Russia, AI, climate change – The West can overcome the big threats if we pull ourselves together | Adam Boulton
What are the big threats to our way of life?
This question was a lurking preoccupation at the London Defence Conference this week, attended by the prime minister and the chief of defence staff along with academics and politicians from across the Western world.
The immediate crisis is Ukraine, of course.
There was general consensus that victory is essential not just for Ukraine but also for the continued security of its allies. In the margins of the conference George Robertson, former NATO secretary general and UK defence secretary, warned that the rules-based order will be over unless Russia’s illegal and violent invasion is repelled.
Autocrats, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere will feel free to grab territory and rewrite national borders if Putin gets away with invading a sovereign neighbour.
The commander of the UK’s armed forces, CDS Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, insisted that NATO must do everything it can to support Ukraine’s forces, short of joining the fight. The UK is aiming to train over 20,000 Ukrainian troops this year. He argued that Western politicians should “not be afraid of escalation”.
Time is pressing. Many feared that backing for Ukraine would quickly fracture should Donald Trump, or another Trumpist Republican, be elected to the US presidency in November 2024. Although the retired US Army general Ben Hodges was confident that the bipartisan support by Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress would survive even that.
Ukraine is rewriting the global balance of power.
Most significantly NATO has been strengthened by formerly neutral Finland and Sweden seeking to join. Against that, Russia and China have drawn closer together, while rising “middle” powers in India, Africa, and Latin America have deliberately refused to take sides, effectively indulging Putin’s ambitions.
Beyond the much desired and essential liberation of Ukraine as a free nation state, what challenges lie ahead? I asked an all-female panel of experts to compile a “future risks” register of the threats they see to our security.
Their suggestions ranged far and wide: conflicts with Russia and/or China over Taiwan and the Arctic; Iran; nuclear weapons; Chinese expansionism, and conversely an economic slowdown in China; fragmentation or disruption of global supply chains and communications networks; climate change; competition for hydrocarbon energy sources and the rare earth metals essential for both digital communications and renewable energy generation; societal breakdown due to rising economic pressures.
In spite of the immense damage being wrought by Russia, there was a surprising consensus that Putin’s regime has miscalculated and that Russia is now effectively a dependency of China. Russia’s rebuff in Ukraine has removed any active threat of China invading Taiwan, for all of President Xi’s declared intention to resolve the matter this generation.
Russia’s power lies in its role as an oil and gas supplier. It has now joined Saudi Arabia in OPEC+ and China has brokered a cautious reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, another hydrocarbon producer. As Europe weans itself off Russian energy, these suppliers are finding new customers and building their influence in other parts of the world.
Helen Thompson, professor of political science at Cambridge University, raised the possibility that a new OPEC-style cartel could emerge of countries with rare earth metals which are vital for new technology. “Even if we succeed in decarbonising,” she said, the amount of foreign metal dependency we will have will be huge.”
At the same time, she pointed out that the best efforts of Saudi Arabia and its allies failed to stop the US becoming the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. The world is becoming more competitive and multi-polar, but the US is likely to remain dominant thanks to its natural resources, its lead in technology and the strength of its economy.
As China’s population ages, its economy is growing more slowly. Western leaders need to be vigilant as China seeks to bend existing global institutions such as the UN to its own advantage but, unlike Russia, according to Professor Thomson, China does wish to smash the rules-based world order established after the Second World War.
Since the launch of ChatGPT, political leaders have been concerned about the “existential” threat posed by artificial intelligence.
Sam Altman, the chief executive of Open AI – which developed Chat GPT, was summoned to give evidence before the US Congress. This week he attended a meeting with Rishi Sunak, along with other tech bosses, to discuss how to moderate AI and prevent a catastrophe.
So far cooperation seems to be working, as tech innovators, including Elon Musk, voice their concerns to law makers.
Meanwhile, Nobel Peace winner Henry Kissinger has been focussing on the potential consequences of AI. Mr Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s secretary of state in the 1970s, is regarded by many as a foreign policy guru.
In a series of interviews to mark his 100th birthday this weekend, he has warned: “The speed with which artificial intelligence acts will make it problematical in crisis situations… I am now trying to do what I did with respect to nuclear weapons, to call attention to the importance of the impact of this evolution…It’s going to be different. Because in the previous arms races, you could develop plausible theories about how you might prevail. It’s a totally new problem intellectually…”
His comment helps to explain why AI was not discussed as a major risk by my panel. AI and quantum computers are likely to be extraordinarily powerful tools but they will ultimately be regulated and directed by human beings. They have no independent agency. It is up to us to get it right.
With a self-deprecating “I would say this wouldn’t I?”, Polly Scully argued that data processing was potentially an asset which would could make the lives of citizens better through better analysis and forewarning of threats.
Her background was as a British civil servant working on crisis amelioration. She now works for Palantir, the Big Data analytics company co-founded by Peter Thiel, a major Silicon Valley investor.
