Putin’s new Iron Curtain — will democracies stand up to authoritarian states?

Putin has created a world divided between the democracies and authoritarian countries. This new Iron Curtain line stretches from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to China.

Putin Ukraine war
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia signals the beginning of a military invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Rokas Tenys / Alamy Stock Photo

A new Iron Curtain has come down across Europe and beyond. It delineates not democracy and communism as in the previous century, but democracy and the authoritarian states.

24 February 2022 marks the day when the lies of apologists for Putin in the West are laid bare, and when the naivete of those who believe he can be reasoned with comes into contact with his reality. The challenge for the NATO countries now is to stand together or fall apart.

At time of writing Putin’s intentions are unclear. The opening hours of the attack on Ukraine have concentrated on destroying its command and control facilities. Initial reports said the attack included landings in Odessa on the Black Sea coast, but this is now denied. If it was the case, it would be logical to deduce that Russia intended taking most of the coastline, connecting to Crimea, and then connecting that to an extended piece of territory in Donbas. That would give it contiguous territory and partially cut Ukraine from the sea. So far, the invasion appears to be more limited, but this could change.

If this is a limited invasion it may tempt some countries to take a softer line with Moscow. This would be to ignore the lessons of history, including recent history. After Georgia, Crimea, and the Donbas, the idea that this would be the end of the matter should not be entertained.

Some countries are understandably nervous about really serious sanctions, notably throwing Russia out of the Swift banking system. Swift is used by more than 11,000 financial institutions and is present in in every country in the world. But if Russia is blocked, then how does France (for example) get back the $25 billion it is owed by Russian entities? A way is going to have to found to punish Russia without punishing ourselves.

The former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel had Putin’s number, in one respect. She described him as a leader who used nineteenth century methods of war in a twenty-first century where others were playing by the rule of law.

The same can be said, to varying degrees, of others in the authoritarian states. Where Merkel was wrong, was in not acting on her view of Putin, but continuing a long-term German policy of playing softball with Russia. Her successor, Olaf Scholz (from the SDP) has now taken action with the temporary suspension of approval for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But this is February, let’s see where we are next winter.

In the short-term, NATO will move forces around the chess board to warn Putin ‘this far and no further’. However, in the longer term will they stand up to pressure from Moscow and maintain a firm line, especially when the Kremlin finds the tools to hurt their economies and energy supplies? Will they also finally begin to fund hollowed out militaries, or, in the case of Germany, actually build a functioning one? We are about to find out.

The new Iron Curtain line begins in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. There is then a short corridor along the Poland/Lithuanian border before it begins again in Belarus, continues along the Russian border, down to the Caspian Sea, on through the Central Asian Republics, and then to China ending in the South China Sea.

At last year’s G7 meeting in the UK President Biden spoke of the divide between the modern democracies and the authoritarian countries. He said it was a challenge. It has just become much more challenging and we will see who rises to it.


Tim Marshall