Russia’s invasion of Ukraine killed Europe’s hot peace

The debate about whether we’re in a new cold war has a decisive, brutal answer.

For Europe, the lines of cold war 2.0 are drawn, no matter how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ends.

NATO doubles its military presence near Ukraine and prepares for chemical, biological or even nuclear threats. An economic and financial iron curtain is lowered. Europe and the US wage proxy war by arming Ukraine. The ideological contest is joined. Refugees flee. The European Union, a great project for peace, unites to face war on its border.

The globalisation built since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 is a victim of 2.0; a world used to networks must adjust to barriers and blocs.

For Europe, geopolitics and geoeconomics have been hit by the equivalent of Covid-19. Vladimir Putin launches his military pandemic and there’s no going back. The dawning era of confrontation and great-power rivalry reaches an all-change moment in Ukraine.

Back in 2018, I wrote a series of columns arguing that we hadn’t yet entered cold war 2.0 (‘Not the new cold war’, ‘Hitler’s cold war, Stalin’s cold war, today’s … ?’ and ‘Big power decathlon in a hot peace’). What we had at that point was a hot peace. If we were smart and lucky, the hot peace could run for decades. Badly bungled and dumbly driven, the hot peace could create opposed blocs that resembled a cold war line-up. But, I pronounced, it was going to need a lot more bad policy and stupidity to reach cold war 2.0.

Tragically, stupidity has delivered.

Churchill’s words from 1930 hang around the neck of Russia’s president:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

The former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov reports a new Russian joke that gets its sharp point from the way the key number mounts each day. Thus, today the Russians would whisper the sly heresy: ‘We are now entering day 33 of the special military operation to take Kyiv in two days.’

All the changes provoked by that ‘special operation’—with many more to come—set the agenda for US President Joe Biden’s trip to Brussels last week for meetings of NATO, the G7 and the European Council.

Biden replayed a cold war script familiar to Harry Truman and John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—unite the allies, affirm US commitment, and tread gently in the vicinity of the escalation steps going from military conflict to nuclear conflagration. (Ah, Dr Strangelove, you’re back—we prayed never to see you again.)

In Poland, Biden could channel Kennedy’s famous Berlin speech with his version of ‘I am a Ukrainian’. Warsaw heard the greatest foreign policy speech of Biden’s career; even the characteristic Biden stumbles worked, underlining the emotion felt and the strength of the words. But the president’s plea for peace couldn’t include a Reagan-style demand to ‘tear down this wall’. Today’s sudden need is for new walls.

Cold war 2.0 is born in Europe, as was cold war 1.0. So far, so distressingly familiar. What’s not clear on day 33 of Europe’s new cold war is how this will play in Asia.

In cold war 1.0, the proxy wars were fought in Asia. One of the many unknowables yet to unfold is Asia’s response to Europe’s struggle. The caution of India and ASEAN in commenting on Ukraine is a replay of the old non-aligned instinct and interest.

In the 20th century, the global balance was set by Europe and the US. In this century, the global balance will be set in the Indo-Pacific. China’s decisions about Putin and Ukraine will shape much. Cold war 1.0 was global. Perhaps cold war 2.0 will be more about Europe, if China holds back from Russia.

Xi Jinping is going to have to define the limited liability elements of the ‘no limits’ partnership he announced with Putin on 4 February. The ‘no limits’ sentence in the China–Russia communiqué went on to pledge there were ‘no “forbidden” areas of cooperation’. Oh, how the Chinese apparatchiks who approved those words must be rethinking their career trajectory.

Within two months of that extravagant blandishment, Beijing confronts what must be limited and how much will be forbidden to its weaker partner. It’s an exquisite cold war dilemma: for the sake of the alliance, how much does the major power, China, tie itself to the choices and caprices of the minor power?

The Strategist’s national security editor, Anastasia Kapetas, has written a series of fine pieces this month probing the emerging limits to China’s help and Russia’s worth as a strategic partner. Her judgement is that ‘the costs of underwriting the economy of a malevolent nuclear-weapon power in rapid decay could outweigh any gains. Russia may be too big, too nativist and too chaotic to become a useful, quiescent client state for China in the long term.’

The purpose of holding hands with Putin is to weaken the US, not to bind China to a Russia that daily demonstrates the dimensions of its blunder and the extent of Putin’s blindness.

The world looked different back on 4 February when Xi signed up to the ‘no limits’ bit of blandiloquence. What Putin and Xi thought they knew back then is being confounded, as Kapetas notes:

At the crux of China’s dilemmas is a deeper issue. Russia and Beijing have enjoyed the benefits of the global political and economic order while undermining it under the cover of the grey zone, believing that the status quo powers would be reactive, risk-averse and divided and would continue to focus on damage minimisation rather than coordinated deterrence.

Wars change much, and they can do it quickly. The grey zone needs the cover of the hot peace for its work of misinformation, calibrated shoves and calculated nastiness.

Cold war 2.0 has swept aside the grey, giving Europe a sharp black–white reality.

China havers and Asia holds its breath. Europe confronts its new war—both hot and cold—while the Indo-Pacific ponders what comes next.