As Russian forces raise their horizons and start killing more Ukrainians in what seems to be a full-on invasion, Britain’s PM, Boris Johnson, got the stakes right when he said “this mission must end in failure”.
That covers a multiplicity of outcomes of varying bloodiness – but the logic is that conflict continues until the goal is reached. It may take quite a while then.
The phrase game changing is overused, but – in the sense of recognition of a profound change in direction – it might well be applicable in this case.
The starkness of tanks rolling and commissars following with arrest and kill lists is a forcible reminder of neglected elementary propositions. That strength deters; that democratic powers should be cautious in banking peace dividends and in turning a blind eye to threats; and that the world is generally a better place when the US is the predominant power.
So you should ask whether, on the back of Covid’s great disruption, the Ukraine shock will come to be seen as a turning point in our societies.
In economic terms, it seems plausible. The argument that free trade leads to harmony has looked for some time to be incomplete. The logic of strategic competition implies the isolation of competitors from technology and trade that will strengthen them. Sanctions on Russia feel like a starting, not an end point. Absent a change of policy from President Xi, this might soon be reflected in the western democracies’ relationship with China.
In social and political terms, a period of violent conflict could have a similar effect to the second world war in crystallising the gap between an entrenched establishment view and a rising political consciousness.
One could quickly run up a list of issues underpinning current political restiveness and division which have the potential to feed into such an outcome.
Compulsory wokeness, for example, has had limited success in healing division; while classifying people by what they say, rather than what they do, has not promoted much virtue.
State management of the economy to reduce instability and help the weak now threatens long-run productivity growth. Meanwhile, support for decarbonisation evaporates as life-changing costs become transparent.
And the taking by the state of ever-wider powers to regulate our lives to make us better people increasingly creates more problems than it solves. Oblivious of how it looks, we find the most ardent defenders of civil liberties yearning for extraordinary powers.
It’s puzzling that the more youthful political leaders such as Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern seem most insensitive to differences of opinion – and least able to handle them.
Americans might provide an idea of direction in the year-end elections. With Joe Biden at risk of becoming a new Jimmy Carter (albeit without his intellectual rigour), the Republicans look increasingly likely to establish a punishing Congressional dominance. Well, depending on what Donald Trump says and does in the meantime.
And despite his unrivalled skill in scarifying elites (and his relative moderation and successes in office), it’s not obvious that the Donald has a clear and comprehensive plan for change.
Perhaps he won’t need one; events can create their own facts.
But in the meantime, we can keep waiting for a new political entrepreneur able to channel contemporary concerns in a way that keeps the lid on conflict, while promoting opportunity and prosperity. Good luck, David Seymour and Christopher Luxon.