The war in Ukraine has become what Churchill in 1943 called “the sum of all fears”. The targeting of nuclear power stations last week brought new images of horror to Europe.

Russia’s invasion now tests the boundaries of infamy on a daily basis. And Nato is beginning to realise that it can no longer stand aloof from Putin’s war on civilisation.

The heinous shelling of Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, has brought the threat of nuclear annihilation to the entire continent.

Putin’s army has already seized Chernobyl, the toxic sarcophagus containing the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and is targeting further plants. Vladimir Putin had already made clear his intention to use nuclear weapons if Nato intervenes in Ukraine. Now he is using nuclear power stations as, effectively, strategic terror weapons.

This is worse even than the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The threshold of nuclear engagement is so much lower today. Russia’s army is replete with battlefield nuclear weapons that can be used at a moment’s notice.

We simply do not know what Nato’s response would be if Putin were to use one of them if and when Nato countries intervene to impose a no-fly zone.

America would hesitate to launch a full-scale intercontinental ballistic response, but that is little comfort to those of us now living under this new shadow of death. A “limited” nuclear war, fought with intermediate nuclear weapons, would still leave millions dead and Europe irradiated for thousands of years. No-one wants to think this through, but we can’t avoid facing this new reality.

If Russian shells had hit the six Zaporizhzhia reactors instead of a training block, we would have had a lesser but equally serious release of nuclear fallout. Indeed, the destruction of any of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear plants would be a Europe-wide catastrophe, worse than Chernobyl and Fukushima combined. It is hard to calibrate an appropriate response to such an atrocity.

Boris Johnson has said that the attacks on nuclear power stations “directly threaten the safety of all of Europe”. This is coming close to suggesting that targeting nuclear installations is an act of war against Nato countries. That could trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which states “an attack on any ally is an attack on all”. That requires a collective response. But what?

Western leaders, and military planners, are used to dealing with rational actors, at least in nuclear states. Doctrines of nuclear deterrence were based on mutually assured destruction, or MAD, which assumed that nuclear-armed leaders are not actually mad. Cold War strategists thought that no-one would dare to start a nuclear war, however limited. That is no longer certain.

The irony, of course, is that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. It was a noble act. They believed assurances that they would never need them because the country was now under the nuclear umbrella of what was then called the Free World. But it was a close run thing. Ukraine’s leaders only agreed to sign the Budapest memorandum on disarmament in 1994 after a personal guarantee from Bill Clinton that the West would protect Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”.

Ukraine now feels cheated. Where are those assurances now as the nation faces extinction? Why does the West not honour Clinton’s promises? This moral pressure is beginning to tell on European governments. “We are not part of this conflict,” insisted Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on Friday, rejecting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s latest call for a no-fly zone. But in a real sense now we are. This is not a war that can be quarantined like some pandemic virus.

We have lost our bearings and lack leaders of sufficient vision and character to meet this deadly turn of events. Politicians used to the puerile politics of social media culture wars are having to rise to the challenge of a world threatened by a real, live war criminal in charge of a military superpower.

Putin is turning out to be as deranged as Hitler, and even more dangerous to the future of the planet. The Nazis, fortunately, never had nuclear weapons. There was no big red button in Hitler’s bunker.

Some hope the Russian people will now wake up to what is happening in their name. Their president is as much a threat to them now as he is to us. A deadly cloud of irradiated fallout, whether from a nuclear plant or from a “limited” nuclear exchange, could as easily spread east as west.

It must be dawning even on the most greedy and corrupt Russian oligarch that they and their families are now in real and present danger from their leader. If they had any sense they would bring him down, preferably by assassination. It could come to that. Russia is not called a “Mafia State” for nothing. But we can’t rely on some James Bond fantasy.

Nor can we depend on the bravery of Ukrainian men and women to halt the Russian invasion. Certainly, they have shown immense courage and imagination in the defence of their country.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has demonstrated the true meaning of leadership. Perhaps the morale of the Russian invaders, often conscripts who hardly know why they are there, will collapse. But without the active involvement of Western arms it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the Russian army will prevail in the end through sheer firepower.

