Our enemies are prepared for the fight. It’s time to rearm to avoid World War Three

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin
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Last week, without apparent co-ordination, politicians and commentators around the world began to talk of an imminent global conflagration.

Donald Trump asserted that we were “on the brink of World War Three”. Volodymyr Zelensky said that Putin was preparing to attack Nato, and “that certainly means the Third World War”. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, declared that World War Three will happen without fail, and it will happen “in the near future”.

Our own Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, was ahead of the curve. Two weeks ago, he averred that we had moved “from a postwar world to a prewar world”. Not long afterwards, the Chief of the General Staff, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, warned that our army had been so reduced that when the war eventually came, we were in no position to win it.

This last intervention is by far the most alarming. Sir Patrick is not just another general lobbying for a bigger defence budget. The craggy-faced former Green Jacket has been eerily accurate in his predictions to date, not least about the outbreak and course of the Ukraine war.

What do these politicians and soldiers know that the rest of us don’t? How have we moved so quickly from complacency to despair, from world war being almost unthinkable to defeat seeming almost inevitable?

Part of the answer is that public discourse has caught up very suddenly with what historians and geostrategists have been saying for years, namely that the shift from a unipolar world is inescapably dangerous. It was in 2017 that the Harvard academic Graham Allison wrote Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Allison argued that, with the exception of the eclipse of Britain by the United States in the 20th century, the displacement of one hegemonic power by another had always involved conflict.

In the seven years since that book was published, America’s relative strength has continued to wane, and the illiberal powers – above all, Russia, China and Iran – have moved from a vague anti-Western entente to a solid alliance.

What if America’s gradual decline turns into a sudden retreat? What if Donald Trump, the probable winner of November’s presidential election, hangs Ukraine out to dry and withdraws from Nato?

Trump claims that the real danger comes from backing Ukraine. If you want peace, he argues, echoing the interwar America First movement, stop getting involved with overseas conflicts. The trouble is that, now as then, the anti-democratic powers have no intention of leaving us alone. It is not the export of liberal capitalism that bothers them, but its existence. They don’t like their own people being seduced by what they see as Western selfishness, materialism and crassness.

Trump is famously unpredictable. He might, as Boris Johnson argues, support Ukraine after all. But everything he says suggests the opposite. Quite apart from his general isolationism, Trump blames Ukraine for its cameo role in his impeachment. He speaks more warmly of Putin than of Zelensky.

Hence the Russian strongman’s enigmatic smile. Putin, who looked beaten after the failure of his initial invasion, now thinks he need hang on only for 10 months. Other despots are drawing similar conclusions. From the Iranian-sponsored strike against US troops in Jordan to Venezuela’s threats against Guyana, the global hoodlums sense that the copper is no longer on patrol. This is what it looks like when a unipolar order fragments.

Will general disorder turn into a Third World War? Very possibly. China might invade Taiwan, a country the US is pledged to defend. Xi Jinping promised reunification within five years and made clear to the Americans that he meant it. Obviously, he would rather conquer without fighting – Sun Tzu’s definition of the ultimate military skill. But China’s moment of maximum naval advantage over the US, because of their respective timetables of procurement and mobilisation, is the second half of this decade.

A war in Taiwan would consume all America’s attention, giving Putin his best opportunity to settle scores with other former Russian provinces – the Baltic States, Poland, Finland. Even without a war in Taiwan, Trumpian isolationism might leave Europe undefended.

“Undefended” really is the word. There was a time when, in the absence of the United States, Britain could lead a credible European coalition. But the British Army has now been reduced to 76,950 – down from 109,600 in 2000.

I am a little more sanguine than the Chief of the General Staff about the size of the Army. Our big 20th-century land deployments were anomalous, our strength having rested, down the centuries, on sea power. The trouble is that the Royal Navy has been equally run down. After spending an almost unbelievable sum on our aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, we find that we lack the jump jets, radar helicopters and stores ships to make it readily deployable.

We have had to pull patrols from around the Falkland Islands for want of frigates. The three branches of our Armed Services combined are smaller than the US Marine Corps alone.

And do we have the will to fight? Our fathers were taught that Britain was a great country, a bastion of freedom, a place worth dying for. Our sons are taught that it is a nation of slavers and racists, and that the best way to escape that poisoned patrimony is to transcend British patriotism.

Lacking men and materiel, and unable to tackle either shortage before the end of the decade, by which time China might have made its move, our only remaining option is, in the spirit of Sun Tzu, to win without fighting. In other words, to help the Ukrainians push Putin back or, at the very least, to keep him tied down, so that he cannot contemplate a wider conflict.

Although Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed, that country is far from throwing in the towel. Its new strategy of striking far behind the lines at Russia’s energy infrastructure is proving highly effective. Teams of special forces disappear and, the next thing you know, aircraft are blown up and Russian generals go missing. The first F-15 aircraft will arrive in Ukraine later this month. Meanwhile, drone and missile strikes have effectively confined Russia’s Black Sea fleet to port.

This last is especially important. Putin is obsessed with ports, and not only in Russia. His support for the Assad dictatorship stems from his interest in the naval facility leased by Russia in Tartus, and Wagner’s malign intervention in Libya is driven by his designs on Tobruk. With its oil and gas networks and facilities under attack, Russia, which is already paying the price for having converted more than a third of its economy to war production, will run out of money. That will send its own signal to Xi.

The third authoritarian ally is Iran, which has managed to build state-of-the-art military drones despite 30 years of economic isolation – further proof that trade sanctions are useless, and containment requires force.

Iran is poor, its regime unpopular, but it maintains a stable of international troublemakers including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Avoiding the Third World War means containing Russia, deterring China and, not least, settling Iran – either by toppling the ayatollahs or by peeling them away from their allies. Lobbing occasional ordnance their way, as the US did on Friday, will not do the trick.

Britain is not without cards to play. Our Armed Services may be starved of cash, but our special forces terrify the enemy, and our Secret Intelligence Service, which was warning sceptical Europeans of the looming Russian invasion in 2021, is unsurpassed. There are individual Russians, Chinese and Iranians who are as keen as we are to avoid all-out war.

Everything depends on willingness to spend more on defence – in Britain and in Europe. Unless we rearm, we condemn ourselves, not just to a war, but to losing it.

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