This is Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, exclusively for Reaction subscribers.

Suddenly, it seems everyone is waking up to what a handful of historians, analysts and policymakers have been saying about Europe for almost a decade: we are entering a war era.

This doesn’t mean that Putin’s Russia is poised to invade another country tomorrow, in eastern, western or northern Europe. Even though Russia is spending somewhere between six and eight percent of its GDP on defence and waging war, Putin’s forces are embroiled in Ukraine and lack the capacity to fight a land war elsewhere simultaneously. But the timeframe has narrowed in which the Russian President, or an equally militaristic successor, might try a new operation.

How would it happen? If his forces take enough territory in their murderous “special operation”, enabling Putin to declare victory over Ukraine, or even if there is a “peace” deal freezing the current frontline, Russia has all manner of options for causing trouble in other parts of Europe once it has restocked and redeployed forces.

Putin or a successor might stir up a language dispute (shades of the 1930s) saying Russian-speaking populations outside Russian borders are being mistreated. There is a risk he grabs Estonia or a chunk of one of the other Baltic states and says any attempt by NATO to retake such territory will produce a tactical nuclear response. What does the West do then?

As it stands, NATO article 5 stipulates that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all members. Does that hold if Trump wins the White House? Perhaps Trump’s unpredictability is our friend here, because Putin wouldn’t know how Trump would react, so Russia might hold off. Even so, basing European security on such a calculation – Trump’s mood that day – seems an inordinately high risk way of approaching the problem.

Russia could play games on the Finnish border, or in the high North above Finland, Sweden and Norway, or in the Baltic Sea itself. Plus there is the threat of cyber attacks on civil and military infrastructure across Europe. If the grid or undersea cables are attacked, how resilient are our civil societies? Answer, we had better become a lot more resilient in case, and fast.

Or Russia could try to close the Suwalki gap, the land corridor of 40 miles between the Baltic states and Kaliningrad, a Russian pocket on the Baltic with a population of under half a million. Russia would be seeking to make it tricky for NATO to defend and resupply the Baltic States on the other side of the gap.

Such a Russian manoeuvre wouldn’t be easy to sustain or defend. NATO could concentrate its formidable forces, underpinned by the US, on retaking the Suwalki gap, which is Polish and Lithuanian territory. Again though, Putin might use nuclear threats. 

A report published by IISS last week explained that Russia doesn’t believe the West would, if challenged, use the nuclear deterrent, and Europe’s security rests on America’s nuclear capacity, along with Britain and France’s Cold War-era weapons and submarines that are in the process of being updated. Is it enough?

An understanding of these complex threats, and the realisation of what it means for our societies, has started to spread. 

This week, the head of the British Army General Patrick Sanders rightly went public with his long-held view that Britain will at some point need a bigger and better funded Army. The British Army’s strength is down to little more than 70,000 when in the new dispensation it will probably need to be nearly 50% bigger.

On the letters pages of The Times there were calls for conscription. The fear and dread this has prompted among younger Britons is understandable but far more likely what will happen is that compulsion will not be required. A British government will have to commit – soon, whoever is in power – to spending substantially more on defence. That will mean offering higher starting salaries to attract and retain volunteer recruits, and it will mean finding efficiencies elsewhere in the public sector on the basis that defending the country and our allies is a primary responsibility of government.

Labour’s position seems to be that there is no more money and any problems are the result of Tory waste and incompetence. This position is unlikely beyond the election to survive contact with reality that more is going to be needed.

We shouldn’t be too gloomy about the prospects, however. Even though Europe grew sleepy and complacent after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the continent retains enormous advantages over the kleptocratic Russian state.

Europe’s population – EU plus UK and Norway – is well over 500 million, whereas Russia has (poor souls) a population of about 150 million citizens, ruled over by a Tsar promoting a personality cult and a ridiculous set of ideas that hold no appeal for anyone sane in the rest of Europe. There isn’t even communism, that terrible, murderous creed that at least had an internationalist element. This time it is just miserable, unattractive Russian nationalism.

Russia’s GDP is in the region of two trillion US dollars. The EU’s GDP will this year be about ten times that amount. Britain adds another three trillion or so, measured in US dollars.

From those resources and advantages, with some urgency and combined action, Europe should if it wakes up be able to organise its defence with France, the UK, Poland and allies to the fore, building what I have been describing for some time now as a “Plan B” in case the US is not there in an emergency,

The point is not to fight a war. The point is to avoid one, by being so well prepared that it puts off the Russians and acts as a deterrent. 

Hope Haley stays in

Somehow, incredible as it might seem after everything that has happened, the Republican party is on the verge of making Donald Trump its candidate for the US election in November.

