Recent events still playing out across the distant steppes of Europe are bringing about seismic changes in the geo-political landscape.
Russia, today, stands friendless in a way it has never before. Its leader has unleashed a war that has appalled the whole world and from which there is no easy way to row back without massive loss of face.
Vladimir Putin is a man riven with hatred for what he sees as Russia’s treatment by the West. Too long now in power, he sees enemies in every quarter and has undoubtedly developed a personality disorder which prevents him from acting rationally. So out of touch with reality is he that he actually believed his forces would be greeted as liberators, with flowers tossed on his tanks and armoured carriers. He has convinced himself that a country ruled by a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president is a fascist state and he calls them Nazis. He invites his countrymen and women to share this outlook.
Galling to him the extreme is that his plans for a quick victory are unravelling and the Western allies uniting to funnel in weapons to enable a protracted struggle to develop.
His choices are stark. Only the application of overwhelming force stands a chance of breaking the logjam. But his soldiers – mainly conscripts – are unhappy. The people they are being asked to kill are what they have always called their little brothers. Unlike in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ Putin’s soldiers are not fighting for their homeland, but to gain possession of another’s. The people they are being asked to despoil are not the brutal, merciless, sadistic Nazis, who regarded them as a lower form of humanity (Untermensch), but fellow Slavs who speak their own language and share a common history.
This time it is not the Russians who are motivated, but their invaded brother nation who, like them in 1941, face an existential struggle for national survival.
Shockwaves have swept across the entire planet which had nurtured the fond belief that a no-holds war of this kind had been consigned to the annals of history. There is a very real risk that million-plus cities will be reduced to rubble. Remembered with melancholy is the fate of Aleppo in Syria and what these same Russians did to the world’s oldest inhabited city.
The entire enterprise has become very personal. Even Hitler did not dispatch death squads to take out his implacable, eventual nemesis, Stalin, as Putin has done with the Ukrainian leader. He is well versed in taking out anyone who seriously offends him, no matter what foreign capital they may live in. The single exception to this is Washington.
Putin’s mindset is one that cannot contemplate defeat, nor tolerate a protracted struggle in which he gets bogged down, nor see his economy wreaked by Western sanctions.
Also, he has unusually sinister plans for the disposal of the dead bodies of his young conscripts. In Afghanistan, even the Soviets returned them to their loved ones which, unfortunately for them, brought home the bitter and melancholy cost of war. Putin is reported to have arranged for mobile crematoriums to be sent to the battlefield. But unlike even the Japanese in WWII, who returned the ashes of their fallen to Tokyo, Putin’s incinerators are designed to vaporise the remains. This is a truly awful man we are talking about.
Notwithstanding the fearful range of weaponry that the Russian tyrant is prepared to use – much of which is banned under international law – this may yet be a war that he cannot win. But if he does, he will need a huge army of occupation since the Western third of Ukraine is ideal partisan country, and Ukraine is Europe’s largest nation – substantially larger in land than France.
Part of Putin’s problem, after twenty-two years in power, is that he is beyond listening to anyone. But there is one power in a position to impose mediation on him and force him to the conference table. That power is China. Apart from a handful of rogue regimes which can offer him nothing, China is the only one which can mitigate, to a degree, the effects of sanctions. It comes to something that he does not even enjoy the support of the mullahs in Tehran.
Such is Putin’s isolation, and so crippling the range of sanctions now deployed against him, that only China can keep him afloat. Putin cannot do without it. As a result, that country is the only one that can twist his arm into a climbdown that may magic up some sort of fig leaf to cover the humiliation involved. It could, perhaps, involve the United Nations.
It may well be that China asserts its power, for the very first time, on the continent which, two centuries ago, began the process of humbling it and bringing it into the modern world. It may broker a conference to bring a halt to the violence presently engulfing the cities and towns of Ukraine.
The truth is that China is appalled at the situation which Putin has brought about. It has an obsession, dating back millennia, in stability. Harmony is in its DNA (providing due respect is shown to its ancient lineage). That doesn’t stop it, however, gloating over the West’s recent disarray with its armies of naval-gazing bleeding hearts bemoaning its perceived sins of the past, as well as the present, and its legions of Woke social justice warriors. These are the kind of warriors that China would like to see more of. It couldn’t believe its luck when it saw the ignominious scuttle from Afghanistan, and the European half of the Western alliance question Uncle Sam’s commitment to Europe. It has revelled even at how its own home-grown virus has laid the Western world low and plunged it into unimaginable debt.
Now, overnight, its erstwhile neighbour, Russia, has inadvertently awoken the sleeping giant of the Free World and both NATO and the European Union are re-energised with the US beathing fire and smoke, and pledging to “defend every inch of NATO territory”. Even pacific Germany has seen the light. It has thrown its mighty engine into rearmament – a terrifying prospect for the Russians – and proposes to take its nuclear plants out of mothballs, fire up its coal-fired plants and free itself from dependency on Russian oil and gas. Nord Stream 2, with its £8 billion dollars of spent investment – much of it Russian – is now for the birds. The formerly proud neutrals of Sweden and Finland are also suddenly keen to join the alliance.
Whatever Putin’s game plan was it cannot have been any of this.
All this means for the Chinese that the long-sought-for seizure of Taiwan is once again off the agenda, for China now believes that it can longer be certain that Uncle Sam will scuttle a second time. Indeed, the landscape has so changed that it seems the entire democratic world is now on the march and its growing dream of a quiescent West standing by while it advances to world domination is now just that: a dream.