The West’s nightmare: a war on three fronts

There has never been a more unsettling strategic landscape in my lifetime – we must turn our attention to the prospect of conflict.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Dec 9, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with US President Joe Biden via a video call in the Black Sea resort of Sochi
Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden spoke via video call this week, amid growing fears that Russia will invade UkraineCREDIT: MIKHAIL METZEL/ AFP

While Britain’s political class is distracted by a Downing Street party, the world is at the most dangerous strategic juncture since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The West faces escalating threats of conflict on three fronts, each separate but linked by unknown levels of collusion: Russia’s mobilisation of a strike force on Ukraine’s border, China’s “dress rehearsal” for an attack on Taiwan, and Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship. 

Each country is emboldening the other two to press their advantage, and together they risk a fundamental convulsion of the global order.

You have to go back yet further to find a moment when Western democracies were so vulnerable to a sudden change in fortunes. Today’s events have echoes of the interlude between the Chamberlain-Daladier capitulation at Munich in 1938 and consequences that followed in rapid crescendo, from Anschluss to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.   

The least reported, but perhaps the most immediate, is the rapid nuclear escalation of Iran’s Islamist hardliner, Ebra Raisi. American and Israeli officials think the regime could be as little as two or three weeks away from the threshold required to assemble a nuclear weapon, at which point the Mid-East balance of power changes instantly.

“Iran’s enrichment of uranium at 60pc levels has taken it to the precipice. This is the highest level ever and the regime can easily make the leap to weapons grade level of 90pc,” said Helima Croft, energy strategist at RBC Capital Markets and former oil analyst at the CIA.  

Israel may not wait to find out whether this really is a dash for the bomb – at a time when the US is focussed elsewhere – or a bargaining tactic. Mossad chief David Barnea flew to Washington on Sunday night to test the waters for a pre-emptive strike.

Israel would like the US to join in with its 2.5 tonne “bunker buster” bombs to destroy Iran’s underground sites. But it will not hesitate to act alone if pushed too far, allocating $1.5bn in October to prepare for its own attack.

While this bubbles, Russia and China are raising the ante in their parallel bids for imperial reconquest. Carl Bildt, the UN’s former Balkan envoy, warns that the two countries may launch attacks “simultaneously in a more or less coordinated fashion”, even if they are not formal military allies. This is the nightmare scenario. 

President Joe Biden hoped to split this revanchiste confederacy by being nice to Vladimir Putin, trying to lure him away from China with a “Kissinger” policy in reverse, in this instance by offering him Ukraine on a platter. 

There was more than a hint of Munich in the way that Mr Biden decided Ukraine’s grim fate in a bilateral stitch-up with Germany’s Angela Merkel in July. Mr Biden waived Congressional sanctions on Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline and in doing so deprived Ukraine of its self-defence leverage.

The US-German accord promised that Russia would not be allowed to “weaponise energy flows”. But that is exactly what Mr Putin has since done. There have been no consequences. 

The Kremlin pocketed Mr Biden’s concession and has since dialled up the pressure, all but annexing Belarus, and massing tank units, artillery, and equipment capable of sustaining an invasion army of 175,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, all within striking distance of Kiev. Attack remains a latent threat. As soon as the ground freezes solid, it becomes a real threat.

Mr Biden warned Mr Putin during their video summit on Tuesday that the US will retaliate with economic strangulation and a Nato build-up if he tries to gobble up Ukraine – an artificial creation of Soviet border maps, in his manifesto. 

It is hard to see why either warning would deter him. The ‘nuclear option’ of expelling Russia from the SWIFT system of international payments has gradually lost deterrent value. The Kremlin has been developing ways to work around it. 

The Carnegie Moscow Center says Russia has introduced a national version of SWIFT known as SPFS. The country could probably conduct transactions directly with China through the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System. It has introduced a National Payment Card System (MIR) in case Visa and Mastercard are suspended, and these can be linked with Chinese UnionPay and Japanese JCB. 

The loss of SWIFT would be a major financial shock for Russia but it would also be painful for European companies, and untenable in light of Europe’s gas dependency.

“Disconnecting SWIFT is absolute fantasy.  Are Germans going to carry money in suitcases to Russia to pay for their gas?” said Vladimir Dzhabarov from the Russian Federal Council. 

As for beefing up Nato, where will the forces come from. Germany had 2,000 Leopard tanks 30 years ago; today it has less than 200.

Mr Putin may never have another chance like this to reestablish Greater Russia. All stars are aligned in his favour. Europe has disarmed. The green energy switch has not yet gone far enough to break dependency on Russia.

