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Welcome to the post-post Cold War era

Welcome to the post-post Cold War era

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the West’s response – has brought a sudden, bloody end to the chapter of history that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re in a new age now


Why does the West not bomb the 40-mile long convoy of Russian trucks and armoured vehicles lined up on the road to Kyiv? They threaten to besiege and, quite possibly, overwhelm the Ukrainian capital. But, right now, they look like sitting ducks. Ukraine does not have the air power to stop them in their tracks; but Nato does.

So when I asked one of the UK’s most experienced military men this week why won’t Ukraine’s allies hit the convoy with missiles or drones, he gave a simple answer. It would put the West at war with Russia. And Russia, he went on, has nuclear weapons.

He offered more detail. The Russian arsenal consists of short-range nuclear weapons that can be used inside the “theatre of battle” and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach Washington – and wipe it out. Western defences might be able to intercept one or two nuclear missiles, but never stop a volley of nuclear bombs – there is no iron dome, no Star Wars shield. And Russia’s military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons if the Russian state considers itself threatened and that a nuclear attack might, in their assessment, de-escalate the conflict by forcing a pause.

The judgment of Western military officials and intelligence agencies remains the same: Putin knows that the use of nuclear weapons is an act of suicide and will not deploy them. 

But what we’ve witnessed this week is not a hypothetical. Putin’s unpredictable authority over Russia’s nuclear arsenal is deterring the West from conventional military action right now. And Putin knows it; hence the decision to raise the nuclear spectre by putting his nuclear forces so publicly on alert last week. 

For decades, you’ll remember, the argument has been that nuclear weapons deter the great powers from going to war with each other because they know it would result in “Mutually Assured Destruction”; well this week, we are witnessing a “mad” dictator with a nuclear weapon effectively deterring what would be a moral military intervention, a strategic air strike that could save innocent lives. The rogue actor, it turns out, is one of the great powers; and nuclear weapons are making conventional ones useless and, in the process, denying civilians protection. After the West’s calculated moment of inaction this week, the convoy will, most likely, emerge from its mire, Kyiv will come under siege and many will die.

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about how 2022 brings to an end a chapter in history that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re into a new phase – let’s call it the post-post Cold War. Because within just a week of the invasion, the West has conscripted the private sector and it has opened its chequebook to rearmament. It is rethinking the way it’s seen the world since 1990 and restoring its defences. 

Two historic decisions make the point. 

First, the decision by Switzerland, the home of private banking, to abandon its neutrality and freeze Russian financial assets was the most indelible example of the conscription of capital. It wasn’t the only one. Companies that had taken decades to build up a staff, a brand and a business in Russia closed their doors in days. They didn’t say it’s none of their business; or, as we’ve heard so often, that they leave politics to the politicians. The war has shown that business can – in fact, must – take sides.

Money, of course, has choices. Let’s not kid ourselves that there aren’t also plenty of people out there looking to buy Russian assets on the cheap, while the rouble is in the tank and Gazprom shares look like a bargain; in fact, we’re fools if we can’t see the gap between publicly owned companies alive to their responsibilities and reputations and private capital quietly setting rules to suit themselves. If ever there was a moment for the Bank of England and HM Treasury to force a level playing field on disclosure, this surely is it.

But the business world of the 1990s that I grew up in, where multinationals raced to open offices in Moscow and Beijing, feels like a thing of the past. Over the past decade, multinationals have known that Russia doesn’t operate to the rule of law – nor does China. But they’ve done little about it; those markets were big and growing; the multinationals looked the other way and hoped that things would get, slowly, better. Well they haven’t. 

Russian oligarchs have either been silent, mealy-mouthed or equivocal about Putin’s invasion because they know that if they speak out directly against it, Putin will follow the Khordokovsky playbook, i.e. he’ll launch a criminal investigation into their businesses, as he did with the boss of Yukos, and then imprison dozens of their employees along the way. Plenty of western businesses, law firms and investors – hiding behind similar arguments of duty of care, and all of whom should stand up and be counted – are keeping their heads down for similar reasons. But the position of multinationals, who are compromising both their employees and their values for profit, now looks untenable. The West has concluded that capital has to make big, painful choices based on values; and this is not going to stop with Russia.

Second, Germany’s decision to rearm, to reinvest in its military and to provide arms to Ukraine is the most significant change in the national security architecture of Europe in 30 – maybe even 75 – years. Germany has recognised that its historic post-war pacificism was making it a bystander to aggression. It’s striking that more than three quarters of Germans back the decision. And it brings Europe’s greatest economic power to the active defence of democracy; it has the potential to change the calculations of the EU and the Nato; and it’s a herald of things to come.

Poland has announced plans to double its army to 300,000 people and raise its defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP. And the debate in the UK is bound to follow: Britain used to spend the equivalent of around 6 per cent of GDP on defence during the Cold War; by 1990, that was down to about 4 per cent; in recent years, it’s been around 2 per cent. The UK has already announced a ramp up of defence spending for the decade to come. But in the light of Ukraine, the Armed Forces will be coming to the Treasury for more – not just more financially, but in the continued weaponisation of finance, culture and law.

And, it has to be hoped, that the government will now show a new and ceaseless determination to defang the nuclear states. Boris Johnson’s “Integrated Review” of national security offered little thinking on nuclear threats. Instead it signalled a modest reduction in future purchase of warheads, more cost-cutting than coherent policy. The West is witnessing the need both to disarm and build a credible defence against nuclear missiles.

Back on the P02 road north of Kyiv, Russia’s long line of tanks, artillery and trucks have been stuck for nearly a week in something that seems more common, even faintly comic. It’s a traffic jam. A logistical screw up that’s bogged them down. It’s made for a narrative that has given Ukraine and its allies some hope: the war, we’re told, is going to plan for Vladimir Putin; he calculated that his troops would be welcomed, but the numbers of Russian war dead are rising; the Ukrainians haven’t fled or folded, nor, by the looks of things, will they. 

But it’s premature to draw too much encouragement. The Russian president has been undeterred from his plan to overwhelm the military, cut the country off from the sea, remove the president and take control of Ukraine. The convoy may be symbolic of what the West is willing and able to do; it is a real statement of what Vladimir Putin is determined to do.