissent and guilty of massive human rights abuses, China and Russia have become increasingly aggressive in their attacks on free and democratic nations. They inspire fellow-traveler autocracies like Iran and North Korea to pursue more and ever more dangerous and brazen nuclear extortion strategy.

Taiwan and Ukraine, both under siege from their powerful neighbors (who just this past summer partnered on some of the most extensive military exercises ever), find themselves on the geopolitical fault lines in the ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to “smash” any attempts at formal independence and complete China’s “reunification” with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. China has sent a relentless battery of fighter jet incursions into Taiwan’s defensive air zone to intimidate Taipei into accepting its “One China” principle. China also targets Taiwan’s government and private sector with cyber attacks.

China is threatening Taiwan’s independence while militarizing the South China Sea; mounting a massive espionage campaign inside the U.S., including the “Thousand Talents” program, which targets the U.S. scientific community, trampling on Hong Kong residents’ civil liberties; stealing U.S. intellectual property; and using its Belt and Road initiative as cover for debt-trap diplomacy. And let’s never forget China concealed the outbreak and severity of the coronavirus still ravaging the globe.

China is trying to whitewash its international reputation with its full-throttled “wolf warrior” diplomatic propaganda machine, which seeks to conceal its massive human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, Russia has massed 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, insisting it has no malign intentions. Russia, which annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine in 2014, is ruthlessly focused on ensuring the European Union and NATO never admit Ukraine as a member; destroying international trust in Ukraine as a destination for commerce and investment, and degrading the will of the Ukrainian population to defend themselves against Russia’s military and cyber onslaught, all while seeking support for the Kremlin’s agenda among pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens.

And let’s remember that Russia interfered in U.S. elections, allows criminal hacking groups to homestead on its territory, launched the SolarWinds cyberattack, used a banned chemical nerve agent against opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and is allied with Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad as well as Iran’s autocratic mullahs.

It’s no surprise that KGB-operative-in-the-Kremlin President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a strategy consistent with the old Soviet Union’s goals of dominating what he defines as Russia’s rightful regional sphere of influence. Prosperous, democratic and pro-Western former Soviet republics on the other side of the border are an existential threat to Mr. Putin’s authority.

Russians have a saying, “Bez menya, menya zhenili” (“I was married without being present”), which usually refers to soldiers carrying out orders unquestioningly. But in the case of Ukraine, it means that Mr. Putin wants to engage the U.S. in diplomatic negotiations about Ukraine’s future — without Kyiv having a seat at the table. Mr. Putin has steadfastly refused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s requests to meet, all the while demanding “legally fixed guarantees excluding the expansion of NATO in the eastern direction and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in the states adjacent to Russia.”  

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg vowed earlier this month that Russia would hold no such veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. He was in effect writing a check, and now it’s up to NATO members, especially the U.S., to cash it.

In the short term, the U.S. must ensure the territorial integrity of Taiwan and Ukraine by providing enough economic and military assistance that China and Russia recognize an invasion would spill a prohibitively large amount of their blood and treasure. But the longer-term question is about whether the free will of the Taiwanese and Ukrainian people will be heard and honored.  

The U.S. is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with assistance to defend itself. Still, there is ambiguity about whether the U.S. would support Taiwan militarily in case of war with China. Ukraine is a valued military and trading partner — but not a full NATO member covered by the alliance’s pledge of mutual defense in case of attack.

The Biden administration would do well to remember Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, who invoked John Winthrop’s image of a city on a hill — “The eyes of all people are upon us” — as their foreign policy ethos. Holding democracy summits is all well and good. Still, without concrete policy measures, our allies, especially those on the front lines in Eastern Europe and Asia, will be left wondering with the greatest concern whether we stand behind the promises we make.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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