Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
In 1946, the deputy US Ambassador in Moscow was invited by Washington to comment on a speech by Joseph Stalin that suggested America’s wartime ally was about to change its geo-political tack, blaming capitalism as the cause of the Second World War.
In what later became famous as the Long Telegram, George Kennan spelt out both the Soviet Union’s ambitions and what America’s strategic response should be. He created ‘containment’, America’s post-war grand strategy. This eventually won the Cold War.
Today, the world is now more dangerous than at any time since the 1940s. The world is on course to splinter into two competing spheres of interest. There is precious little international leadership as to how we collectively respond.
Having recently visited Ukraine and Taiwan, I offer my own memorandum of what I believe is coming over the horizon, its impact on our way of life, and what action should be taken. There is an opportunity for Britain to lead.
But despite Nick Carter, the former Head of UK Armed Forces, warning that we face ‘proliferating threats from resurgent powers’, defence spending remains on a peacetime footing.
The Cold War gave us a sense of purpose: what we believed in, stood for, and were willing to defend. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have enjoyed three decades of relative peace. We have become complacent.
We must urgently upgrade our foreign policy, defence posture, and international statecraft. This is no time for ambiguity. We need a new strategy.
Another cold war, stupid? A Russia / China alliance?
Freedom House, the pro-democracy think tank, makes clear global democracy is declining. Leaders use anti-democratic practices to retain power. ‘Democracy’ as an aspirational national mission is losing friends worldwide.
China and Russia have openly broken away, pioneering not just authoritarian governance but encouraging other countries to follow. China increasingly sees Russia as a key strategic partner in challenging Western dominance on the world’s stage, undermining international cohesion and eroding economic, political, and social resilience.
If we are to prevent further deterioration of the global order, we must better understand both Russia and China to contain their revisionism. In 1946 George Kennan’s strategy of “containment” provided the answer.
The Russian way
Like Kennan, we need to start looking at this conflict from the Kremlin’s eyes. Putin certainly miscalculated his own forces’ competence and Ukraine’s incredible fortitude. But on one thing he was right: he was correct that NATO, the most formidable military alliance ever assembled, would bench itself and stay out of the fight.
Yet the penny in the West still has not dropped. This battle is not just about Ukraine but about containing another shift in Russia’s ever-expansionist foreign policy.
The Berlin airlift in 1948 was Kennan’s first test. Stalin tried to starve the city into submission. The West stood firm. After 323 days Stalin buckled.
Standing on the Odesa steps a few weeks ago with the Defence Select Committee, I saw the port inactive, blockaded by Putin’s attempt to starve the world of Ukrainian food. Unlike Berlin in 1948, we have timidly allowed Russia to control, and therefore weaponise, grain.
Worse still, 200,000 Russian troops are being mobilised for a spring offensive as industries are re-tooled to help with the war effort.
In this new Cold War, our response cannot be limited to sanctions and arming Ukraine. When asked what success looks like the FCDO states ‘it’s for Ukraine to determine’, failing to understand that putting the fire out in Ukraine is not just the right thing to do, it is in our economic interests to do so.
It exposes an uncomfortable truth – the West fell asleep whilst defending international democracy since the end of the cold war. Our weakness was easily exploited. We could have prevented Russia’s invasion by answering President Zelensky’s request for NATO assistance before the war.
Instead, we left Ukraine to do the fighting, recusing ourselves from any security responsibility because Ukraine was not in the NATO club, forgetting that Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan were also not NATO members.
China: Lessons for Taiwan
Watching carefully from afar is China. Beijing is more cautious but more dangerous than Russia. It sees how the West handles Putin and it makes no secret of its intention to secure control of Taiwan by force if required. To understand Beijing’s strategy, we must again place ourselves in its shoes.
China is hostile to the West because until 1800 it was the world’s superpower with 30 per centof world trade and a third of the world’s population. Then it suffered a century of humiliation at the hands of the West. Not until 1971 did the United Nations recognise it as a legitimate state. Our ‘One China policy’ recognised Taiwan only as a separate people.
Fast forward five decades and Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, is a vibrant democracy with a thriving economy – a high-tech superpower.
President Xi is now starting to flex his muscles. China’s armed forces are the largest in the world. The navy and air force conduct regular live fire exercises close to Taiwan’s territorial waters.
China has fortressed islands south of Taiwan allowing Chinese air power to dominate the South China Sea skies. All are illegal under international maritime law, but it has gone by unimpeded by the West.
Seeing the West’s hesitant response to Putin, Xi is expediting his military capability to attack Taiwan, which the US suggests will happen as early as 2025.
If President Xi fulfills his promise to take Taiwan, the impact on global trade would be far larger than that of the war in Ukraine and the Covid pandemic combined. China would grab the critical South China Sea international shipping lanes. With 60 per cent of the world’s market and 95 per cent of advanced conductors, it would seize the most important international export to date – microchips.
Large-scale Western sanctions would trigger retaliatory trade restrictions. Global free trade would be throttled. But taking Taiwan would be an ideological win for Xi and push China to further its authoritarian agenda with states across the world torn over who to support.
For the West, it would mean losing a critical democratic partner and further damage our credibility in defending our increasingly threadbare international standards. We simply cannot afford to blink again.
As with Ukraine, Taiwan is increasingly symbolic of how the West wakes up to a fast-changing world.
We therefore require three interrelated strategies, firstly for Russia, secondly for China, and finally for the West which are all preceded by operational actions that will give us more time to prepare.