Only one Republican challenger remains in the primary process and Trump, inevitably, as is his way, is trying to bully her to withdraw from the race. Moderate Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and US ambassador to the United Nations, is behind in the polls but still in the race.

Her refusal to quit has infuriated Trump, who calls Haley “birdbrain”.

“When I watched her in the fancy dress that probably wasn’t so fancy, I said, ‘What’s she doing? We won,’” Trump said of rival Haley in New Hampshire on Tuesday night after the former President won the state’s primary 54-43.

Only, Haley hadn’t claimed she won. She acknowledged his victory, thanked her supporters and was polite but vowed to fight on because, well, America is a democracy and she wants to continue making the entirely valid case that the country needs something new to move on from Trump v Biden.

Haley’s energising, elevating refusal to be intimidated by Trump clearly only intensifies his fury. And it will worry Trump’s new campaign team, who need him to stop verbally attacking women and making crazy ad-libbed remarks because although it pleases the Trump base it alienates independent voters, voters who are not party affiliated, and moderate Republican voters too.

His revamped team – led by Susie Wiles, highly experienced Florida advisor, and Chris LaCivita, a former marine and political field operator – need Trump to stop these attacks and turn his fire on Biden instead. Haley being in the race is a distraction that brings out the worst in him in his speeches and reminds independents what he’s like (unpleasant, grouchy, ego-maniacal) when people refuse to do what he wants.

New Hampshire illustrated his problem. Many independents there didn’t like Trump’s brattish antics. Independents – a group that is growing in influence as younger voters shed party labels – are again going to be a key battleground in November across the US in the general election.

As Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, put it this week: it is obvious Haley should not withdraw. A great party is choosing a nominee for the world’s most important elected office. The received wisdom that it is hopeless, he’s destined to be the nominee, rests on a weary surrender to the class bully who demands everyone bow down.

In a democracy, choice is a good in and of itself. Even if Haley loses in the end, as seems likely, she’s providing a vital service for the voters and her country in testing the likely victor. 

There is another reason for Haley to stay in. It’s only January and who knows what will happen between now and the autumn. Although Trump’s legal troubles seem unlikely to prevent him being the candidate, there could be further twists and turns. Also, Trump is 77 and, as Haley has pointed out, he’s lost a yard mentally. There have been slip ups of late, for example when he became disoriented and confused Haley with Nancy Pelosi. Biden is one slip in the shower away from a disastrous fall, but then so is Trump. Anything could happen.

Noonan, writing in the WSJ, had some advice for Haley on how to fight, by taking it to Trump, pushing back on his attacks and deploying grit and humour. Noonan asked Landon Parvin, a veteran Washington speechwriter, how Haley should go for broke.

“You (Haley) alone now carry the banner,” says Parvin. “Speak up for all the Republicans who have been demeaned, diminished and threatened by Trump. He can no longer hurt you. Pick up the sword. You don’t have to give Shakespeare’s band-of-brothers speech but live it!”

Speak up for women who have had enough of being trash talked by Trump, he says. 

“Don’t attack with anger, just quote the terrible, terrible things he says about specific people and larger groups. It is not right what he says, and on some level most Trump supporters know it. Make fun of his self-importance and self-regard. Take on the Great Pumpkin far away in Mar-a-Lago. Show that he’s out of control, that he has no rails, no boundaries. Quote the past few days’ overnight rants on social media. Let the audience draw the conclusion about whether this man should be returned to the presidency.”

Good advice, let’s hope Haley takes it and sufficient American voters listen.

Gallant Weavers

To Paisley, my hometown, for Burns night on Thursday and one of the world’s most venerable and important Burns suppers, a scholarly and hospitable occasion that has been running since 1805. Although Burns was from Ayrshire, there is a strong connection with the great textile town of Paisley in neighbouring Renfrewshire. The Paisley poet and songwriter Robert Tannahill, born in 1774, was a Burns fan who co-founded the Paisley Burns Club, the oldest formally constituted Burns club in the world.

Tannahill wrote an account of their first gathering in 1805:

“Among the many toasts proposed in the course of the evening were the following—‘May the genius of Scotland be as conspicuous as her mountains’; ‘May Burns be admired while a thistle grows in Caledonia’; ‘May Scotia never want the sword of a Wallace, nor the pen of a Burns’. The night went off with uninterrupted harmony; and the company, resolving to meet annually on the same occasion.”

The morning of Burns night, BBC Radio 3 played music and songs associated with Burns. Among them was a tune I had never heard. The Gallant Weaver celebrates a weaver from Paisley.

Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, Ayrshire man and a contemporary genius of British culture, created his own arrangement of the song.

You can listen to it here performed by Harry Christophers and the Sixteen on Spotify 

I hope you’re having a good weekend.

Iain Martin,
Editor, Reaction

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