What makes nuclear weapons a reason not to intervene against Russia, but less cause for concern when intervening against China?

In every discussion about Ukraine, the main reason given for the U.S. (or NATO) to not intervene directly militarily against Russia has been, “Putin’s got nukes. You don’t go to war against a nuclear power; it’s suicide.”

Which is rational, but somehow this argument is much more absent in any discussion about China, such as a Taiwan scenario. U.S. policymakers talk all the time, very openly, about potential U.S. direct military intervention on Taiwan’s behalf, despite the fact that China is very much a nuclear-armed nation and in fact arguably cares even more about the Taiwan issue than Russia cares about Ukraine.

Why aren’t Chinese nukes considered to be a deterrent against U.S. intervention in the way that Russia’s nukes are in the Ukraine situation?

Is that so? The US is intervening in Ukraine much more flagantry openly than it is in Taiwan. Don’t give the Chinese ideas! Oh, wait…

One factor is that China has an order of magnitude fewer warheads than Russia, even now, decades after the end of the Soviet Union. A nuclear war with China would be all sorts of bad, but not an end-of-the-world kind of bad, but such a war with Russia would be the end of the world.

Secondly, it would be a lot easier to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan using just naval assets, since by its nature, such an invasion would have to be an amphibious assault across a large span of open water. So the US could intervene effectively, with little risk that they might end up in a position where invading China itself would become likely. That’s not the case in Ukraine, where they share a long land border with Russia. To defend that border would need large numbers of ground troops, and an ability to project power into Russia itself, to destroy any artillery sites that are bombarding the troops in Ukraine. So the risk of a war are much much higher.

Hard to say without the context of which anti-China intervention you’re talking about. Russia is really good at muddying the waters and claiming everything’s Russia. For China, that’s all sea barriers.

I will say that we know Russia has no qualms about flattening entire cities, grinding their own divisions into paste. Their Cold War doctrine was to slime an area with chem or nukes and then roll right through it. We’ve seen what they did to Grozny, Aleppo, Mariupol, so many other places. They have no problem losing millions of people and killing millions of people. They’ve done it before.

Also their nuclear arsenal had a big overkill factor and a very credible second-strike option. China, less so.

That’s for now. Taiwan isn’t a hot war…yet.

What many US policymakers have long been planning for a Taiwan scenario - if it went hot - would be far more actively involved than what the U.S. is doing in Ukraine. The U.S. has had a very hands off “We’ll give supplies and weapons but not actually fight ourselves” stance with Ukraine. Whereas there is significant indication the U.S. would actually fight directly in a Taiwan war.

Somewhat related, but there were large amounts of ink spilled during the Cold War on the issue of the feasibility of using tactical nuclear weapons at sea and if that would necessarily lead to the escalation to the use of strategic nuclear weapons in the way that using tactical nuclear weapons on land could. My personal feeling has always been that the division between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons is entirely artificial, and that once the genie is out of the bottle escalation is virtually inevitable.

Related, because that debate is starting to resurface.

Xi doesn’t seem as scary as Putin.

Nukes? As bad as the Soviet Union / Russia have been, they’ve never used a nuke other than for testing.

As for why the whole “we’re not helping Ukraine even more because of Russian nukes” argument, I suspect a lot of it is that it’s a convenient excuse. There’s some, like the various western authoritarians (Trump / US Republicans, Orban, etc.) who side with Russia and use the threat of Russian nukes to not have to admit that they are actually on Putin’s side. Others, especially far left types, are IMHO too idealistic and for some reason think that Ukraine still has some kind of diplomatic option to negotiate with Russia. They also don’t want to escalate NATO aid because they prefer that diplomacy be tried. Again, rather than saying they don’t want to send more arms to force Ukraine to the table, they use the convenient excuse of the Russian nukes.

Quite obviously. This is why I used the word “doctrine”, as in, it was what they trained to do. They considered nukes to be an acceptable form of artillery prep to support armed movements in Europe.

Not just in the Cold War, either. As recently as 2009 in the Zapad exercise, it simulated an amphibious landing in Poland supported by a nuclear strike on Warsaw.

Russia has a lot of doctrine around nuclear brinksmanship, using nukes to support maneuver operation, backed up by a lot of signaling that they’re willing to take that step, combined with a lot of ambiguity over where their borders and trigger lines are. Totally different from China.

There’s also the fact that war hasn’t yet broken out in Taiwan. If we maintain a tough posture, we can hope that it’ll cause war to continue to not break out, because China won’t want the consequences. That might have worked in Ukraine, too, except we missed our opportunity.

