Should Taiwan Attempt to Replicate the Zelensky Playbook?


On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of the world could not imagine President Volodymyr Zelensky emerging as a potent symbol of Ukrainian resistance. When he was elected in 2019, Zelensky came to office with no prior political experience. Despite initial enthusiasm, the former television star’s popularity was in decline, with many voters disillusioned by continued corruption, disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the growing threat of a Russian invasion. Early in the war, U.S. officials attempted to persuade Zelensky that he should leave the capital and move to the western part of Ukraine so he would be better protected. Zelensky’s now-famous refusal —”I need ammunition, not a ride”— proved to be an initial indicator that he could use his background in entertainment to rally support to Ukraine’s cause.

The conflict in Ukraine has underscored the importance of a properly executed information campaign; the country has received an estimated $233 billion in foreign aid and military assistance. Ukraine’s success was underpinned by its ability to keep its government and population digitally connected to the rest of the world. As the United States and its allies prepare for a potential conflict in Taiwan, questions arise about whether Taiwan, if attacked, could replicate Ukraine’s success.

On the surface, Taiwan’s and Ukraine’s geopolitical situations share several features. Both are vibrant democracies next to large autocratic neighbors that have designs on their territory. But a war over Taiwan would occur under very different conditions. A country less than 5 percent the size of Ukraine and surrounded by water, Taiwan’s geography makes its communications infrastructure — a vital component of any information campaign — vulnerable to disruption. For example, using cyber or physical attacks, China could target Taiwan’s onshore cable landing stations, data centers, and electrical power infrastructure, all of which are needed to maintain digital connectivity.

Furthermore, because of Taiwan’s ambiguous political status and considerably weaker military position and the absence of a NATO-like alliance in the Pacific, its messaging will look different than Ukraine’s. Whereas Ukraine was focused on acquiring military aid, Taiwan will almost certainly be asking potential allies to engage in a direct military intervention. Given the risk of digital isolation, Taiwan needs to lay the groundwork for its information campaign well in advance of a confrontation and should focus its messaging on convincing potential allies that protecting Taiwan is vital to their security interests.



The Zelensky Playbook

To be successful, information campaigns require both a compelling message that resonates with international audiences and the technical means to deliver it globally, ideally through more than one medium. Ukraine did this through the “Zelensky playbook,” a wartime engagement strategy that relies on digital communications to take a message directly to foreign audiences, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational corporations. Robust access to digital communications technology was a critical enabler of this strategy, as it allowed both the government and the civilian population to flood social media with content demonstrating Ukraine’s resolve. Through this content, Ukrainian leaders were able to project a narrative that highlighted Ukraine’s willingness to fight, while simultaneously seeking to frame the conflict as a broader struggle between democratic societies and autocratic regimes.

Taiwan’s government has taken notice of the strategy and is seeking to emulate parts of it in preparation for a Chinese invasion. Outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen has made several speeches comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Taiwan’s potential plight, stating that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call to us all, and served as a reminder that authoritarianism does not cease in its belligerence against democracy.” Meanwhile, Taiwan’s digital ministry has taken steps to improve Taiwan’s digital telecommunications resiliency, including entering into an agreement with a British satellite communications provider to serve as a backup.

The People’s Republic of China is also watching the conflict in Ukraine and has witnessed Russia’s shortcomings in the information environment. China’s military, which dwarfs Taiwan’s in term of both numbers and capabilities, places information superiority at the pinnacle of its military doctrine and will likely take steps to ensure its own narratives remain dominant throughout the conflict. It might also anticipate Taiwan’s actions and prioritize plans to disrupt them. This could take the form of digital denial operations, which include kinetic and nonkinetic attacks aimed at degrading or destroying civilian and government digital communications infrastructure. For Taiwan to be successful against China, they will need to understand which lessons from Ukraine are applicable to their situation and which are not.

More Vulnerable Digital Infrastructure

Maintaining access to reliable communications is critical for information campaigns. At the start of the invasion, Russia attempted to cripple Ukrainian government networks through destructive cyberattacks, but these effects were blunted with the help of Microsoft, Google, and other firms, which would come to provide unprecedented levels of support for Ukraine during the conflict. Russia also conducted physical attacks on Ukrainian telecommunications infrastructure, but these were mitigated in areas outside direct Russian control through the introduction of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite communications terminals, whose use has become widespread among Ukrainian military forces and the civilian population. Overall, Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s communications infrastructure represented only a limited digital denial campaign, one primarily focused on disrupting the communications of the central government in the early stages of the conflict. Implementing a total digital blackout would likely have exceeded Russia’s conventional and cyber capabilities.

