We are about to see brutality in Europe on a scale that will be almost beyond our comprehension. Russia is turning to increasingly indiscriminate bombardment of Ukraine to try to achieve its aims after the failure of its initial military strategy. Vladimir Putin’s invasion has shattered the old belief that the era of wars between European nation states was over because the consequences were simply too grim. The policy of sanctions as a deterrent failed. The assumptions that have driven European geopolitics for a generation are changing before our eyes.
Nowhere is this shift more dramatic than in Germany. After reunification, the country’s defence spending plummeted and for decades subsequent governments rejected requests from allies to spend more on military. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has now announced that Germany will not use Nord Stream 2, the recently completed pipeline intended to bring Russia gas straight into the country. Even more strikingly, Germany will meet the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence (a rise from 1.5 per cent) by 2024 – a big shift in policy, but one backed overwhelming by public opinion.
In a further sign of how far the debate in Germany has shifted, Robert Habeck, the Green vice-chancellor, has said he is open to keeping the country’s nuclear power plants open beyond the end of this year when, by law, they are supposed to be shut off. Even if this doesn’t happen, Habeck’s comments show that the German government is finally realising the dangers of dependence on Russian energy. Privately, senior figures in Berlin are suggesting to their European partners that they can stop importing Russian gas within two years. Russia supplies a quarter of the gas used by France and more than half of the gas used by Poland and the Baltic states. If these countries can find other sources of energy, they can reduce Putin’s leverage over the continent.
In Whitehall, Berlin’s change of mindset on Nord Stream 2 and defence spending is welcome. But Germany’s new realism raises questions for Britain too. The UK prides itself on being the Nato member with the biggest defence budget after the US: a position important to the special relationship and Britain’s role in European security. Now, the UK will soon be overtaken by Germany. A growing number of Tories will campaign for Britain to remain Nato’s largest European defence spender, which would mean dedicating an extra 0.4 per cent of GDP – around £9 billion – to defence.
It’s easy to see where such money would go. Russia’s escalating aggressions – Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – have obvious implications for the security of the Baltic states. There will need to be permanent deployments on Nato’s eastern flank to deter further Russian revanchism.
At the start of the war, the government was worried about ‘creeping normalisation’ – that the Russians would strike fast, install a puppet government in Kiev and then most countries in Europe would, after a brief period of condemnation, edge back to their previous positions. ‘If Putin had done it surgically and quickly, a lot of people would have wanted to get back to business as normal,’ says one cabinet minister. Instead, the shift in Europe’s mood has been profound and decisive – and the barbarity that Putin is prepared to unleash will only strengthen that resolve.
Putin’s goal will be to turn Ukraine into a new Belarus with a pro-Kremlin leader and then withdraw his troops. There is growing confidence in Whitehall that even if this happens, western countries will continue to impose sanctions and deliver defensive weapons to the remaining Ukrainian resistance forces. The economic sanctions on Russia have already had a dramatic effect: its currency has plunged, its interest rate has more than doubled and its economy is forecast to contract by about 20 per cent. Around half of global shipping is closed to Russia.
One of the remarkable things about the sanctions is not just how sweeping they are (the moves against the Russian central bank were unexpected) but how many countries are joining the effort. When Boris Johnson spoke to the One Nation caucus of Tory MPs on Monday night, he highlighted the fact that Japan and Singapore had signed up to the sanctions. These countries are not just motivated by concern over Ukraine. They also want to send a message to China about what happens to aggressors who invade neighbours. ‘All the Asian allies recognise that this is in their interests,’ one government source tells me.
Whatever happens militarily, this crisis will drag on for some time. But as Russia’s artillery and air power do their worst, it’s clear that Putin has badly miscalculated. ‘Putin got three things wrong,’ argues one secretary of state. ‘He totally underestimated the determination of the Ukrainians to fight. He totally underestimated the West’s determination and unity; he thought we were too decadent. And he thinks that this is Stalin’s Russia and that people will put up with all sorts of hardships without saying anything.’ The fact that Putin’s regime is making moves against the country’s remaining independent media does suggest a nervousness about what Russians think of the war.
It has taken the wholesale invasion of a sovereign country to make the democratic world grasp just how much peril the rules-based international order is in. The threat of international isolation has proven ineffective against a bellicose dictator who is indifferent to economic deterrents and thinks history is made by those prepared to use force. The democratic world faces a threat more serious than any since the Cold War. Then, the West showed that it was prepared to build up a military that could defend the rules-based order. Ronald Reagan had a phrase for it: ‘Peace through strength.’ Once again, this is the free world’s best strategy.