The season of peace and goodwill is ending. It is perhaps time to think about some of the risks ahead. Amongst them is the possibility of military conflict breaking out in one of three theatres where stakes are high and big powers are involved: Ukraine, Iran and Taiwan.
Britain’s military capacity, these days, is shrinking and marginal. But the one unambiguous strategic commitment of the post-Brexit, Conservative government is to stick as closely as possible to whatever Washington decides to do. Neutrality is not an option.
The new year honour for Sir Tony Blair has stirred up uncomfortable reminders of where such attachments might lead. The fact that President Biden is not a swashbuckling warmonger and has just presided over an ignominious military withdrawal from Afghanistan is no guarantee that his administration will retreat and disengage in future.
If Europe, and Britain in particular, has an adversary, it is Russia. From the assassination of opponents of the Putin regime on UK soil, to targeted cyber-attacks, to the deployment of Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces around the UK, the threat is clear. Yet our allies in the US are far more obsessed with the “threat” from China.
The most immediate danger in 2022 is that 100,000 Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border, able to prosecute a range of military options, from limited encroachment to outright invasion and the partition of Ukraine.
The threat or the actuality of Russians crossing the frontier and seizing Ukrainian territory appears to be designed to get the west to accept limitations on NATO deployment and to recognise Russian occupation of Crimea and possibly the Donbas, in south-eastern Ukraine. Putin’s argument that Yeltsin’s Russia was suborned by an “aggressive” NATO, exploiting its temporary weakness in the 1990s, may be opportunistic but it touches a deep chord of patriotic sentiment in Russia.
Ukraine does not enjoy NATO guarantees, and President Biden has ruled out a military response by NATO, which would likely lead to the use of nuclear weapons. But there will be a call to strengthen the very stretched NATO front line in the east and to provide whatever support to Ukraine can be given without having to fight a Russian invasion. Britain will be expected to be a visible and loyal ally and deploy boots on the ground.
Any broader war involving the west is more likely to be fought with economic weapons. Severe economic sanctions would be applied to Russia, including a boycott of Russian oil and gas, and the effective cessation of all commercial dealings with the west by suspending Russian banks’ use of the SWIFT payments clearance system.
There is no doubt that the most severe form of economic sanctions would hurt the Russian economy considerably and further undermine the popularity of Putin’s regime. But it is difficult to see how action short of seizing Swiss banks would damage the vast fortunes which the Kremlin kleptocrats, including Putin, have squirrelled away overseas. Meanwhile, the Russians have the option of temporarily switching their gas exports to Asia, especially energy hungry China, driving the two countries closer together.
The idea that Europe could “win” an economic war also strains credulity. British ministers are already quaking in their boots at the prospect of rising energy prices without inviting more severe disruption of the gas market. What is touted as a powerful sanctions weapon – a refusal to open the newly built Nord-stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – would be primarily experienced as a continued, painful, gas shortage in the west.
A more fundamental point is that all the talk at Cop26 about fossil fuels being a “stranded asset” is proving to be seriously premature. The surge in demand from economies recovering from Covid restrictions is being experienced in higher heating bills and at the petrol pump. Energy exporters, led by Russia, are reminding us that fossil fuels – sadly – are a long way from being stranded. They remain the source of considerable leverage which Russia has every intention of exploiting.
The same point is clearly understood in Iran. Severe American sanctions have caused a great deal of pain there, but the regime seems a long way from collapse. Iran continues to stand behind allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and is more determined than ever to acquire the capability to make a nuclear weapon (and deliver it using the technology most recently demonstrated in a space launch).
Israel has made it clear that it will launch a preemptive military strike to prevent such a nuclear “break-out”. Either the Iranians are bluffing, or they have calculated that they can withstand an attack and inflict sufficient damage elsewhere – on Gulf shipping, or Gulf-state facilities – to justify their defiance. If they are not bluffing, some form of armed conflict seems likely in the coming months.
So far, the big powers appear to have been urging restraint – the USA on Israel; China and Russia on Iran – but it is easy to see how a shooting war could break out and drag others in. Iran could cause such intense destabilisation while continuing to sell its oil – mainly to China – at rising prices. It also benefits from the righteous anger which derives from having observed the terms of a painfully negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the EU, USA, Russia and China, only for the Trump administration to tear it up.
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The third potential battleground, touted by US hawks, is Taiwan. Despite the buzzing of the island by the Chinese air force, the risk of armed conflict looks low, for the time being. The American chief of staff, General Millay, has told Congress that the probability of invasion any time soon is low. Invading a heavily protected island 100 miles away would be a very formidable military undertaking for which China has demonstrated no expertise, to date. And, despite the belligerent rhetoric, China has co-existed with Taiwan for 70 years, peacefully and profitably.
Taiwan’s survival is based upon ambiguity. The island pursues a prosperous and democratic independent path, and the rest of the world (mostly) pretends that it is part of China. Independence is de facto, not de jure. China has made it clear that a formal declaration of independence would be an act of war but, so far, has tolerated the ambiguity.
Pessimists worry that this cannot continue much longer. President Xi appears to be running out of patience with the idea of eventual peaceful reunification. The younger generation of Taiwanese and their political representatives want to stress their separate identity, egged on by people in the US Congress who would welcome a confrontation with China.
They see China’s economic, military and technological rise as a threat to US dominance and want to act now before it is too late. A “misunderstanding” over Taiwan, arising from China’s aggressive behaviour, could provide a pretext for further economic and diplomatic sanctions on China. Both sides will want to avoid a military clash when the risks around escalation are large and uncertain, but miscalculations happen.
In any case, the US makes clear that China, not Russia or Iran, is public enemy number one. For America’s allies in Europe, notably Britain, this presents an awkward situation. There is a very real threat from Russia and hostile troops massing; but the American response is to downplay the military risks and to look for peaceful ways out or economic rather than real weapons.
There is by contrast no meaningful threat to Europe from China; but playing the role of loyal ally to the USA – with the British navy deployed in the far east – could yet draw us into a conflict in which we have no real interests at stake.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015