It may be fantasy, and a dangerous one, to suppose that the UK alone can “win” a new Cold War with Russia. It is, however, just conceivable that Russia could be at least be restrained and contained if confronted by a united and effective response from the Western powers.
It is greatly to the credit of the Government that such a diplomatic alliance can be constructed across the globe. The United States’ robust response and support in the UN is obviously the weightiest, and demonstrates that, whatever the unpredictable habits of the current White House, the historic convergence of British and American interests and values endures. From Canada to Germany, welcome support has been forthcoming. Had Sergei Skripal happened to be living in, say, Ontario or Bavaria, he and his daughter and the others affected would have suffered the same consequences. The realisation of that fact has strengthened Western unity would have been the right and necessary response.
Vladimir Putin, it is becoming increasingly clear, is turning Russia into a rogue regime, slipping off its remaining international obligations and ignoring the rule of law at home and abroad. Russia, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has reminded us, may feel humiliated and vulnerable since the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the old Soviet Union, the loss of satellite buffer states and its military alliances, but that is no excuse for it to assassinate its “enemies” living in other countries, or, indeed, anyone else.
So Russia may have misjudged the likely reaction to its attempted murder, and the scale of the international condemnation and sanctions that will, surely, follow, as well as the diplomatic isolation. The Fifa World Cup, which should probably never have been held in Russia, is looking as though it will be a sorry, joyless affair for whoever decides to turn up. In any case, Mr Putin may just think again about his future plans to track down defectors, dissidents and political opponents.
Appeasement, or “lowering tensions” as Jeremy Corbyn puts it, has achieved nothing with Russia. President Obama’s “red lines” were crossed; Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande’s attempts at summit diplomacy on Crimea were futile; UN condemnations of Russian aggression in Ukraine and in Syria have been ignored. The time has long past for stronger actions against Russia, to back the stern rebukes.
Gavin Williamson, the ambitious Defence Secretary, seems to sense this better than many others, and speaks in plain language to make his points. His announcement that the UK is to invest £48m in chemical weapons defences is extremely welcome. British troops are to be vaccinated against anthrax as a necessary precaution. Given Russia’s propensity to disrupt vital foreign computer systems, and given the reliance of everything from the NHS to the banking system on the efficient running of such systems, the Ministry of Defence should also boost its spending and resources devoted to cyber defence. It seems obvious that, sooner or later, the Kremlin will seek further revenge against Britain for standing up to its aggression, and a cyber attack would be one of the more obvious options.
Comparisons with the 1930s or Cold War are overdone, but the world stands at a dangerous juncture. The three global superpowers are manoeuvring and jostling. America is launching a senseless trade war with the rest of the world, mainly aimed at China, while Russia is starting a new Cold War against anyone it thinks is getting in its way, and, it is fairly clear, enjoys interfering in American politics. After the thinly camouflaged invasions of Ukrainian Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s territorial ambitions across Eurasia are clear, which is why the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former constituent parts of the USSR and one EU and Nato members, deserve high-profile support from the West. It is also why previously neutral European states such as Finland, Austria and Sweden are looking again at their security needs and debating Nato membership. Brexit, too, is destabilising Western European economic solidarity and security, entirely unnecessarily.
Three decades ago saw the Soviet empire collapse and India and China re-enter the world economy. The end of the Cold War was supposed to mean “the end of history”, and deliver a global “peace dividend” and new world order. Since then we have lived with the threat of radical Islamist terror, still potent; the rise of al-Qaeda and Isis; US-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; and, as a consequence, an unprecedented refugee crisis.
Now, as if all of that were not enough, the world economy is being jeopardised by an American President intent on sparking an international trade war, China’s ruler has installed himself as president for life, and Russia is gripped by a cult of authoritarian nationalism. Russia, America and regional superpowers such as Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia indulge in terrible proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. China prefers a modern model of economic colonialism across Asia and Africa, and is intimidating its smaller neighbours from Japan and Brunei across the South China Sea. Oddly, only the usually volatile Korean Peninsula is giving much cause for optimism.
The dangers are not identical to those of the 1930s, nor those of the Cold War, but they are no less grave, and the emergence of chemical weaponry, state-sponsored terror and cyberwarfare are, if anything, more terrifying because they are more likely than planetary destruction through mutually assured thermonuclear destruction. We are faced with the prospect of continuing medium-level asymmetric warfare through small-scale actions. It is a moment, surely, to wonder whether now is the right moment for the UK to be turning its back on partners in Western Europe with which it shares the most in common.
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