Putin is resorting to a slow and steady bombardment of Ukraine’s cities. A cowardly and ruthless assault on civilians which could end in near genocide if the Ukrainian government does not give up and give in. Western politicians already find it hard to resist the urge to call for an end to the killing by accepting Putin’s terms, even if that means condoning the crushing of Zelenskyy’s resistance.

Sleekit politicians do not say it publicly, but that is what they have been implying since the start. It is not a war that Ukraine can win, they say, because it is not a war that America or Europe will dare to fight – at least not in any meaningful sense. Even continuing to supply Ukraine with weapons may only prolong the agony and pile the bodies higher. This defeatism constitutes a betrayal of the people of Ukraine – especially since we in Europe are continuing shamefully to finance Putin’s war machine.

Politicians bicker in Westminster about the number of oligarchs sanctioned, but do they seriously think that Putin cares about what happens to the owner of Chelsea Football Club, or any of the footloose plutocrats? Equally facile is the proposal to lower thermostats to reduce our dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Installing heat pumps for peace, for heaven’s sake. The only thing that could make any dent in Putin’s hide would be to halt imports of Russian oil and gas. Cut off his source of revenue, his economic life support.

War criminals

GORDON Brown is, of course, right to threaten Nuremberg-style retribution for Vladimir Putin and his general staff. They are war criminals. However, this legalistic approach is as naïve as it is premature.

No court on this planet will be able to arraign Vladimir Putin if we let him win in Ukraine. As the puffy tsar expands his new Russian empire he will laugh at the pious civil rights lawyers waving their briefs at his bombs. Nor is there an obvious diplomatic solution to this crisis. There is talk of extending the current ceasefire and giving Putin an “off ramp”, a “face-saving” solution that would “end the bloodshed”.

What they mean is that the West would agree to a “demilitarised and denazified” Ukraine. This would be deeply dishonest and represents appeasement dressed as concern for human life. It would be a death-sentence for President Zelenskyy and a life-sentence for the West. To think that Putin will somehow rein in his war machine if we give him what he wants is to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s.

There is no easy way out, no magic form of words. This is not a war that can have a neat ending, whatever happens. After Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland will be next on Putin’s imperial wish list – more “fake” countries to be restored to mother Russia. If Putin is not defeated in Ukraine now he will continue to present an existential threat to Europe. We could be fighting this war, hot or cold, for years, even decades.

The next few weeks will shake the foundations of our entire Western liberal civilisation. As we watch Ukraine being demolished, street by street, house by house, we are watching our comfortable illusions being shattered. The illusions that underpinned our consumer society – that there was no longer any resident evil outside video games and that European war only happens in history books.

Britain and the EU will be arming and training soldiers to deter Russian aggression for years, decades. Even if Putin died of natural causes, his successor would not be trusted. Russian democracy is too corrupt and debased to ensure that a genuinely contrite leader could emerge to mend fences and atone for these crimes which, remember, implicate the entire Russian elite.

On the brink

ANYWAY, the West can never relax again knowing that we allowed something like this to happen on our watch. The next crisis could come from China, the Middle East, southeast Asia or even Africa given time, since many countries there seem to have sided with Putin. After being brought to the brink of world war by Russia, a country with an economy smaller than Spain, Nato will be on perpetual alert.

It is hard to think in these terms, so inured has my generation, the baby boomers, become to the illusions of perpetual peace. My generation has never had to fight a war, never had to worry about our families being killed, never faced material hardship. We grew up believing that we just needed to ban the bomb to put an end to war. “Give Peace a Chance”, we chanted on CND demonstrations in the 1980s.

It is a grim irony that the snowflake generation, the zoomers and millennials, will now inherit this new and dangerous world. Brought up in psychic cotton wool and surrounded by safe spaces, they now face fighting a new Cold War – and on the back of a global pandemic too. History makes fools of us.

But society is more adaptable and young people more resilient than their hand-wringing parents believe. When it comes to the task of defeating Putin and removing this archaic, almost medieval, threat from the world, they will surely be as willing and able to stand as their predecessors.

Why? Because there is no alternative.