IT was my 64th birthday this week. Birthdays have never much mattered to me, least of all at this stage in my life.

But a few days ago, to the refrain of well-wishers’ “many happy returns”, I couldn’t help but pause and ponder for a moment about the world we currently live in and what might lie in the future.

For going on 40 of those 64 years, I’ve been a professional ponderer of our world, shuttling as a reporter and photographer between what invariably have been some of the most turbulent moments and places over the past decades.

Wars, natural disasters, the impact of global terrorism, the upheaval of people forced to flee their homes and nations have, sadly, been my stock in trade. Among the kaleidoscopic twisting of events over that time, some moments more than others inevitably stand out.

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The war in the former Yugoslavia, invasion of Iraq and the 9/11 attacks on the United States and their aftermath are among the many that especially resonate for me.

Rarely though can I recall a more potentially incendiary and volatile moment than that which we are currently experiencing on the global stage. Put quite simply, the world is as dangerous and uncertain a place as I can ever remember it.

The escalating war in Ukraine and the potential that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “partial” mobilisation could have in destabilising his own country, not to mention the Kremlin’s thinly-veiled threats to use nuclear weapons is but just one of numerous blue touch paper issues right now.

It’s probably no surprise that of late Russia’s face-off with Nato and the West had me thinking back to some of my earliest childhood memories in the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Then, too, the world held its breath, living with the awful prospect of a nuclear conflagration and all that would mean for mankind. That such a cataclysm could have come about as much from miscalculation or misunderstanding as any outright act of aggression only added to the fear.

Among many things I’ve learned these past 40 years covering foreign affairs, it’s that personal survival comes top of the list for those despots and dictators across the world. Just how Putin goes about ensuring his own as the pressure builds on his rule remains open to conjecture, but Ukraine and its allies must not for a moment drop their guard.

The sham referenda of the past few days in occupied Ukraine designating Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as“Russia”, has rightly led the European Union (EU) to announce further sanctions against Russia.

Putin doubtless anticipated this, helping create a scenario by which further Western “interference” would enable him to justify a retaliatory strike. Putin’s rule is dependent on sowing fear, how he goes about it knows few bounds.

Be it plucking ordinary people off Russia’s streets because they might be opposition protesters in the making or – as the EU has alluded to – sabotaging the two major gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, it’s all about creating fear, panic and misdirection.

While no one has definitively blamed Russia for the sabotage, the timing suited Moscow perfectly coming as it did at precisely the moment when a new gas pipeline between Norway and Poland was inaugurated earlier this week.

It’s not the first time after all that Putin has been willing to forfeit valuable gas as a weapon of war.

It’s worth noting too that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has never yet been operational, while Nord Stream 1 has been turned off since August, supposedly in need of maintenance. This didn’t stop gas prices rising by 20% in Europe and even higher in the UK as news of the sabotage broke.

All this suits Putin of course as he seeks to bring more pressure to bear on Europe over energy prices and attempts to sap political will and morale in support of Ukraine.

In a constantly evolving and volatile stand-off in which threats of nuclear escalation, weaponising energy, mass mobilisation and illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are part of the mix, only the most blinkered could fail to see the clear and present danger facing the world right now.

All this comes too before factoring in other dramatic developments elsewhere across the world some of which have varying degrees of bearing on the Russia-Ukraine war.

We have for example the ongoing protests in Iran, a country believed to have been supplying Russia with military drones for the battlefield in Ukraine. While any full uprising and overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Tehran might not be a given, any shift in the political landscape there is sure to have profound global repercussions.

While some observers hope that despite the regime’s brutality these might be the first signs of permanent change in Iran, others are less sure.

“The Islamic Republic has a monopoly on force and they’re not afraid to use it,” says Chatham House’s Sanam Vakil. “I’ve been watching protests in Iran since 1999 – and they’ve all ended one way,” was how Vakil summed it up in The News Statesman yesterday.

THEN again who knows how things might unravel on the ground in Iran, many analysts after all were sceptical of the Arab Spring uprisings capacity to bring about any change for the better and while that is arguably largely the case their impact still reverberates to this day across the Middle East and beyond.

Coming closer to home, again here in Europe we have also recently witnessed electoral shifts to the far right in both Sweden and Italy. In Italy’s case it is now the most right-wing government since Benito Mussolini’s fascists and one comprising a Brothers of Italy party with which Russia says it’s ready to have “constructive relations”.

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Just how Italy’s new government with its Eurosceptic biases and pro-Putin leanings will ultimately impact on the EU and the West’s support for Ukraine remains to be seen but this is the last thing European solidarity against Russia needs right now.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse along comes a Tory government whose levels of incompetency verge on the breathtaking.

If the disastrous economic decisions taken by Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng are anything to go by then batten down the hatches when it comes to their likes responding to the other aforementioned global challenges.

This is indeed a moment of maximum danger. Here’s hoping I can look back and take stock on my birthday this time next year.