The EU has subcontracted its gas storage on its own soil to Gazprom itself, which concocted excuses not to fill them. Europe is now heading into winter with inventories down to 43pc in Austria, 51pc in Holland, and 62pc in Germany. 

Gas TFF contracts for January have risen fivefold in a year to €103 per megawatt hour. Power prices have blown through €200, with blackouts all but certain once the hard frosts arrive. Mr Putin has the EU over a barrel. 

Amid rising tensions with China Taiwan has weapons such as these Hsiung Feng III missile launchers at the ready
Amid rising tensions with China Taiwan has weapons such as these Hsiung Feng III missile launchers at the ready

What we do not know is how far Russia and China are coordinating their actions. Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said over the weekend that China’s latest spate of bomber and fighter sorties into Taiwan’s airspace looks “a lot like a rehearsal” for an attack on the island. 

Last year’s war games by the US military revealed that America lacks the front-line clout in the region needed to hold back an invasion. Taiwan could only hope to harass attackers with a “porcupine strategy” of asymmetric defence, buying time for the US to mobilise.

Xi Jinping is in less of a hurry than Mr Putin. The long-standing assumption is that China has time on its side over Taiwan, though less than before. America’s “Pacific pivot” is starting to take on real meaning and the Quad alliance with Japan, India, and Australia is hardening by the day. Xi might conclude that a parallel conflict in Ukraine along with a weak White House and a craven Europe offer an opportunity that may not recur.

One is reminded of the temptations of the German high command in 1914, as recounted by historian Fritz Fischer. The generals understood at once that Sarajevo created a unique set of strategic circumstances that might never be bettered. So they struck.

Nothing is fore-ordained. Russia, China, and Iran would all rather achieve their objectives without a fight. It would be fatal for Xi Jinping to launch an amphibious invasion – always a chancey undertaking – that went badly wrong.

Mr Putin would probably settle for the “Finlandisation” of Ukraine and Nord Stream 2 on his terms if he could get both. A well-armed Ukraine with US Javelin anti-tank missiles would be no pushover, even if Russia’s crushing air superiority guaranteed victory in the end. 

But there has never been a more unsettling strategic landscape in my lifetime. So yes, Downing Street’s Brie and Prosecco party was bad, but perhaps we can now turn our attention to war.

5 comments

  1. This is an unsettling article. Biden has compounded his treachery of handing NS2 to the rodent on a plate with this latest shitshow, which achieved absolutely nothing, yet made further huge concessions to the rodent. Violence and the threat of violence are rewarded each time.
    If Israel feels that Russia lackey Iran has reached critical mass with its uranium enrichment programme, it will feel that it has no alternative but to attack; possibly with nukes. The US will then be distracted even more.
    The article suggests that putler might wait until the ground is frozen solid. In that case, the Budapest signatories simply must act now. Biden has already ratted out Ukraine by refusing to deploy ground troops, all that is left is to start shipping shitloads of SSM’s and SAM’s.
    The NYT is claiming that Ukrainian commanders have stated that they will be overrun without these. (Article is behind a paywall, so I have only seen the headline).

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Putin will not attack (free) Ukraine. Ukraine’s military may not have any air force or navy, but Ukraine has 500.000 soldiers and advanced defense systems, including missiles and javelins. Putin could shake hands with Washington suffering a full defeat in Ukraine like we did in Afghanistan.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I hope you’re right Mike but Vladolf has a rare opportunity here. Europe will freeze without him and Bidenov is winless so far with Vladolf. NATO only sends letters of concern and as long as Putin doesn’t march on Germany and France neither of them could give a shit what happens to Ukraine. They would ally with the Devil himself if he had cheap gas, and they have.
      My first reaction to Vladolf’s invasion of Crimea was to remove him from the UNSC and I’m still shocked nobody has ever even mentioned that. I still believe he would respond to that even before he would removal from SWIFT.

      Liked by 4 people

      • The West are weak and powerless because they are rotten and corrupt to the core. These bastards look down on Ukraine, preaching about not being able to do anything until Ukraine cleans up it’s act. The very same people that are taking bribes from Muscovy and tossing Ukraine under the bus.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Some people never learn from past mistakes and/or from history. The sad state of world affairs has its roots in the utter weakness of our so-called leaders. One is weaker than the next and now we have the very weakest president of all times in the Yellow House. A Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher could have saved us from at least most of the bullshit that has piled up. I see not a single entity who sees it this way. They all are still relying on stupid dialogue even though it is easy to see the constant deterioration. Afghanistan was like a starter pistol for the evil shit nuggets in Moscow and Peking and all the other trash countries to do their thing.
    The wannabe leaders of the “free world” see the maggot-infested flesh rotting with hideous stench and yet they still think that you can eat it. It’s all so very sickening!

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.