At War

During the week I participated in a discussion with a group of insurance sector executives as to what defines ‘at war’ – in the context of various claims on the sector with respect to the invasion of Ukraine (i.e. ships stranded in the Black Sea, aircraft impounded in Russia). The question is an increasingly relevant one, notably for the evolution of security policy in Europe.

In recent days, at least two developments have underlined this. One is the elevation of Xi Jinping to a third term as Chinese leader, in a choreographed display of singular ‘thoughtcrime’. In my view the transition from a ‘one party’ to a ‘one man’ state may not necessarily make the invasion of Taiwan more likely, but it does increase the risk of policy mistakes by China (as an aside, capital is trying to flee China and, the Chinese stock market has delivered a 30 year return of precisely 0%).

The other was the repeated warnings from Russia that Ukraine is developing a dirty bomb – such crooked veiled threats can be unlocked by turning them upside down – Russia is signaling its intention to escalate the war in an even more ghastly way (interestingly this week’s Der Spiegel has an interesting article on veiled threats by Russia to attack Berlin with nuclear weapons). 

And, the Russians have been busy. Consistent with some of our earlier missives (From Great War to Total War) Russia has adopted a policy of aggravating and irritating Europe around its borders. They have now stepped this up to menace critical infrastructure – cyber attacks on banks, transport companies in large European countries, the (alleged) blowing up of gas pipelines around the Nordic states, the threat to vandalize telecommunication cables linking the US to Ireland (and thus Europe). It is a ruthless, near medieval siege type attack where Europe’s vital connections are targeted.

Not to mind that, but attacks are coming in other domains. In a recent note (The Man on Horseback) we noted the epidemic of coups d’états in African states, many of which coincided with the arrival of the Russian mercenary firm Wagner in those countries. There has yet to be a push back from the colonial power in many of those countries (France) but it could come once the outcome of the war in Ukraine is more clear.

In sum, Europe is under attack, if not at war. Insurers would argue that the technical conditions for war are not met, but the reality on the ground is that this is the case in a practical sense. This attack or aggravation by Russia may also mark the first time that Europe as an entity or more importantly, as a system of values, is under attack. How then might it respond?

First, in some European countries, where a coherent security policy has been willfully neglected because of historical factors, there is a rude awakening.

Germany is a good example and it has a long way to go in replenishing its military hardware and personnel. Indeed, one of the reasons for the relatively difficult relations between the German and French governments has been the German reluctance to buy French weaponry. If that’s not enough, Germany is also caught in a difficult position with regard to Russia’s ‘unlimited friend’ China, with a proposed Chinese acquisition of Hamburg’s port and a visit to China by Olaf Scholz stirring controversy.  

Ireland is another example, where complacency regarding its geographic location and a half-baked policy of neutrality have been conceived in a way that it is effectively defenceless – so much so that when a Russian plane flies close to Irish airspace, we need to call the RAF. Irish politicians may think that its location and neutrality render it safe, but viewed through Russian eyes Ireland is a tributary of the larger Anglo-Saxon countries (notably the US) and an easy candidate for a provocative act.

Second, at some point, Europe’s leaders will feel the need to respond to aggression, and in the pattern of the EU being forced to evolve by crises, it may for the first time undertake an offensive action in the name of the EU. This would take the EU into a highly ambiguous area, and such an act may take the shape of a coalition of the willing – perhaps a large scale cyber attack led by the Netherlands, France and Sweden. 

The awakening that Europe is under attack should really sharpen the view that cannot suffer attacks from within – I have written many times on the need to credibly sanction Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Additionally, the progress of countries like Serbia towards EU membership should be halted. Moreover, Belarus a weak point in Russia’s constellation should be more actively targeted in terms of sanctions and support for its pro-democracy movement.

This has not been an optimistic post, but to finish on a high, though stay on topic, I can recommend an excellent, amusing collection of the writings (between 1940-45) of Flann O’Brien, entitled ‘At War’.  

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