GEOPOLITICAL analysts fear Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is the first step towards recreating the Soviet Union’s empire in Central and Eastern Europe.
If they are right, we are potentially back in the 1930s, when European leaders shrank from confronting Germany until it was too late.
Such an ambitious goal would have seemed beyond Putin’s reach before the alliance he cemented with China’s President Xi just before the Winter Olympics last month.
The agreement of unlimited co-operation between them brought to an end the world’s post-Soviet status quo.
A Moscow-Beijing axis confronts the West with a profound security dilemma on two fronts, each of which stretches it singly, but which together establishes a new international balance of power of particular danger to peace in Europe.
What began with Putin’s demand that Nato should commit never to admitting Ukraine, while withdrawing its forward forces from Russia’s western border, in light of this looks more sinister.
It overturns all the strategic assumptions that led to the gradual demilitarisation of Nato’s European partners even as the alliance spread to Central and Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union dissolved.
While Western leaders have concentrated on the war in Ukraine, where Putin has advanced slowly but inexorably, his eventual goal now appears to be much broader than European publics suspected.
In this scenario, for Nato to survive and protect the former Soviet satellites which joined it in the first decade of the century, European governments will have rearm massively and restructure their economies as they eventually did in the late 1930s, but still could not prevent the Second World War.
Unless the process surrounding Ukraine is solved quickly, hard choices will have to be made between military spending – cutting which has always been the first priority of cash-strapped governments – and the maintenance of generous welfarism, which has come to be taken for granted by its beneficiaries. The price will be in far more billions than people realise and would require popular support.
Will Western Europeans – haunted by the memory of the sell-out 1938 Munich agreement with Hitler – make the necessary sacrifices for their nominal and very recent EU and Nato partners in the east?
Europeans have become rich while the US carried the financial burden of Nato. Will that continue to be the case if we don’t do our part while Washington is forced to compose a modus vivendi with two aggressive nuclear superpowers at once?
Do the Europeans even wish to retain their junior partnership in Nato with the US – which elects presidents they find uncongenial, such as Donald Trump or the demonstrably inadequate Joe Biden? Or do they prefer to reach separate accommodations of convenience with Russia and China?
Even before this crisis, there was talk of creating a separate EU army, whose relationship with Nato – and the US leadership of it – was left hanging in dangerous ambiguity.
This poses a particular problem for post-Brexit Britain, which as a European country might be forced to make a choice between the US and the EU having different and competing security policies that some might regard as between the devil and the deep blue sea.
However long the war in Ukraine lasts, the East-West struggle under way in Europe will be considerably longer, with Russia now bolstered by its economic and diplomatic partnership with China, which reduces the impact of Western sanctions.
The countries at greatest risk apart from Ukraine are the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have Russian minorities, and possibly Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Serbia, which has been treated badly by the EU since the Yugoslav war, would be a willing ally of Russia.
Assuming that we in the West agreed to take on the challenge of protecting the countries to which we have given security guarantees, Putin would need to be confronted on the ground with Nato forces big enough to deter the Russian army.
That means bigger Western European armies with detachments permanently stationed on Russia’s borders to reinforce national militaries and convince Putin they will fight. What we have done in response to the Ukraine crisis has been unconvincing precisely because Nato’s presence in the east has been insufficient to keep Putin at bay.
The very thought of the Ukraine war escalating into a Third World War has been sufficient to limit our intervention to supplying the Ukrainians with enough weapons to slow the Russian army, but not to enter Ukrainian soil or airspace. Neither this, nor sanctions, has deterred Putin for a moment.
President Biden promised he’d go ‘toe-to-toe’ with Putin. But his sanctions have been designed to limit their effect on the West and inevitably on Russia, which has been given time to develop alternatives to US and European markets and to establish supply lines to China for its energy exports.
It’s time for a stronger diplomatic initiative from the US which would involve Biden talking directly to Putin, and soon, about a general East and Central European security settlement that would obviate the need for an arms race across the continent.
It would be beyond Putin’s power to recreate the old Soviet hegemony. The rule of Moscow over its European satellites was underpinned by the imposed ideology of communism, which is history. The basis of Putin’s power is Russian nationalism which – outside certain enclaves – his neighbours naturally do not share. They need another way of co-existing trustfully.
Prior to the war in Ukraine, there was talk of Ukrainian neutrality, a theory which could also be extended to the former satellites as a way of guaranteeing their choice of Western liberalism while providing Russia with the buffer it wants against a Nato on its doorstep reinforced by a new Cold War build-up. The US and China would be joint guarantors.
The ‘unlimited co-operation’ deal between Russia and China – with which the EU wants to establish independent relations as a bloc – means that the latter is now a factor in Russia’s favour in European continental geopolitics that cannot be ignored.