When the war in Ukraine ends, Russia will be irrelevant. Putin’s army has been decimated on the fields of east Ukraine; other than Moscow’s nuclear forces, Putin – or more likely his successor – will have nothing left with which to threaten the West, especially once Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine have joined the Nato bulwark.
Even these weapons will be of no practical use. The much-vaunted Russian nuclear arsenal is impotent against the Western nuclear deterrent. Given the state of Moscow’s other forces, there are genuine questions over exactly how much of it even works. And, of course, the Kremlin has shown no understanding of how to actually deploy these threats to achieve its goals. So far, it’s achieved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to; Putin’s threats of Armageddon have encouraged the west to arm Ukraine to the teeth and expand NATO eastwards.
Russia is over, bar the shooting. Tomorrow’s threat lies in Asia, and like an unseen pathogen is creeping up on us all but unnoticed by many. While Putin dominates the headlines, the recent MOD “Integrated Review Refresh” rightly identified China as the major threat to UK and NATO defence and security.
Beijing has invested vast sums in building a massive modern army, navy and air force. It is intent on a massive expansion in its stock of nuclear warheads. Its ‘belt and road’ initiatives, particularly across Africa, seem like a modern form of colonialism aimed at making countries reliant on the goodwill of the CCP while resources are extracted and sites for military ports identified.
And, of course, there are the unconventional capabilities of the state. It now seems most likely that the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by some sort of accident at the Wuhan virology lab. The Chinese state has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent any proper investigation which might confirm this, and other labs remain shrouded in secrecy. Some may well be conducting dangerous “gain of function” experimentation with pathogens, with potential military applications. As we saw just three years ago, these can bring a country to its knees faster than any amount of military hardware.
Hardware which, incidentally, we may well lack. Right now, Ukraine is dominating our political, military and security apparatus. Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man in Europe, and it is right that he is stopped. But a relatively small event in Sudan, which almost passed by unnoticed, has now seen our diminutive and overstretched military straining to get a few hundred Brits to safety in Cyprus. This should be a wake-up call; we need a military that isn't just for show, but can effectively protect these Isles.
After all, new threats will come. China has been eyeing Taiwan like a shark eyes a seal. Our two massive aircraft carriers do not seem quite the “white elephants” they did a few years ago, and it is good that we have some capabilities to lend to Western efforts in the region. But China in security terms is like an iceberg; we can all see its military expansion above the waterline, but what is happening below is vast, dangerous, and not entirely obvious.
For too long we have been happy to accept the economic benefits of trade and investment flows with China while turning a blind eye to the potent security risks this poses. The bill is now coming due. Beijing is the most worrying threat to global stability by some margin.
It is now time to stop talking about China as a security threat, but to actively start to mitigate it. Fortunately for us, the strange brand of Chinese communism has capitalist economic principles at its heart. The best way to prevent oxygenated economic blood feeding Chinese expansion is to clamp the arteries that feed it; the US and European markets that funnel cash back towards Beijing. Any squeeze on Chinese market access will deny China the resources it needs to expand financially and politically. While military force will have a vital role to play, the economic jugular is what will matter most in the long run.