We all know that this is a dangerous moment, the most dangerous of most of our Western European lifetimes. We are living through not just one sort of war, but three: a hot war between the Russian invaders and Ukraine; a proxy war between the West and Russia, which unlike such Cold War conflicts is happening right on the border between Russia and NATO; and, since the drastic sanctions of the past weekend, a new Cold War has begun. The impact of all three will be felt far beyond Europe, but especially that of the new Cold War.
It is not possible or even wise to try to foresee the direct military outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Vladimir Putin expected a swift capitulation, rather like Afghans submitting to the Taliban takeover last year, he has been proven badly mistaken. But the conflict is now getting even deadlier and more destructive.
There are plainly real dangers of further escalation of the conflict, including even the potential for the use of nuclear weapons, given Putin’s threats. The proxy war both raises this danger by making it a direct Russia-West confrontation and offers some promise that Cold-War-style knowledge of the risk of mutually assured destruction will in the end act as a powerful deterrent.
Nonetheless, despite such “MAD” comfort, it is right to be realistic about the possibility and prepare for that remote but terrible risk by doing whatever we can to bolster our defences and preparations. History is full of under-appreciated risks turning into devastating, world-changing outcomes, including in their different ways both of the 20th century’s world wars.
What we can already say and be sure of, however, is that the terrible events of the past week will mark the beginning of a new Cold War. Only in the case of one potential outcome — a Russian failure that leads to the removal of Vladimir Putin and his regime, and so a new start for Russia of some sort — can this be avoided.
In all other potential outcomes, a new Iron Curtain is descending, with expanded defences built on the NATO side of the line and a new, sustained effort to exclude Russia and its acolytes from as much as possible of global economic and cultural exchange. The rapid hardening of the Western response since the invasion began indicates a welcome, if sad, realisation that big sacrifices have to be made in response to Russia’s war.
The energy shock we had got used to last year must now be considered permanent. Measures to cope with gas shortages will set back efforts against climate change, but will still have to be taken. Resistance against reform of Europe’s fiscal rules and expansion of a common spending capacity, necessary both for energy adaptation and stronger defence, will now hopefully disappear.
Yet the implications go far beyond Europe. As is already becoming plain, this is a divide in which many countries around the world will have to choose sides, just as during the first Cold War. In recent years as talk has spread of some kind of new Cold War between the West and China it has been assumed that unlike in Soviet times the world would not divide into two well-defined camps. But following the real war in Ukraine, this looks unavoidable.
Yet what will the camps look like? India’s abstention from last weekend’s vote in the United Nations condemning Russia’s invasion has shaken many assumptions about the future shape of geopolitics. The big question, however, concerns China and where it will place itself. China’s decision will determine whether this becomes a truly global divide or whether it is a more limited one, serving to isolate only Russia.
So far, China has supported Putin, albeit passively. Almost certainly, China’s President Xi Jinping is unhappy with the way in which Putin has destabilised global affairs and started a war, for this risks hurting China’s freedom of manoeuvre as well as making harder his government’s efforts to revive the Chinese economy following the impact of the pandemic and high energy prices. Nevertheless, the China-Russia relationship has never been about mutual admiration and is entirely defined by the two countries’ shared interests, chief among them the shared interest in undermining Western leadership in the world.
As the new Cold War develops, the key decision that President Xi has to make concerns whether to provide financial support for a collapsing, isolated Russian economy and, in the longer term, whether to begin building an alternative international financial system based on the Chinese renminbi to compete with the existing one centred on the US dollar. To do so would be costly for China and extremely difficult. It cannot be done overnight.
Looking at that choice today, the best bet would be that President Xi will not go that far, and will not seek to build Chinese global leadership in this way. Yet that decision will depend on what happens in the coming months and years in Russia and Ukraine, but also in the United States. We in Europe are rightly glad that we have shown solidarity and decisiveness in the face of these three wars. In the long term, however, the fate of the new Cold War will depend even more so on what strength or divisions are seen inside the United States and how China responds to them.
English version of the column published by La Stampa.
Bill Emmott is a writer and ex-editor of @theeconomist. Views are personal.
A version of this article originally appeared on Substack under Bill Emmott’s Global View.