Taiwan’s situation is different. China is much better positioned to implement the near-complete digital isolation of the island. With 90 percent of its population online, Taiwan hosts one of the most open, diverse, and affordable online environments in the world. However, its current connectivity is almost completely dependent on undersea cables that could be surreptitiously severed during a conflict. Taiwan is currently connected to ten undersea cable systems, which include 16 individual cables, with three additional systems planned in the coming years. Together, these cables carry approximately 97 percent of Taiwan’s global internet traffic. Three of these systems route directly through China, making them highly vulnerable to exploitation during a potential conflict. Inadvertently or not, Taiwan’s undersea cables have been severed at least 27 times, demonstrating their vulnerability to disruption during conflict.

The majority of Taiwan’s on-island digital communications architecture is concentrated in the northern portion of the island — an area roughly the size of Connecticut — well within range of China’s substantial inventory of short-range ballistic missiles. This architecture includes the most critical submarine cable landing stations, which route international internet traffic to and from the island, along with a handful of data centers, which store everything from email servers managed by major telecommunications companies to civil records vital to the functioning of Taiwan’s government. As an alternative to striking these targets directly, Beijing may attempt to use its substantial cyber capabilities, allowing it to focus its kinetic attacks on other high-priority targets.

China could also indirectly target Taiwan’s communications infrastructure by crippling the electrical grid. Roughly 80 percent of Taiwan’s power is generated by coal and liquified natural gas, most of which must be imported via maritime routes. While the bulk of this is sourced from the United States, Canada, and Australia, ensuring delivery of these resources during a conflict would be extremely challenging. A recent wargame conducted by the think tank Taiwan Center for Security Studies concluded that Taiwan’s energy storage and electrical grid would fail to meet even basic power needs in the event of blockade or invasion by China.

Learning from the conflict in Ukraine, Taiwan’s leaders recognize the need to harden the island’s digital infrastructure and have embarked upon a campaign to defend against communications isolation. Taiwan’s largest telecommunications company formally signed an agreement with EutelSat/OneWeb, which operates a satellite constellation similar to Starlink, in an effort to make its mobile network more resilient. These satellite communications are difficult to jam and have proven effective at enabling Ukrainian military operations, along with keeping otherwise isolated regions of Ukraine connected during the conflict. However, these systems still require power to operate and provide only a fraction of the bandwidth of undersea cables. If Taiwan were left with only satellite communications, they would be forced to make tradeoffs regarding which military, government or civilian networks would remain connected and for how long.

Additionally, Taiwan’s power company is planning to invest U.S. $17.5 billion in strengthening its energy grid over the next ten years, much of which will be dedicated to renewable power sources, reducing but not eliminating Taiwan’s dependence on foreign fuel supplies. The U.S. government is also looking to expand cybersecurity cooperation with Taiwan, and Congress has authorized the Defense Department to partner with Taipei to help protect its military networks and critical infrastructure. Given these developments, China might find it difficult to completely sever Taiwan’s digital communications prior to the start of kinetic conflict. However, the grim reality of Taiwan’s infrastructure vulnerabilities should not be understated, and it is likely that substantial portions of the island will become digitally isolated during a conflict.

Finding the Right Message for the Right Audience

Having the capability to deliver a message is a prerequisite for any successful information campaign, but there are at least two other components behind the Zelensky Playbook: an effective messenger and an effective message. As Russian forces around Kyiv stalled, then retreated, Zelensky conducted dozens of interviews with major news organizations and staged televised virtual addresses with governments across the world during which he persuaded foreign and domestic audiences that Ukraine was militarily capable of resisting Russian aggression. His calls for military aid and harsher sanctions on Russia far exceeded expectations.

Finding an effective communicator is an important component of any information campaign, and Zelensky deserves a good deal of credit. However, his success did not occur in a vacuum; certain geopolitical and geographic factors helped make it possible. Ukraine is a sovereign state recognized by the United Nations, and although it is part of Europe, it is a member of neither the European Union nor NATO. Additionally, the United States and its European allies made it clear they would not intervene militarily unless a NATO country was directly threatened or attacked.

