Just as 2016-20 was dominated by Brexit and 2020-22 by Covid-19, we have moved decisively this week to a new era defined by Russia’s military expansionism and the West’s response.
We have known for a long time that Russia is a nation that is both dangerous and in decline. Its economy is fundamentally weak and dependent upon natural resources for which there will be little demand in a decarbonised future. It has an ageing and shrinking population. It looks back with nostalgia on its past power and, desperate to maintain its relevance on the world stage, spends more than it can afford on its military. Vladimir Putin – proud, vain, isolated, self-pitying, desperate to relive past glories – embodies the state of his nation, except that he is rich and Russia is poor.
The hope in the West was that Russia was an acute problem but one that would, in time, diminish with demographic shifts. Yes, it would behave appallingly – annexing Crimea, launching cyberattacks, assassinating dissidents – but containment, patience and renewable energy would mean that by the middle of the century the problem would be behind us. Russia’s decline could be managed.
This optimism has turned out to be misplaced. After today’s invasion of Ukraine, it is not credible to argue that the threat he poses to the West is one that can be tolerated. He is not deterred by sanctions, nor concerned about international condemnation, nor constrained by rationality. An old man in a hurry, he is moving swiftly to establish himself as a great Russian, trying to reunite his nation, Belarus and Ukraine under his leadership in Moscow, whilst also posing a threat to the Baltic states, Moldova, Romania and the western Balkans. Boris Johnson was right to refer to Putin’s justifications as being mystical in their nature.
The likelihood is that Putin will ultimately fail. He cannot meet his objectives by securing parts of Donetsk and Luhansk because this will drive the rest of Ukraine irrevocably to the West. Even if he captures all of Ukraine, which appears to be his intention, the resources necessary to occupy the largest country by area in Europe against a determined and (one would hope) well-funded insurgency would be too much for an economy that is less than a twelfth the size of the US economy.
The venture may expedite the collapse of the Putin regime and Russian pretensions that it is a great power. If, in response, Russia has the self-awareness to recognise reality and vows to make a success of being a middle-ranking nation (does Canada or Italy feel entitled to a “sphere of influence”?), some good may come of this ghastly business. But for some time it will just be ghastly.
[see also: London’s response to Vladimir Putin is pathetically inadequate]
The Ukrainians will of course bear the brunt of the conflict. The West will not fight on the Ukrainians’ behalf – this would result in a third world war – but it has a responsibility to do all in its power to ensure that they are capable of inflicting unsustainable costs on their invaders. The Ukrainian resistance – and, for that matter, the Belarus rebels – should be provided with the necessary arms, funds and intelligence. A prosperous future for Ukraine as part of the Western family of nations must be held open as a realistic prospect, even as Russian tanks drive through the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv.
We will feel the consequences at home. Energy and food prices will increase further, military spending and the taxes to pay for it will increase, and there is likely to be a refugee crisis.
It is almost distasteful to mention the domestic political considerations. The crisis has certainly given Boris Johnson a respite. If he is to receive a fixed penalty notice for attendance of parties, it is all too easy to see how the argument will be made that now is not the right time to change prime minister. It is a flawed argument, but his parliamentary critics may have missed their chance to remove him as leader for now.
The rows about party funding and links to Russian donors are awkward for the Conservatives, but if the law was complied with – contributions from British citizens all fully declared – it is unlikely to be devastating. The issue angers those already angry with the government. Anything outside the law would be another matter.
The crisis has enabled Labour to distance itself from the Corbyn era. It is still depressing that 11 Labour MPs have put their names to the Stop the War Coalition petition blaming the UK – not Russia – for escalating tension and giving credence to Russia’s so-called security concerns. Johnson has already sought to take political advantage of this, but he has a point. Such opinions do not belong in a party of decent, democratic values.
In the light of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Keir Starmer should give them 24 hours to remove their names from the petition and unequivocally condemn Russia. If they do not, he should remove the Labour whip.
How does this end? A direct Russia-Nato conflagration still appears unlikely, but whereas once the Western strategy was to live with Putin as an unpleasant presence to our east, that option is no longer available.
Putin’s ambitions are evident, as is his recklessness. The peace and security of Europe will be in jeopardy while he remains in power. The West now has little alternative but to ensure that Putin’s foreign adventurism has such painful consequences for Russia that this results in his downfall. It may be a long haul.
[see also: The Tory party will pay a heavy price for failing to remove Boris Johnson]