Taiwan and the art of  societal resilience

By Elisabeth Braw

Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden all show how even a relatively small state can defend itself against a giant enemy.

Toronto's Stand with Ukraine "Mega March for Ukraine" on February 27, 2022. (Can Pac Swire via Flickr)

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there have been widespread reports that China is closely studying the conflict in order to learn from Russia’s mistakes – and to avoid repeating them in a future war with Taiwan. Less reported on is the fact that Taipei, too, is scrutinizing the war, hoping to glean insights into how to better defend itself. Fortunately for the island state, Ukraine has conducted a virtual master class in an art all vulnerable nations should practice: how to build, and deploy, societal resilience, which can be defined as a country’s ability to fend off crises and recover from them.

Consider the following examples from Ukraine: Over the last year, when foreign leaders have traveled to Kyiv to visit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, they have traveled on trains run by Ukrainian Railways. So did the seven million Ukrainians who moved West for safety during the early stages of the war. And so have the millions of their compatriots who have ridden the trains since. With a network covering 15,000 miles, Ukrainian Railways is the world’s 12th-largest train company. Despite frequent bombardment by Russia – since the beginning of the war, some 40% of the company’s tracks have been damaged in attacks – the train network has not only kept operating but has achieved a remarkable 90% on-time performance.

That accomplishment is largely thanks to the skilled technicians who race to repair rails soon after they are hit. Similar crews also repair power stations and power lines damaged by the Russians. Over the last 15 months, some 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been hit by Russian weapons, a result of both indiscriminate Russian attacks and more than a few deliberate strikes. That has prompted DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy provider, to create 30 teams of engineers dedicated to technical fixes; every day, these groups carry out five to 10 repairs of damaged infrastructure. As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to use deprivation to break the will of the Ukrainian people has failed; disruptions in the supply of energy and water have remained relatively manageable. Even when they do lose power, moreover, Ukraine’s schools have stayed open; teachers have improvised ways to keep lessons going during electricity outages.

Ukraine has conducted a virtual master class in an art all vulnerable nations should practice: how to build, and deploy, societal resilience.

The metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, being used as a bomb shelter on March 26. (manhhai via Flickr)

At the same time as Russia has used physical weapons to strike Ukraine’s rails, energy grid, and power plants, it has used virtual ones to conduct relentless cyberattacks against the computers that maintain the country’s telecommunications and other critical infrastructure. Ukraine’s Security Service reports that between February and December 2022, the country suffered more than 4,500 Russian cyberattacks, and according to Google’s Threat Analysis Group, Russia’s digital targeting of Ukrainians increased last year by 250%, making Ukraine Russia’s top internet target worldwide. Ukrainian businesses have moved data to the cloud, where it’s safer from hackers. Ukrainian coders at home and abroad have volunteered to act as cyber-defenders for the privately run IT Army and other similar outfits. Such groups benefit from plenty of experience; Russian hackers have been targeting Ukraine for years, making Ukrainian IT experts good at the early detection of cyber-intrusions.

Led by the government, Ukraine’s citizens have demonstrated great tenacity. At the beginning of the war, and against the advice of some of his allies, President Zelenskyy decided to remain in the country and continue to lead. “I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth,” the president said in a video four days into Russia’s assault. President Zelenskyy’s ministers and advisers have also stood fast, as have members of Parliament. Some have even taken up arms.

True grit

Such steadfastness helps explain the population’s resistance. During air raids, Ukrainians gather in underground shelters, where, on occasion, they even sing and dance. Most people have maintained a semblance of daily routines in the face of Russian attacks. Many look out for their elderly and frail neighbors. Large numbers of Ukrainians have joined volunteer organizations like the Hospitallers, a battalion of citizens who act as combat medics. In a September 2022 survey, 71% of Ukrainians said they’d recently experienced nervousness, 42% said they’d experienced tension, and 41% said they’d experienced fatigue. But 41% also said they’d experienced hope, and 55% said they’d rather remain in their hometown than relocate to a safer part of Ukraine or another country. In a more recent poll conducted this past February, nine-tenths of Ukrainians surveyed said they trusted the armed forces (up from 65% before the war), and 90% said they trusted President Zelenskyy (compared with 36% before the war). Even more striking, 95% of respondents said they believed Ukraine will win the conflict.

One of Moscow’s biggest mistakes was Putin’s insistence that Ukraine is an artificial construct; the country has proved the opposite.

Ukainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walks in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on April 4, 2022. - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on April 3, 2022 the Russian leadership was responsible for civilian killings in Bucha, outside Kyiv, where bodies were found lying in the street after the town was retaken by the Ukrainian army. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images). Ukainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks in the town of Bucha after it was retaken by the Ukrainian army. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

What else explains Ukraine’s remarkable resilience? To start, nothing seems to unify a country more than a hostile invasion. When, in 1939, Finland – at that point just two decades old and deeply divided – was invaded by the Soviet Union, the country surprised the attackers by resolutely fighting the Red Army. Although many Finns loved their new nation before the onslaught, the shared threat brought them much closer together, and the badly outnumbered and outgunned defenders managed to hold out for 105 days. Even more remarkable, the resilience created then remains to this day. In a December 2022 government survey, more than 80% of Finns declared themselves willing to participate in their country’s defense.

