The broad European peace that had prevailed since 1945 has been crushed under the tank treads of Vladimir Putin’s armies invading Ukraine. Their immediate objective: the destruction of that sovereign country’s democracy.
If the West is to continue to embrace the concept and privileges of liberty, then this return to militarised barbarism cannot stand. Putin’s imposition of violence on a sovereign neighbour opens up an immediate future for the unfortunate Ukrainians of a Hobbesian reality: life could quickly become solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, just like the Donbas.
But this exploding outrage has its festering origins in the second cold war, which has been unrecognised and unacknowledged.
Few may be prepared to concede this elementary reality of geopolitical life, but the West has been engaged in a second cold war for at least a decade. The Russian absorption of Crimea in 2014 is probably the point where the dictators and the democracies parted company to the extent that strategic competition became confrontational.
From this point, treaties and protocols came to mean nothing to the dictators. Observe the trashing of the Minsk accords or the Hong Kong handover agreement. The signs are unmistakeable: security, cyber space, economic, political and cultural.
Look no further than consistent and continuing cyber attacks on Western institutions and our basic expressions of liberty, especially elections, and the choreography of the second cold war emerges clearly. The fighting in Ukraine in Europe, with Russia practising its customary Kalashnikov diplomacy, and recurring confrontations in the Western Pacific are merely reflections of a continuing reality.
On a visit to Sydney a few years ago, Dan Coates, the US director of national intelligence at the time, asked what his interlocutors from the US Studies Centre thought Beijing’s ambitions actually were. The reply was that the Chinese Communist Party was intent on displacing the US and then replacing America as the world’s primary global power.
Russian objectives are more immediate and cruder.
At their conference in Beijing during the Winter Olympics, presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, while signing 15 bilateral agreements, made the extraordinary claim that their regimes represented democracies.
This actually demonstrates that Western arguments about the intrinsic values of democratic systems have penetrated. It is why the dictators cloak themselves in phony democratic symbols, mocking courts, parliaments and civil society.
Chinese ambitions are truly imperial. At a security conference in Beijing a while back attention was drawn by the Australians to the nine-dash line, which supposedly delineates Beijing’s territorial claim in the South China Sea. It dates from 1947 during the Kuomintang’s time and may even have been drawn by president Chiang Kai-shek. “Absolutely not” came the response from the Chinese participants, with one contending that Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea dated to the Tang Dynasty. It was a remarkable argument.
Putin’s Russia similarly is less about re-creating the Soviet Union than about rebuilding the Russian empire of the time of Alexander III (1881-94). This tsar relied on three interlocking pillars of support: orthodoxy, autocracy and a vibrant Russian nationalism. Alexander crushed local district representation and rolled back certain of the liberal reforms of his predecessor. To identify with the masses he sometimes resorted to coarse language. Does this sound like anybody we know?
Putin has never forgotten Barack Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a regional power. Ever since, he has been utterly committed to projecting Russian influence into different parts of the world, including using mercenaries from Mali to Moldova to Mariupol.
To do this the Kremlin must employ uncompromising brute military force, and this is where the West has been slow to realise the changing nature of Chinese and Russian objectives.
At the end of the first cold war, Francis Fukuyama claimed this represented the triumph of liberal democracy at “the end of history”. It did not, but the assumption was widespread. Some Western capitals concluded the exercise of military force was over.
The invasion of Ukraine surely explodes this theory. Great-power rivalries, based on mutual antipathy, are again the norm.
Taiwanese democracy is just as offensive to Beijing as the emerging Ukrainian democracy is to Moscow. For the dictators, alternative systems that deliver much better outcomes for people must never be allowed to develop and prosper, especially on their borders. Their actual existence threatens the dictators’ grip on people. So colour revolutions, whether they be in Belarus or Georgia or Kazakhstan, and especially in Ukraine, must be resisted by violence.
Putin has never forgotten his experience in Dresden as the German Democratic Republic disintegrated.
There are various reasons neither politicians nor strategic thinkers have been prepared to admit that a second cold war exists. Some wish it were not so. Others hope it will pass. Still others thought humanity had moved beyond existential confrontation.
Alas, during the past two decades Russia and China have constructed warfare states and make no secret of the power of their armed forces and their preparedness to deploy them.
But not for one moment should we regard the cliques in Beijing and Moscow as being superhuman. They are not and face many significant challenges, especially in demography. A resilient and resourceful West is more than equal to the challenges being laid down by the dictators.
However, the great lesson of the first cold war from the time of the “long telegram” being written in Moscow by American diplomat George Kennan was that we must be prepared for a protracted struggle. All the elements of statecraft need to be employed, but first and foremost our democratic health needs to focus on issues of real and immediate concern and less on the trivia of the 24-hour news cycle.
The first cold war was won by interlocking Western alliances. So, too, will the second cold war be won as a consequence of the performance of reinforcing allies and partners. Ukraine is the first real test.