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‘Conflict in Ukraine risks a return to the Cold War era’

Socialist Worker spoke to peace studies professor Paul Rogers about the dangers of escalation in the war in Ukraine, and how it might reshape the big powers’ military strategies
Issue 2797
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping

Despite ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping is being pulled into talks over Ukraine

The US has been focused on China as its main rival in recent years. Is what’s happening in Ukraine and Eastern Europe a sign of strategic change?

I think that’s going to depend hugely on China’s role in the ending of the war in Ukraine. One of the reasons that president Putin felt able to invade was that he felt he had China’s backing. This was as a result of the head to head discussions he had with President Xi. China is now being rather more cautious.

The indications are that they were not expecting this level of intervention so quickly. Many Chinese people in Ukraine, not least in Kiev itself, were caught unawares by the invasion. China has had pretty strong relations with Ukraine, particularly involving grain exports. So I sense a change in the mood in China.

They are not for ditching Putin but they are not so keen to develop the very close links as they were. If Putin were to use chemical weapons that would probably be the parting of the ways. So it’s not impossible that China may pull the plug on the operation. They are probably the only actor on the international stage that could do this.

What has happened on the psycho-political level is that the United States feels it’s been able to regain its Western leadership after disasters in Afghanistan, and the long-enduring problems in Syria and Iraq. So it feels emboldened to an extent, and it has certainly put a lot of additional forces into Europe in the last 20 days—probably a lot more than people realise.

It’s not easy to see if this is going to lead to a permanent change. But whatever else happens I think the US is going to be more significant in Europe for at least the next decade.

What are the implications of the huge increases in military expenditure announced both in the US and across Europe in recent days?

We are to some extent returning to the Cold War era, and although there won’t be any publicity given to this, there will be very heavy expenditure on the Russian side too. They will have to spend a huge amount of money just replacing the weapons that they’ve used and lost. That’s going to be a very big dent in what is going to be, at least temporarily, a much-weakened economy.

But what it means essentially is that we’re now in a classic Shakespearean “Now Thrive the Armorers” period.
In every part of the world you’re going to see an increase in military spending and a decrease in other spending. Countries such as Japan and India, and probably some of the Gulf States, will also see the need to expand their military. That’s disastrous because the biggest security threat we face now is nothing to do with all of this, it’s climate breakdown.

If the Russian economy were to collapse under the weight of sanctions and war are there dangers for global security not yet highlighted by the mainstream?

Russia is not unlike the late Soviet Union. If you get a major leadership change or crisis, that’s going to be a very uncertain time. I remember very much the 1980s and a series of changes of leadership—Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and finally Gorbachev—all in the space of a few years.

That period coincided with the Able Archer incident in the autumn of 1983 [A Nato exercise led the Soviet Union to prepare reprisals for an expected imminent nuclear attack]. That was one of the most dangerous possible of nuclear crises. So yes, I think if there is real turmoil within the upper echelons of Russia, that will be a period of considerable dangers. 

The signs are not yet there that we’re going to see Putin fall. He is in very firm control and the group around him seem fairly loyal. But there are interesting signs of dissent. The recent statement from Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister, that there should be a ceasefire is an indication of that. It’s not just that he’s calling for that, but that he feels able to say it that’s important.

What are the dangers of a Nato no-fly zone?

Russia’s anti-aircraft measures, including the S400—their longest range and most effective surface to air missile—are based largely in south west Russia and in Belarus. Nato would have to destroy those launch sites in bombing raids. And that would be bound to involve going into Russian territory.

Putin did claim that if Nato interfered in this way there was a risk that things would “escalate”. He was saying that he could respond with a demonstration shot of a tactical nuclear weapon. So I think it’s very dangerous to consider a no-fly zone.

Could this conflict go nuclear?

I think we need to be aware of some history. I’ve written recently on the history of British willingness to use nuclear weapons first. That goes right back to the 1950s when the first V bomber aircraft were coming in and Britain had the first nuclear-capable aircraft on board aircraft carriers. I remember Harold Macmillan, the minister of defence from 1954 onwards, describing the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used. Two years later, his successor Duncan Sandys said the same thing. 

And throughout, both inside Nato and without, Britain has entertained the possibility of the first use of nuclear weapons. And this was the policy of Nato, France, the United States and the old Soviet Union. The idea that we have nuclear deterrence through “mutually assured destruction” has never been true. There’s always been a nuclear war fighting element, and it’s for that reason that there are obvious risks today.

Things could actually escalate to a higher level. I think the risk is still pretty low, but the history is a very strong reminder that the problem exists. That’s one of the strongest reasons of all why the world should have been serious about going beyond the nuclear era years ago. It seems to me that any state which has the capacity to kill 20 million people in an hour and a half, whether that’s Russia, Britain, United States, or France should be considered a “rogue state”.


Read Paul Rogers on British readiness to use nuclear weapons first at bit.ly/PRonFirstUse

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