People with shared traditions, history, language, and societal institutions also have a better chance of uniting in defense of their country than do citizens lacking such bonds. One of Moscow’s most fundamental mistakes in its prewar planning was President Putin’s blithe insistence that Ukraine is an artificial construct without a culture of its own; the country’s subsequent resistance has proved the opposite. Having a leader citizens consider trustworthy also makes them much more likely to want to defend their country; when an enemy invades, corrupt regimes can’t count on much public support. In recent years, especially under President Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian government has tried to tackle the country’s endemic corruption, for example through its “radical transparency” policy in public tenders. These efforts have bolstered Ukrainians’ faith in their country, as their perseverance over the last year shows.

Get prickly

What does this all mean for Taiwan? Like Finland in 1939, Taiwan is a country with a giant neighbor that doesn’t consider it a real state – and that wants to swallow it. Aware of that fact and the dangers it poses, in the last few years Taiwan has developed and implemented a strategy called the Overall Defense Concept, colloquially known as the “porcupine strategy.” The idea behind it is to involve all parts of Taiwanese society in the defense of the country.

Taiwan’s porcupine strategy builds on the “total defense strategy” perfected by Sweden during the Cold War. Stockholm first began formulating this approach during World War II, when Sweden faced a near-certain invasion by Nazi Germany. The idea was to give all Swedes the opportunity to contribute to the country’s protection, in either military or civilian roles. In some cases, such as military service and enrollment in the reserves, that contribution was mandatory. But in many other cases – including participation in auxiliary defense organizations focusing on a wide range of activities such as, training military dogs and managing radio communications – participation was voluntary. During the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of people chose to join in. In total, some three million Swedes were involved in some aspect of total defense at any given time – an astonishing number in a country with a population that, at the end of the Cold War, was just 8.5 million.

In an extraordinary feat of organization, every aspect of Sweden’s society-wide effort was overseen by the government. Just as important, Stockholm made no secret of its existence: In addition to defending the country, the strategy was designed to convince the Soviets that invading would be so painful that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. To clearly communicate this point, Sweden held regular total defense exercises that included not just the armed forces, such as the Home Guard (a volunteer military organization), but also other auxiliary defense organizations, the wider government, and businesses, as well.

So far, the Taiwanese government has done a good job informing the public about the threats the island faces. It has launched an impressive All-out Defense Mobilization agency that handles all “efforts to complete comprehensive preparations for manpower, material resources, financial resources, science and technology, [and the] military.” It has also done exemplary work with its private sector, helping industries that are heavily dependent on exports to China find alternative markets. Such work is important, because China doesn’t actually have to invade Taiwan in order to achieve its goals. It could beat it into submission through nonmilitary means ranging from trade embargoes to blockades of the Taiwan Strait to disinformation campaigns and the weakening of Taiwan’s crucial high-tech firms. China has already shown its willingness to deploy such tactics: In advance of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in April, Beijing threatened to launch a nonmilitary blockade. When the meeting took place anyway, China dispatched an “inspection flotilla” to the Taiwan Strait, signaling its willingness to disrupt international shipping in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Some critics will warn that such efforts will trigger panic. Taiwan’s government should ignore them.

For all its efforts, Taipei still has work to do. The Taiwanese government should teach its people what to do if their electricity, water, or internet goes out. It should help businesses better spot and report intellectual property theft. To better prepare its citizens and train them to spot Chinese misinformation, Taiwan should expand its public information literacy efforts and make such instruction universally available, for example through courses at local libraries. And local councils should train people to organize themselves into government-coordinated community groups that can spring into action if a crisis arrives.

Some critics will warn that such efforts will trigger panic. Taiwan’s government should ignore them. Citizens can handle tough-minded education and preparations. Residents of San Francisco, for example, receive regular reminders from their local government about what to do before, during, and after an earthquake and are also reminded that they’ll have to look after themselves and one another for the first 72 hours so that first responders can attend to those most in need. None of that has turned Californians into a population of paranoid preppers.

The United States and its allies should also do more to pitch in – for example, by helping Taiwan create a survival plan in the event of a Chinese blockade; the West could even make plans for a civilian airlift. Again, the signals Taipei and its friends send will be key. Like a porcupine, a prospective victim of invasion doesn’t need the ability to actually defeat its prospective attacker; it just needs to communicate to that attacker that an assault wouldn’t be worth the effort. Ukrainians have proved so tenacious since the war began that it’s quite possible Russia would never have attacked had Moscow known how stalwart and comprehensive the response would be, with Ukraine’s armed forces forming the mere front line of a much larger effort. Of course, that’s mere speculation; the reality is that Russia did attack. But the fact that Ukrainians are responding so effectively that 41% remain hopeful about the future and 95% believe their country will win ought to give other potential targets, including Taiwan, hope that they, too, could manage just as well.

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