When reports of a new virus began to emerge from China, many assumed this would have little impact on their lives; two years later, more than 5.5 million people have died worldwide from Covid in the worst pandemic since the 1918-19 ‘Spanish’ flu outbreak.
In this deeply interconnected world, it is hard to imagine that a major European war, even one only remotely reminiscent of the tragedies of the past, could break out today.
However, in massing an army on the Ukrainian border and making demands of Nato that appear designed to be refused, the increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin poses a growing threat to “peace for our time”, to coin a phrase from history.
When he annexed Crimea, sent troops to prop up Syria’s brutal president, Bashar Assad, and used agents to poison dissidents, Russia’s president demonstrated a willingness to use violence to advance his self-aggrandising agenda. And that agenda, it seems clear, is to re-establish Russia as a superpower on a par with the Soviet Union.
So while, in the UK at least, it may feel unlikely there will be a conflict, we cannot take peace for granted and Britain must prepare for the worst.
The UK government appears to recognise the danger with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss saying that “together with our allies, we will continue to stand with Ukraine… what happens in eastern Europe matters for the world”.
With Nato not likely to intervene militarily, the US and its allies are instead relying on the threat of severe sanctions against Russia to serve as a deterrent.
In this, the UK can play a significant role, given the amount of Russian money in the City of London that could be frozen. But, as an alternative to boots on the ground, sanctions will only work if they include the ultimate threat of a total trade embargo on Russia. This would damage our economy, but the price would be much less than an actual war.
Longer term, the West must wake up and recognise Putin for who he is – a murderous dictator and an enemy of liberal democracy – and treat him accordingly.