The panellists – also including China expert Francesca Ghiretti and Mafrid Brout Hammer of the University of Oslo – agreed that a greater threat was posed by the disruption of communication and electricity supplies, possibly by malign cutting of under-sea cables than by the application of technology.
The discussions of risks at the London Defence Conference left me more optimistic.
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On the immediate crisis in Ukraine, Ukraine has not yet won and much sacrifice will be needed for years to come. But CDS Radakin said that Western forces have “nothing to learn from the way Russia is fighting”, but they are adapting and modernising rapidly themselves because of their experiences in the conflict.
He does not believe there is an incentive for Putin to deploy nuclear weapons because they would serve no military purpose and because they would provoke an overwhelming response from NATO.
Over the horizon there are certainly major challenges and threats. Globally we are not moving fast enough on climate change. Countries with different ideologies from the “Western” democratic nations are gaining strength. Western politically institutions have taken a kicking recently thanks to poor and self-indulgent leadership.
Much work is required to win back hearts and minds around the world. But, if we pull ourselves together, “We” in the Western democracies still have the material, technological and human resources to overcome those risks which we can see ahead.
Left-wing Labour MP hits out after losing selection battle – as party leadership accused of ‘purging socialists’
A left-leaning Labour MP claimed she faced “unacceptable obstacles” after losing a selection battle for a new seat in Wales.
Beth Winter said she would be “taking advice and soundings” on her next steps after Gerald Jones, a Labour frontbencher, was announced as the candidate for Merthyr Tydfil and Upper Cynon.
Proposed boundary changes in Wales mean the two MPs’ constituencies would effectively be merged into one – setting up the two-way contest between them.
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The controversy comes amid a row over the decision to block left-wing Labour mayor Jamie Driscoll from running for another role in the North East.
Momentum, the grassroots left-wing organisation that supports Labour, accused the party’s leadership of “taking a sledgehammer to the democratic rights of local Labour members in order to purge socialists and instal [Keir Starmer] loyalists”.
Mr Driscoll said he had not ruled out taking legal action against the party, with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and his counterpart in the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, claiming the move did not seem “democratic, transparent and fair”.
In a statement, Ms Winter said she was “disappointed by this very close result and the unjust manner in which it came about, which leaves major questions outstanding”.
She said: “In this contest, I sought reselection as Labour’s candidate on a platform of solidarity with striking rail workers, nurses and teaching staff, all of who I have been proud to stand with on the picket line.
“I have campaigned for properly funded public services paid for by taxing the rich, an extension of workers’ rights including a £15 per hour living wage, the renationalisation of our public services and a ‘green new deal’ to deliver a jobs-led economic recovery.
“However, unacceptable obstacles were placed in the way of this grassroots campaign, undermining the democratic process.”
Describing the “obstacles” she faced, Ms Winter claimed the “online only process” was “bulldozed through” in a matter of weeks without any face-to-face hustings.
She added: “This was not a fair contest, and I will be taking advice and soundings in the days ahead about my next steps.”
Ms Winter has been MP for Cynon Valley since 2019 and is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group parliamentary caucus.
She had previously expressed concern that too much of the contest was online.
Commenting on the case, veteran left-wing MP John McDonell said there were questions to be answered and called the result a “huge setback for our movement”.
He tweeted: “Beth Winter is a principled, incredibly hard working, socialist MP, so this is a huge setback for our movement. In this dignified statement, she shows her commitment to her constituents & the cause of Labour. Questions need to be asked about forcing thru of a solely online process.”
Mr Jones has represented Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney since 2015 and serves as shadow Wales minister.
He thanked Ms Winter for a “comradely campaign” and said he was “incredibly grateful that Labour members have chosen me to be the candidate for Merthyr Tydfil & Upper Cynon”.
“Britain is crying out for a UK Labour Government and I’ll work flat out to make Keir Starmer our next prime minister,” he said.
Putin’s dam attack is a dangerous escalation that takes the war in an even more perilous direction
The breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam is most worrying for what it says about the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals – and their capacity for dangerous escalation.
It takes the war in an even more perilous direction.
The military impact is likely to be temporary. Armies blow dams or use them to unleash floodwaters for tactical advantage.
The Soviets and the Germans both did it in the Second World War.
But the gains generally do not hold. Water drains away, the ground dries out.
Warning of ‘grave consequences’ after dam blast – live updates
Ben Barry, a land war senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: “It could set back any assault river crossing for a couple of weeks.
“Difficult to tell for how long. But only once the water subsides and the ground dries out will Ukraine have the same chance of a river crossing as it did before the flood.”
And he believes an attack across the swollen Dnipro is not out of the question even now.
“It’s not impossible to do an assault river crossing across a river that’s in full flood. It’s just more difficult,” he said.
The Russians have blamed the Ukrainians for the attack, but most analysts have dismissed that as unlikely to impossible.
