The Government’s responses to Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine range from perhaps hosting its government in Britain, through sanctions targeted on Putin’s cronies and others aimed at Russia’s economy, to reinforcing our military presence in Eastern Europe and supporting armed Ukrainian resistance.
The asset freezes on more than 100 people and entities announced yesterday by Boris Johnson are an example of the first, and the proposed export ban on all dual-use items to Russia one of the second.
The Government has already moved army battlegroups, Apache attack helicopters, fighter jets and warships to Eastern Europe. It is reportedly sending helmets, light anti-tank weapons and body armour to Ukraine.
It is essential to add that Ministers, like other participants in and observers of this drama, do not know how events will now unfold.
It could soon become clear that Putin has over-reached, and is consequently deposed. Or he may hold what he is taking, as the western front against him collapses.
Most likely, he achieves his immediate objective amidst hideous bloodshed, installs a puppet government in Ukraine – and will then grapple with an armed insurgency supported by most if not all of the main western powers.
However, few certainties aren’t the same as none, and one development is certain. Putin will react in turn to our allies’ and our own response to his war. We have collectively not even begun to grasp the implications.
Some of us remember the Cold War against the Soviet Union. More recall recent “hot wars” in which our troops fought abroad – Iraq, Afghanistan.
There has been republican and loyalist terror in Northern Ireland and Great Britain too, as well as atrocities by Islamist and other actors.
But most of us have not experienced such attacks, nor fought for our country abroad, nor encountered Soviet espionage at home.
Neither have we encountered what might be called Lukewarm War – or, in the less hyberbolic language of the Integrated Defence and Security Review, “competition across multiple spheres”.
This “will grow in other spheres, including technology, cyberspace and space, further shaping the wider geopolitical
environment”, it said.
“Systemic competition will further test the line between peace and war, as malign actors use a wider range of tools – such as economic statecraft, cyber-attacks, disinformation and proxies – to achieve their objectives without
open confrontation or conflict.”
Are our cyber-defences ready for possible cyber-attacks? Our conventional ones for more Russian incursions into our airspace and waters? Is the Government geared up for Putin’s developing push in social media and elsewhere online? Is the British public remotedly prepared for cyber assaults aimed at our national infrastructure?
Then there are the twofold implications of the further manipulation by Putin of Russia’s gas supplies – first, for prices at a time when the cost of living is already soaring and second, even more profoundly, for security of supply.
Successive governments have deprioritised this security, the first leg of any proper energy policy, at the expense of the other two: affordable prices and lower emissions.
So the war in Ukraine poses a new questionmark against the Net Zero emissions target, and will give new impetus to Rishi Sunak’s push for new oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
Security of energy supply, like running the NHS less hot in preparation for another pandemic, and like security of food supply, is an aspect of the emerging post-Covid politics of resilience (or should be).
It will be argued that Putin won’t cut off his gas supply nose to spite Russia’s economic face, and that it will be hit hard by western sanctions.
Especially by those applied to “high-end and critical technological equipment and components in sectors including electronics, telecommunications and aerospace”, to quote the Prime Minister’s words.
The counter-view is that Putin is turning Russia into an autarky, with low national debt, high reserves, a fiscal surplus and leverage over wheat and corn. And that if you want to see what real resilience looks like, gaze eastwards.
It may be that with Russia moving closer to China, we are looking at a future in which Eurasia and Eastasia form a common economic bloc against Oceania’s, to borrow the terms of George Orwell.
Or in which, just as Nixon went to China, Donald Trump goes to Moscow: or rather, some future Republican or even Democrat President does so, in an attempt to peel off Russia from America’s hegemonic rival.
Then there are the implications for rogue actors: Iran; North Korea. Such future speculation returns me to today’s unknowns, such as Putin’s response to sanctions against Russia or the arming of Ukraine’s resistance.
It may be that Ukraine should indeed have been admitted to NATO, though I am far from convinced that the move would have been practicable. “Collective defence means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies,” in the words of Article Five of NATO’s charter.
Would voters in some NATO member states, including Britain, see Russia’s attack on Ukraine in this way? I doubt it. But whatever view one takes, the West in general, and the EU in particular, has been willing to float the end of Ukraine’s full membership of western institutions without providing the means.
At any rate, the Government is right to seek to arm the Ukrainian resistance, and western Europe must ready itself for a flow of refugees.
However, we have no alternative but now to draw a military line in the sand, or rather in the green grass of Europe, not in Ukraine itself but on the borders of our NATO allies, such as Poland and the Baltic States.
Which means action short of NATO seeking to establish a no fly zone over Ukraine, given the risk of escalation in the event of planes from any of the actors being shot down.
Admittedly, it’s impossible to weigh those risks in any event, since Putin is evidently more willing to take risks than some Russia-watchers believed.
In such circumstances, we tend to reach for the comfort blanket of the past. It’s the Soviet Union all over again, say some. No, 1939, say others. Others still say 1914.
It’s true that history repeats itself. But sometimes it says something new altogether, and the novelty catches us off-balance.
So it may be now in the wake of an event so baleful, like 9/11, that no-one can know where it will lead. Resolute voices filled the Commons yesterday. But I also hear whistling in the dark.