Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes Third World War seem possible but there is hope of more peaceful and sustainable world – Joyce McMillan

Last weekend, after the eastern city of Severodonetsk finally fell to Russian forces, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky struck a sombre note in his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, saying that the war in his country was entering a difficult time, “morally and emotionally”.

Helena, a 53-year-old teacher, stands wounded and in shock outside a hospital on the first day of the war after Russian forces bombed the town of Chuguiv (Picture: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
Helena, a 53-year-old teacher, stands wounded and in shock outside a hospital on the first day of the war after Russian forces bombed the town of Chuguiv (Picture: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not difficult, of course, to understand what he meant. While the reality of war is always horrifying and shocking, it is easier to bear when victory seems within reach; whereas now, four long months after Russia’s failed march on Kyiv, Ukraine seems to face what must seem like an interminable grind of bombing, shelling, unpredictable missile strikes, and vicious ground fighting in the east.

In truth, though, the Ukrainians – despite the huge burden they are carrying in this conflict – are not the only ones facing emotional difficulties, in dealing with the new reality of their situation.

For three decades, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the working assumption of western politicians, and of the whole of western society, has been that we are living in an ever-globalising world, where relatively free international trade and exchange could be taken for granted, along with long uninterrupted supply chains, rapid communications, and extensive scientific and cultural co-operation.

There have of course been many signs, since the financial crash of 2009, that that phase of history was coming to an end. It has, though, taken the shock of war in northern Europe to force western leaders into a major recognition of the new times in which we live, shaped not only by the re-emergence of Russia as a major adversary, but by the multiple and growing pressures of pandemic threats and climate crisis.

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Given the level of aggression shown by Russia, and the support it seems to enjoy from China, it is even possible that we are living through the early months of a Third World War, with tension-points everywhere from Taiwan to the Balkans; a level of conflict for which the West is profoundly unprepared, not only economically and militarily, but emotionally and psychologically.

And about this huge shift in our times, I think there are two things worth saying. The first is that we should not waste time beating ourselves up about our unpreparedness, or – as UK politicians frequently do – beating up our closest allies for theirs. Hoping and wishing to live in a world at peace is a profoundly decent human impulse, and the high hopes of those whose politics were formed in the 1990s, when a great peace across the northern hemisphere seemed within our grasp, are not to be scoffed at.

People lay flowers and children toys next to destroyed Amstor mall in Kremenchuk, after it was hit by a Russian missile (Picture: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the experience of Europe after the Second World War, it was also reasonable to think that strengthening economic ties with former Cold War adversaries – on food, energy, technology and manufacturing – would help bind the world into a shared system of law and values. And there was barely a government in the West which did nor seize the chance of a “peace dividend” when it came to reducing military expenditure; Britain’s present armed forces, for example, at under 140,000 trained personnel, are said to be smaller than at any time since the Napoleonic Wars.

It therefore follows that if some kind of western alliance is to be kept intact, at such a moment, the countries involved must recognise that each of them faces profound challenges in adjusting to this new situation, and that those challenges vary in ways profoundly shaped by geography, economics and history.

It is obvious, for example, that Germany faces a unique crisis, both in reconfiguring its energy supply at speed, and abandoning its post-war sense of itself as a nation that could never re-arm and prepare for war again.

Alliance-building in this new time will be tough, and will require real mutual understanding and flexibility; a process that may just be helped by the decision of Finland and Sweden to join Nato, bringing their vast experience of dealing with Russia to the table.

For the other thing to be said about the current crisis is that it offers both threat and opportunity.

The threat is that the whole Ukraine crisis will become yet another massive money-making opportunity for the world’s arms dealers and petrol-heads, already alarmingly vocal across western media, and determined to draw precisely the wrong conclusions from a crisis which has in truth demonstrated both the uselessness of many of the military ‘deterrents’ currently held by the West, and the urgent need – for strategic as well as environmental reasons – to get out of fossil fuels altogether, and to cease our dependence on the regimes that produce them.

There is, though, also an opportunity here, and a pathway to what could, in the long term, be a much more peaceful and sustainable world. If the western powers can hold together and continue to talk, they may at last wake up an smell the coffee, and begin the rapid shift of investment into renewable energy which is now both an environmental imperative, and an obvious permanent solution to strategic energy supply problems.

They might rethink their defence requirements in the light of 21st century realities, and begin to co-operate better in developing their capabilities, and anticipating the real threats we face.

And they might, too, finally come to understand that if the West is to have any chance of successfully defending Ukraine, and other vulnerable democracies under threat, it will happen not through pseudo-Churchillian grandstanding about which country is Ukraine’s best friend; but through painstaking efforts to build a 21st century western world that is more sustainable, more just, less hedonistic, and more focussed on the future, than in recent decades – and therefore more capable of defending itself, at those moments, such as now, when the need for defence is obvious, and can no longer be delayed.

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