The Russians have a proven track record for accusing the other side of doing what they have themselves done. And the Russians have most to gain. Up to a point.
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The breach benefits the Russians by reducing the length of the frontline it has to defend and allowing it to focus attention in the east, but not indefinitely.
And it has blowback for the Russians too, flooding some of the defensive positions they have dug in on the southern bank since retreating there last August.
So temporary gain, some self-harm and all the opprobrium that comes with carrying out yet another war crime.
Where is the margin in that for Vladimir Putin? It looks rash and premature. A disproportionate and irrational act.
But that may be the point.
Russian president ‘excels in scare tactics’
In war, it can pay to do the crazy thing, to look unhinged and keep your enemy guessing at your next act of madness.
Putin excels in scare tactics and knows the dam blast makes him look more dangerous.
If Russia was irresponsible enough to blow the dam and unleash such destruction for limited advantage, what will it do next, planners in Kyiv and the West will be asking.
The fear now is for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The dam breach endangers the supply of water to its cooling systems. Could Russia now sabotage the plant to change the course of the war?
The destruction of the dam undoubtedly changes the risk calculus in handling Russia, but correctly calibrating it will need cool heads so it is not overdone.
Putin has, after all, indulged in nuclear sabre-rattling for much of this war.
It has weighed on the minds of Ukraine’s allies and made them more timid in arming Kyiv.
But so far analysts say his nuclear bluster is just that.
The nuclear option
There is no sign of Putin starting the lengthy process of bringing tactical warheads out of storage and deploying them.
And any disaster at Zaporizhzhia threatens Russia most.
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The prevailing winds would be most likely to carry the fallout east across the Russian border.
The Russians have shown stunning disregard for the welfare of their own soldiers but a radioactive cloud over their defensive positions and logistics lines would be challenging to say the least.
What we can say for sure is this war has swung again in a more unpredictable direction and the longer it goes on, the more such lurches are likely to happen.
Elderly Ukrainians weep after escaping floodwaters and Russian fire
There was a steady stream of boat landings throughout the day in Kherson city in southern Ukraine as the rescue efforts were ramped up to reach those stranded by floodwaters.
The water levels rose about 11 feet in about 24 hours according to emergency services, with some areas reaching a depth of 17 feet.
It meant those who had stayed in their homes overnight awoke to find themselves stranded the day after the destruction of the enormous Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president said the priority was evacuating those trapped in their homes and providing fresh drinking water to an area where they predict there are going to be serious supply challenges in the very near future.
We watched as a flotilla of rescue boats serviced by police, troops and eager volunteers searched the newly flooded streets of Kherson.
Amphibious vehicles like the Ukrainian-made Sherp were brought in with its huge, specialised inflatable wheels to try to help in the rescue attempts.
It turned out to be of less use than small rubber dinghies which have been forced to manoeuvre their way through broken electrical lines, submerged trees and trailing branches to try to reach trapped residents.
“Turn around, it’ll be easier,” volunteer Mykola urged one of the pensioners he was rescuing from the third floor of an apartment block.
Putin reacts to dam collapse – follow Ukraine war live updates
The two floors downstairs are now utterly submerged. “I can’t go inside my home at all,” one resident shouted to our boat, “The water is way over our heads in there now”.
Mykola tells us there are still a lot of people stranded after believing the waters wouldn’t rise so high.
The predictions are the levels are likely to go up a few inches more before they hope they will start to recede – but it could take a week for them to go down entirely.
Until then it is going to be difficult to assess the long-term impact of this catastrophic dam burst – which the Russian authorities are continuing to deny responsibility for.
But Vladimir Putin’s enemies are in no mood to listen to his protestations with the United Nations, America and European countries all lining up to blame him.
The US admitted it did not have any firm evidence but Western officials seem to be basing their assumptions on the fact the dam has been largely under the control of Russian forces since the beginning of the war.
Analysis: Putin’s dam attack is a dangerous escalation
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Before-and-after images of devastation after dam destroyed
Putin loyalists, however, are still blaming the Ukrainians as the Russian leader announced he too would be launching a criminal investigation to discover exactly what happened.
There are several witnesses saying that the Russians have been continuing to attack those trying to flee the territory they control on the other side of the flooded Dnipro River.
Two boats carrying old people and family members landed in Kherson saying they’d fled Russian troops from the east bank. They went on to say the Russians had also looted their summer homes and been bombing the beaches.
Olga wept with relief as she told us: “The current was so powerful, we barely made it.”
She was hugged and consoled by her friends as they all sat round the few bags of possessions they’d managed to take with them.
“When we were in Dachi, all our boats had been sunk and the Russians were looting our summer houses and taking our boat engines. They were taking everything. Our guys just managed to save our two boats.”
She’s overwhelmed with emotion as reaching dry land. But the challenges in this area are likely to mount in the coming days and weeks when the full scale of the disaster is finally known.
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