The lack of ambiguity as to Ukraine’s sovereignty and NATO’s clear position on direct involvement allowed the Zelensky government to craft an engagement strategy that appealed to the West’s ideals about self-determination and democracy while simultaneously exploiting their collective guilt that the burden of fighting would be left to Ukraine alone. This situation created a strong desire within Western nations to provide military and humanitarian aid, but also helped to establish boundaries in terms of the types of support they were willing to provide (artillery shells), the types they would not endorse (no-fly zones), and where there was room for negotiation (tanks). Russian attempts to influence these decisions by threatening to widen the confrontation ultimately proved hollow, as Russia was equally motivated to keep the conflict from spilling into NATO territory.

During a conflict over Taiwan, having an effective communicator could prove equally as important. However, it’s difficult to predict both who will be in a leadership position during a time of crisis and whether that individual will resonate with international audiences. Moreover, Zelensky’s decision to remain in the Ukrainian capital proved to be a brilliant move, but if he had been captured, killed, or otherwise rendered unable to communicate with the outside world, Ukraine could have been left without its most successful communicator to rally support to its cause.

Taiwan’s geopolitical situation is also very different, and given the risk of digital isolation, it must lay the groundwork for an information campaign well ahead of any conflict. Even though it has existed as an independent political entity for over half a century, Taiwan is not recognized as a sovereign state by the international community, leaving potential allies unsure of how they should respond to violations of its territory. Additionally, the U.S. position on Taiwan is one of “strategic ambiguity,” deliberately creating a degree of uncertainty as to whether it will intervene. While alliances in the Pacific exist, most are bilateral, and with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, most nations are unaccustomed to acting in unison to combat potential threats. The unclear status of its statehood, the potential uncertainty surrounding America’s military commitment, and the lack of a collective defense agreement among Asian democracies mean that developing a strategy that convinces multiple allies to come to Taiwan’s aid could be difficult. China will also be trying to drive wedges between these potential allies, possibly through the use of economic incentives or coercion.

In addition, Taiwan will be asking potential allies to conduct a direct military intervention, a prospect that carries a far greater risk of retaliation than delivering military aid. As such, Taiwan’s engagement strategy will need to be focused first and foremost on gaining a military commitment from the United States, without which none of the countries in the region will likely to be willing to engage in hostilities against China. While the Biden administration has framed the current state of international relations as a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, this mode of thinking may not be the dominant theme for future administrations. Instead of focusing on ideology, Taiwan might be better served by appealing to the core security interests of the United States and its regional partners. This does not mean that Taiwan should focus its engagement efforts solely on the United States, for convincing regional partners that military intervention is warranted could help generate collective momentum toward intervening on Taiwan’s behalf.

Chief among these are America’s closest allies in the region: Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. The capture of Taiwan would potentially embolden China to seize disputed territories in Japanese territory and the South China Sea. It would also provide China’s navy with a base of operations in the center of the first island chain, enabling it to project power farther into the region. China would likely deploy long-range radars and missile batteries to the island, substantially increasing the threat radius of its already formidable missile forces. These countries already perceive China as a major threat to their territories, increasing the likelihood that they can be persuaded that collective action against China in a Taiwan contingency is a far better prospect then facing it alone in the future.


First and foremost, policymakers in Taiwan and the United States should take caution not to overlearn the lessons of Ukraine. Information campaigns can be a huge enabler but can be challenging to implement, particularly since Beijing has also witnessed Moscow’s shortcomings and will likely take steps to ensure its own narratives remain dominant throughout a potential conflict. Second, improving one’s infrastructure resilience against cyberattacks and physical disruptions is always a positive, but it could have limited utility in Taiwan if China decides to prioritize a digital denial campaign on the island. As such, Taiwan needs to ensure the foundations of its information strategy are laid well in advance of conflict.

Lastly, Taiwan, the United States, and its other allies need to prepare for contingencies in which messaging campaigns fall flat or the complete digital isolation of the island is realized. As with Zelensky, Taiwan’s leaders will need the fortitude to stare down a potential onslaught on their nation, but they should leave open the possibility of fleeing the island if the situation dictates. It should not be forgotten that keeping the legitimate, democratically elected government of Taiwan both alive and free is itself a burning symbol of resistance, one that the Chinese Communist Party will be all too eager to extinguish.



Jason Vogt is an assistant professor and a core faculty member of the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. Vogt previously worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and served on active duty as an Army officer. He specializes in cyber and wargaming.

Nina Kollars is an associate professor and a core faculty member of the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. Kollars formerly served as advisor to Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu. Her primary areas of research are in emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and military innovation.

Michael Poznansky is an associate professor and a core faculty member of the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of In the Shadow of International Law: Secrecy and Regime Change in the Postwar World (Oxford University Press, 2020).

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

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