Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder for democracies big and small of the stakes of maintaining free and open societies in the face of rising illiberalism, autocracy, and totalitarianism. And despite the seemingly insurmountable odds for Ukraine, the Ukrainian government, civil society, and diaspora have responded to Russia’s onslaught with gusto. In this spirit, Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion provides lessons to other democracies that face the existential threat of attack by a larger, revanchist neighbor, such as Taiwan. Here are three lessons Taiwan can learn from Ukraine’s response in the areas of public diplomacy, strategic communications, and cyber defense.
During the invasion, current and former Ukrainian officials at all levels of government have adeptly used public diplomacy to gain support and achieve strategic goals. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s entertainment background has been key in convincing democratic leaders of the direness of Ukraine’s situation. For example, Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have publicized their calls with foreign democratic counterparts via Twitter several times a day, often praising and shaming in English to influence their constituents to press them to do more to assist Ukraine. Additionally, Ukrainian officials have sought to downplay their conversations with leaders from autocratic states on Twitter because public diplomacy does not sway autocracies as easily as democracies. Instead, Ukrainian officials have focused on sharing these discussions with domestic audiences on platforms like Facebook.
Furthermore, Zelensky has addressed several parliaments around the world to ask for assistance, and Ukrainian government accounts publicize these speeches on social media to sway public opinion. Zelensky and his colleagues have also welcomed visits from several EU and NATO member governments to Ukraine during the invasion to signal support on the international stage. Ukrainian civil society has also framed the fight as a battle between autocracies and democracies to build more support with democratic partners globally. These are lessons that Taiwanese officials should learn to build more goodwill with democratic partners the world over.
The Ukrainian government and foreign partners have been remarkably transparent with the use of intelligence in the lead-up to and throughout the invasion, using strategic communications to shed light on Russia’s motives. Months prior to the invasion, United States intelligence officials told several outlets and discussed publicly the Russian build-up to “pre-bunk” any false pretexts and disinformation that justify the invasion. Similar to the efforts by U.S. officials, official Ukrainian government social media accounts are pre-bunking to shed light on Russian disinformation and false pretexts, and build up more international sympathy for support of Ukraine. This coordination between democratic partners also aims to show a unified front when it comes to security arrangements, sanctions, and export controls. The declassification of top-secret intelligence to pre-bunk disinformation narratives is unusual, and in the event of hostilities with China, Taiwanese officials can take similar actions to build international coalitions and foil Chinese intelligence activities.
Lastly, the Ukrainian government, civil society, and diaspora built several ad-hoc mechanisms to protect critical infrastructure from cyber intrusions carried out by Russian government- and military-affiliated hacking groups and collectives. These Ukrainian groups have been aided which have taken down several Russian government websites since the invasion began. One of these ad-hoc mechanisms, the “IT [Information Technology] Army,” now has more than 400,000 members who have worked together to take down the Belarusian railway network, Russian banks and financial institutions, and Russia’s principal intelligence and security agency, the FSB. In the lead up to a Chinese invasion, Taiwanese officials should reach out to Taiwanese hacktivists domestically and abroad, as well as sympathetic foreign groups, to shore up protections for their critical infrastructure and attack Chinese websites.
Given the threat that autocracies like Russia and China continue to pose, democracies must share best practices and learn from their experiences to preserve their liberal democratic freedoms and systems. To ensure that today’s Ukraine does not become tomorrow’s Taiwan, the Taiwanese government, civil society, and diaspora should learn from Ukraine’s experiences in the areas of public diplomacy, strategic communications, and cyber defense now.