All Quiet on the Western Front, harrowing and graphic, is of course a war-horror film; but it’s just as much a film about how wars end – the bullet-headed old men snarling about betrayal, the young ones mashed and mutilated. And we know what soon followed the ragged end of the “Great War”: no one needs to say it.
Our time’s war, in Ukraine, floods the media with Passchendaele horror. How does it end? There is little serious discussion. Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Tony Blair and negotiated the Northern Ireland peace agreement, makes the essential but obvious point that it doesn’t end in conventional victory. Nobody is going to march on Moscow – Russia is not going to be crushed, invaded, dictated to. But apart from Powell, all we get is the meaningless cackle of “Russia must be defeated”.
Yes, we all hope that with Western tanks the Ukrainian forces can push Russia back to her borders at some point this year. Maybe. Maybe not. But does that include Crimea? If so, then what? Does a furious, humiliated, nuclear-armed Kremlin, with lapping waves of Russo-fascism all around it, give a wan smile, shrug and sit down to discuss reparations and war crimes? Or is this, rather, a short pause in a much longer and more general Russian war?
The Ukrainian position has rarely been put more clearly than in the New Statesman interview by Bruno Maçães with Oleksiy Danilov, Kyiv’s national security adviser. On the war’s ending, he had two things to say: first, that he believed Washington was having secret talks about a de facto partition of Ukraine – he didn’t say so, but he implied it.
[See also: This is how Putin loses the war]
If Danilov’s fear about partition was confirmed, we must assume the Volodymyr Zelensky government would fall, and Ukraine’s politics crumble. That would be a Russian triumph.
Danilov’s second point was that the Russian Federation was a “colonial country” that required breaking up before it could be reformed. That would mean a far larger, still more dangerous war.
President Joe Biden has an excruciatingly difficult series of choices to make. How can he engage in meaningful discussions with Vladimir Putin without accidentally destroying his Ukrainian ally? For the rest of us in the West, we had better acknowledge our status as onlookers, tank-supplying cheerleaders and eventual reconstruction donors, who won’t be asked or wanted in any peace talks.
Why, you may be wondering, am I writing about this at all, rather than which cabinet minister will be forced to resign next, or the prospects for the economy? Because our entire outlook is based on the (mostly unspoken) assumption that, later this year or next, the Ukraine war will end and normality will resume.
But what if that’s wrong? It’s likely to be. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv are anywhere near being ready for peace. Both sides are readying themselves for a long war – Russia with its mobilisations and its chilling retreat into autocracy, Ukraine by deepening its links with Nato countries to the extent that they cannot now walk away.
This is just as likely to go on for another five or ten years. After all, if you date the war from the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, it is almost exactly nine years old already. The Rand Corporation concluded in a January report that a long war is very dangerous for the US – in terms of escalation, the possibility of a Nato-Russia conflict and economic damage. Then it finds the prospects for peace talks, or even an armistice, bleak. We need to change our thinking. This may become an unresolved global conflict of a kind we haven’t seen before, a bleeding open wound across Eurasia.
This is a domestic political issue, one that’s a lot more important than the passing popularity of ministers in a fag-end administration. Energy and food prices may remain very high for the rest of our lives. Facing a furious Russia, Western states might be forced to prioritise security over consumption. We may look back at the beginning of this century not as the years of right-wing populism but rather as the heedless years, the last flourish of consumerist indulgence before harder times began.
The Conservatives are still running on the assumption that, sooner rather than later, tax cuts are coming. Labour believes, deep down, that higher levels of public spending on health and other public services will return later in the decade. But all this may be an illusion. Perpetual, benign growth may belong in the same basket of millennial optimism this war is upending – along with belief in the end of autocracy, the outdatedness of nationalism and indeed the obsolescence of trench and tank warfare.
[See also: Ukraine is not a proxy war]
A long-term war with Russia means the definitive end of globalisation as we have understood it; and, therefore, the end of the cheap food and cheap consumer products economy we knew. The fragility of world supply lines that shocked us in 2020 becomes normal.
If Europe is still divided by a major war towards the end of this decade, consider what that means, too, for domestic spending on weapons, surveillance and “security”, both energy security and online security. Very strangely – since we chatter about it so much – it’s as if we haven’t yet taken the Russian war seriously.
The first indications about whether the British government is doing so will come on 7 March with the integrated defence review, an update on the March 2021 review that lacked almost all strategic understanding, missing out both Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, told me recently that he agreed with anonymous American generals who believe the UK is no longer a top-tier fighting force. As the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has admitted: “We have hollowed out and underfunded.” Next month we will find out what Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are prepared to do about it.
Keir Starmer has already been privately told to expect, if he becomes prime minister, to “inherit” the war. Under the shadow defence secretary, John Healey, Labour is planning its own strategic defence review within a year of taking power. Among the competing challenges for higher spending, Britain’s weakened, relatively paltry armed forces are becoming impossible to ignore.
But beyond that are other, cloudier consequences of living through a long conflict, including festering fear about nuclear attack. The best parallel is with the chillier parts of the Cold War. That enhanced the role of the state in mildly oppressive, sinister ways.
It was a time when our societies were much less open but had, perhaps, a stronger sense of social solidarity. It gave birth to European Unionism. After the heedless “peace dividend” consumerism of the roaring 1990s, when defence spending dipped following the end of the Cold War, is the West quietly being pushed back towards an older political era – greyer, more scared, less individualistic? Will it be more focused on the state, and less on personal identity?
We cannot yet tell; but the possibility is worth considering, if only because almost nobody is talking about this. As a culture, we are still a little too good at being distracted; at looking fixedly the other way.
According to Boris Johnson, President Putin threatened during a phone call that he could kill him: “Boris, I don’t want to hurt you but, with a missile, it would only take a minute.” The Kremlin says this story is a lie. But with the greatest of respect to two famous truth-tellers, the Russian president’s impact on British politics is already bigger than that.
This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con