Par Pascal Ausseur, directeur général de l’institut FMES
The conflict in Ukraine continues, ever further from the blitzkrieg scenario imagined by Vladimir Putin. This second half of 2022 was marked by the surprise counter-offensive of Ukrainian forces in the east in the Donbass, but also in the south with the recapture of Kherson. American intelligence, Western equipment, but above all the courage, the will to win and the total involvement of Ukrainian society in this existential battle for this young nation have made the difference and raised the question of a possible Russian defeat. This possibility, which is certainly less likely than a stalemate, deserves to be considered.
If this were to be the case, what would be the consequences? Several hypotheses are circulating, based on Russian history. They range from another crack in a worm-eaten system, as in Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905, to a regime change like those caused by the 1917 defeat by Germany and the 1989 defeat by the Taliban. The possibilities of a North Korean-type drift of the regime that would become increasingly bunkered around a single clan, of vassalization by China, or of a Somali-like anarchic evolution are also evoked. All these scenarios must be analysed taking into account the major characteristic of Russian power: it has an unrivalled nuclear strike capability with more than 4,000 operational nuclear warheads. While there is no indication that Vladimir Putin or his generals would be ready to enter into an escalation scenario with incalculable consequences, the hypothesis of a situation of internal chaos, even if transitory, is chilling in this respect.
In any case, whatever the outcome, this high-intensity war that is continuing and intensifying, confirms our entry into a world that, if not actually taking a simple historical step back in time, brings to an end for good the period of strategic weightlessness that has been ours for the last thirty years. The balance of power between the great powers is back and the game will be dominated by the duopoly made up of the United States, which was written off a little 10 too quickly after the Afghan debacle, and China, which is no longer at the height of its prestige but certainly not its ambitions.
This new kind of cold war (since the two rivals share extremely strong interdependencies) is giving rise to an alignment reflex among vulnerable countries in search of a protector. This is the case in favour of the United States, of Russia’s potential targets in Eastern Europe (the Baltic states, Poland, Finland, and Sweden) and of China’s potential targets in Asia (Japan, Korea, Australia, and the Philippines). On the other hand, it opens up opportunities for those ambitious middle powers that see new options emerging that allow them to multiply their support, to play off each other and to exploit the spaces left vacant by the two big powers. This is the case for Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, Iran, Israel and India. Finally, it forces the majority of countries too weak to support an autonomous strategy to accept the inevitable and remain close to the two masters of the world in the hope of not paying too high a price for their mutual antagonism. African, Asian and Latin American countries, as well as some Middle Eastern states, are thus trying at all costs to preserve their strategic relations with the two great powers. Their abstentions at the UN bear witness to this. In this new game Europe has not yet made up its mind. On the one hand, its solidarity with Ukraine, the break with Vladimir Putin, the reference to the ‘shock’ and the ‘sudden jolt’ reaction to the « return of tragedy », to use President Emmanuel Macron’s expression, could indicate that it is time to be lucid, to make an effort and to fight. On the other hand, the ongoing pursuit of the American shield, Europe’s disengagement from its southern flank (Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus) and the political priorities given to domestic issues (social and societal) give the impression of a withdrawal from world affairs. If this were the case, the consequences would be disastrous as the position of European countries is structurally unstable. Our Strategic Atlas of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, freely available online, gives the full measure of this.
The Mediterranean Rim and Middle East region, our southern neighbourhood, are indeed an illustration of these radical evolutions which are reinforcing tensions and aggressive initiatives towards us. The impact of regional wars, the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the global economic crisis and structural inflation are weakening a large part of the southern countries. This is the case in our region of choice for Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. The fragility of these states, the destabilisation of their societies by hostile forces often manipulated from outside and the impact of migratory flows, particularly sub-Saharan for Africans and Afghan for Levantines, are creating an explosive situation in our neighbourhood. Russia, in difficulty in the North, is using the South to weaken Europe by fanning the glowing embers of anti-Western sentiment already lit by Turkish and Chinese propaganda.
Turkey, on the other hand, is maximising its pivotal position by making itself indispensable both to NATO as the guardian of the Bosphorus and to Russia as an economic gateway to the West. This double dependence leaves Recep Tayip Erdogan’s hands free to complete the work of gaining ascendancy over his neighbourhood. He can now bring Nagorno-Karabakh under control with his Azerbaijani ally Ilham Aliyev at the expense of the Armenians, control northern Syria at the expense of the Kurds and increase pressure in the eastern Mediterranean counter to the interests of the Greeks and Cypriots. With the May 2023 elections in his sights, the Turkish president hopes that his power politics which are very popular with his population will overshadow the economic difficulties.
Iran, for its part, has definitively given up on reviving the JCPOA agreement on nuclear energy: too many technical advances which it was difficult to abandon, too many uncertainties about the stability of Washington’s position and too much strategic volatility to commit itself firmly to an agreement with an American power which has become less reliable and as a result less indispensable. After launching a 25-year economic partnership with China at the beginning of the year, it is towards Russia that Tehran has turned since the summer; in particular in the military domain, exchanging UAVs for immediate deployment on the Ukrainian front for last generation fighters which could be used against its regional rivals in the medium term.
As for the Gulf monarchies, they are benefiting from their newfound autonomy and the delight of picking and choosing between the powers in search of influence: Saudi Arabia has not increased its oil production despite the request of Joe Biden, who came to Riyadh as if to Canossa to reconcile with Mohammed Ben Salman and to give assurances that the United States would not leave a vacuum in the region that could be filled by China, Russia or Iran. The official invitation of Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed to visit Washington did not prevent him from going to Moscow to discuss regional issues and inviting Bashar el Assad to Abu Dhabi for his first trip outside Syria since 2011. Xi Jinping’s official visit to Riyadh, invited to the Gulf Cooperation Council and to the first Sino-Arab summit, is another form of thumbing his nose at a West perceived as irresolute and weak.
Thus, in the geopolitical contestation that is beginning, the Americans and especially the Europeans seem fragile, despite the pleasant surprise of their response to Russia’s aggression. For all that, their authoritarian opponents have shown their internal vulnerability. While African and Arab-Muslim populations have confirmed their growing anti-Westernism by championing Vladimir Putin, it is interesting to observe popular protests against the established regimes in Iran and China. Despite, and perhaps because of, particularly severe social control these movements are drawing on explicit Western values to demand freedom and equal conditions as the basis of a democratic model.
It is therefore a global battle that has begun. It is first and foremost a power struggle between states, in which the European nations must respond blow for blow and show their determination to take up the challenge of gaining the upper hand, be it economic, military or political. This struggle is also in the field of ideas and perceptions. In this area we have a model to defend and promote: that of freedom, equality and generosity. This is why the war in Ukraine is a test – it confronts us with our ability to defend ourselves, economically, socially, and militarily, but also intellectually and philosophically. If we let the Kremlin win, all those who dream of revenge against the Europeans, or their rivals, will be tempted to step into the breach and we will pay the price.
Thank you for your interest.