And so it comes back, the real threat of European war. As a young political journalist in the 1980s I forever seemed to be sitting in conferences taking shorthand notes on the Soviet military. There were ponderous, self-important discussions in Königswinter and Oxfordshire about the missile gap and the pace of likely tank advance across the north German plain. The commentators then were fluent in ballistic technology and the glossy porn of ready-for-war. We thought we’d left all that behind. The market triumphalism of “the end of history” was matched with mockery of the rusting hulk of Soviet society. How we laughed.
But the giant wheel turns. Here we are again. One day, historians will ask whether Western democracies erred in effectively ignoring a defeated opponent, as did the victorious powers in 1918. But meanwhile, with perhaps 60 per cent of Russia’s army on Ukraine’s borders, Britain faces a humiliating moment of military truth – and a chance to move in new directions.
The humiliation isn’t just Britain’s, but Nato’s. Post-Soviet Russia, led by intelligence officers, chose to build an authoritarian military state rather than a consumerist mimicry of the West. And once you are a military system, that’s all you have to use.
So back to the missile porn. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China are probably both well ahead of the West in the crucial technology of the age: hypersonic missiles, travelling, and weaving, at between six and ten times the speed of sound.
Apparently successful tests on new weapons with names such as Avangard, Kinzhal, Zircon and Xingkong (yes, really) were paralleled by failures of the US equivalent late last year. So, perhaps only for a short time, Moscow and Beijing have weapons for which Washington has no answer; Russian military experts claim the new missiles, for instance, could easily destroy Britain’s two new aircraft carriers.
Beyond that, Russia has forged a highly effective military command and control system. Putin looks abroad at a US president disengaged from Europe; a Germany deeply compromised by its reliance on Russian gas (which accounts for 49 per cent of its foreign natural gas imports); a French president distracted by his re-election bid; and a London in utter political chaos, and wonders whether this isn’t the perfect moment to move.
Putin’s own writing makes clear it’s about much more than Ukraine: success for the Kremlin means pushing Nato out of the Baltic states and Poland, and returning most of the former Soviet bloc countries to Russia’s tutelage. Huge numbers of ordinary, peaceable, innocent people would be killed, maimed or forced to flee. No matter: Russia’s great humiliation, as Putin sees it, would be erased.
As I’m writing this, the Russian attack hasn’t begun. Pray God it’s a giant bluff. But it’s worth thinking, as clearly as we can, about where that war would take us.
The least important consequence would be that Boris Johnson would survive in the short term as prime minister. Far from Westminster, Tory impatience with him crackles murderously. But would MPs remove their leader while an actual war in another European country is happening? In times of international tension, for sure, quite possibly. But while shells are falling and cities burn? Nope.Many on the left will argue that Britain’s relatively hardline approach to Ukraine is cynically driven by Johnson’s survival plan. I disagree. This is such an egregious, unprovoked and full-scale challenge to our local part of the world order that no British leader could take a relaxed or appeasing view of it.
And anyway, bizarre as this sounds, the future of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, and so forth, is the least of it. War in Europe, and the resulting sanctions, would paralyse economic recovery. Energy prices are already rising. We could see banks begin to totter, supply chains again grind to a halt, and millions of refugees pour west, including towards Britain. Military budgets, squeezed for decades, would be hurriedly swollen. Almost every policy assumption – about taxation and departmental spending, economic growth, and border policy – would have to be re-thought. Most immediately that includes the establishment’s attitude to billionaire Russians who have bought citizenship and influence here. New sanctions legislation recently tabled by UK ministers should help. But the question is willpower. As Thomas Mayne of Chatham House points out, not a single oligarch has been sanctioned yet.
At the heart of the problem are the “golden visas” that allow rich foreigners from all over the world to buy their way into Britain. Half of them, more than 6,000 investors, are being reviewed by the Home Office for possible national security risks. But more than three years after this investigation began, during Theresa May’s time as prime minister, not a word has been published. William Wallace, the Liberal Democrat peer leading the charge on this in the House of Lords, tells me the golden visa scheme should now be closed completely: “It’s demeaning. It makes us look like a poor offshore country that needs to sell its citizenship to survive.”
The government seems to disagree. Wallace wonders whether the influence of Russian money in Tory politics is part of the reason. Certainly, a crucial report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, published in summer 2020,exposed the impact on politics of the London “laundromat” for dirty money. Again, there has still not been a proper, public government response.Tory MPs, too, are worried about the impact of Russian money on our public culture. In a Commons debate in January, David Davis discussed the brutal use of law or “lawfare” by Russian billionaires to intimidate writers and publishers. He cited legal action taken against the former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton, the author of Putin’s People, and her publisher, HarperCollins.
Washington is increasingly worried about the Russian money and influence swirling around London. Washington is right. Whether Putin attacks Ukraine or pulls back, the problem can no longer be dodged.
Let’s look at an even bigger picture. One of the great unanswered questions after Brexit was always: where are our friends? For the right, the answer was Washington. But Donald Trump was too dark a maverick to be the ally of even enthusiastic neo-cons. Joe Biden, no great friend of Britain, may himself not be in power for very long. Australia? New Zealand? Fine, but too far away. India? But Narendra Modi? And so on…
There is a glaringly obvious answer, a near-at-hand country about the same size as the UK, facing very similar problems, and with whom Britain has close links. Whether or not the UK ever rejoins the EU (it seems unlikely), any London government should now be working very hard to get on better with France. The Germans are worryingly compromised on Russia. In these dark days, the French need us; and, frankly, we need them.
This is the worst possible time to be arguing about fish by-catches and the importation of sausage meat to Northern Ireland. On both sides, a deeper security and strategic alliance is essential. Beyond that, we must reinforce other old and natural European alliances, which include, high up the list, Poland and the Baltic states.
What this crisis demonstrates is that we can no longer afford to turn our backs on friendly, neighbouring states just because we’ve decided we don’t want continental federalism. “Global Britain” is a decent phrase. But we have always been “European Britain” too. We can’t stand up militarily to Putin’s Russia. There may be no good outcomes immediately ahead. But a London cleaned of dirty money, plus a more rational foreign policy, wouldn’t be a bad new beginning, would it?
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War