This, the Chinese actually have a robust economy and don’t want to lose it some short term nuclear exchange. They prefer playing the long game, like building an island in the middle of the sea and inching forward. Like building a formidable navy that is effective close to home. And by buying the good will of third world nations in Africa.

The difference can be summed up in a nutshell. Xi Jinping may be a tyrannical dictator but he isn’t insane, and his primary concern is growing China’s economy. Putin is batshit crazy, and furthermore has clear ambitions to rebuild the Russian empire across bordering nations and beyond, plus has a lot more nukes than China and far less hesitancy to use them (see above about “batshit crazy”).

I just want to point out that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan is at least as far as D-Day was from England, and the Chinese don’t really have a lot of experience with amphibious warfare, unlike the Allies in 1944.

Think about what a challenge Operation Overlord was- artificial harbors, underwater pipelines, confusion, fog of war, disorganized troops, and so forth. And all in the face of a basically unopposed landing- no naval challenge, and our troops were mostly facing rather weak garrison units at first. That won’t be true if the Chinese try something- they’ll face a bunch of ready Taiwanese, and the US Navy in all likelihood.

I think the distinction between Ukraine and Taiwan is that the United States did not have any formal agreements to defend Ukraine prior to the invasion. So while the United States might disagree with the invasion, there was no sense of being obliged to intervene.

I always feel this issue is over-rated. Americans tend to hold Overlord as a standard; they feel that if an amphibious invasion can’t be done at that level then it can’t be done.

I feel this is a strategic blindspot; I feel a nation could succeed in an amphibious invasion that was half-assed by Overlord standards.

Germany, for example, was able to invade and occupy Norway in WWII with far fewer resources then we used to invade France. And China was able to successfully invade the island of Hainan in 1950.

The U.S. does not have any formal agreement/treaty to defend Taiwan, either. There is the Taiwan Relations Act, but all that does is commit the US to sell defensive weaponry to Taiwan every now and then.

You’re looking at the wrong document. You want the Six Assurances.

I’ll grant that also contains some ambiguity - but ambiguity in the language has been the deliberate policy.

Biden doesn’t agree with that policy. He has shifted American policy on Taiwan to be unambiguous and has stated directly that US forces would defend Taiwan if China attacked it.

“What should Chinese President Xi know about your commitment to Taiwan?”

“We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there’s one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving-- we’re not encouraging their being independent. We’re not- that- that’s their decision.”

“But would U.S. forces defend the island?”

“Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

“So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?”


China has more than enough nukes for a nuclear winter. So, the OP certainly has a point there.

my own personal conspiracy theory is that Taiwan owns a nuke or three, and decades ago had the Pyrrhic discussion with China that Taiwan might become a parking lot, but so would Shanghai. And that would probably set off a global nuclear conflagration.

Also, please note that Taiwan has been preparing for a Chinese invasion since 1949. And Ukraine has shown at asymmetric drone warfare is a real thing. And China has to cross at a minimum 110 miles of ocean. It ain’t a walk in the park where massed PLA soldiers lined up for hundreds of miles to be cannon fodder would be feasible.

Greater Manchuria (ie Siberia) is a much more practical and tempting target with Russia weakened by Ukraine.

The main reason D-Day is brought up is because of the scale of the thing. Norway was something of a surprise attack where the Norwegians weren’t expecting an attack as Norway was neutral, and Hainan is only 12 miles from mainland China.

Taiwan is 90-100 miles at the closest points, which is more on par with the English Coast to the landing beaches. There’s not a lot of sneaking up to do when one side knows that the other side is interested in invading, and they’ve got to cross 100 miles of sea to do it.

I’m not saying they couldn’t pull off a beachhead in a surprise attack, not at all. What I’m saying is that I really doubt they can sustain that beachhead over 100 miles of open ocean in the face of the Taiwanese navy and the US Navy, and sustainment is the name of that game- they’re going to have to supply and reinforce and grow their forces in Taiwan to succeed.

Is a “surprise attack” even possible these days, with all the surveillance systems the US has access to? Even Russia invading Ukraine wasn’t a “surprise” to the US. We saw the build-up for weeks ahead of time, the only surprise was the Ukrainians not believing that Russia would actually do it, despite the US telling them it was coming.

To establish any kind of a beachhead would require a significant commitment of naval power, needing fighting ships, troop ships and supply ships. The US would see that force coming miles away, and even with just the assets in place on normal patrols, could make their day go very poorly.