Will the Russian war against Ukraine, now in its fourth month, put an end to Vladimir Putin's ambition to surround his Russia with autocratic regimes or "illiberal democracies"? Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, in Sochi, Russia on May 23, 2022. (Photo by Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Whatever its outcome, the Russian war against Ukraine, now in its fourth month, is already studied by many analysts with emphasis on two issues. First, will it put an end to Vladimir Putin's ambition to surround his Russia with autocratic regimes or "illiberal democracies"?
Of the 15 nations that emerged as independent entities after the fall of the Soviet Union, only three, the Baltic republics, have managed to build Western-style capitalist democracies, becoming full members of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, all three, annexed by Stalin, were never fully Sovietized.
I remember that during a visit to Latvia in August 1974, our "minder" from Moscow observed that Riga, the Latvian capital, was "almost like Europe."
Putin has no problem with Belarus, which has remained a Soviet-style state closely linked to Moscow.
Despite occasional anti-Moscow musings by the ruling elites, the Soviet system also remains the model in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
In the Caucasus, only Georgia tried to "Westernize" but had to backpedal in 2008 after Putin invaded and snatched away South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Azerbaijan, gripped by an identity crisis, has tried to keep the Soviet system while forging an alliance with Turkey and Israel, with "special relations" with the US as a varnish.
Armenia tried to distance itself from the Soviet model but had to backpedal when forced to call in Russian troops to protect it against the Turkish-Azerbaijani threat.
Against that background, the future course of Ukrainian destiny assumed special importance. Ukraine is the second most populated nation, after Russia, to emerge from the debris of the Soviet Empire. Moreover, ethnic Ukrainian and/or mixed Russo-Ukrainians number almost 2.5 million in the Russian Federation. Ukraine is the only post-Soviet republic that has the wherewithal to compete with if not actually challenge Russia in the cultural, scientific, literary and religious fields by offering an alternative model to that shaped by Putin and his neo-Slavophiles.
Even if we assume that Putin is a prisoner in his own fantasy world, there is no doubt that he is capable of seeing Ukraine as an existential threat to regain his terms of politics, culture and, in time, economic power, tempting Russians to consider a different way of life.
The second issue of interest with regard to the current war in Ukraine is that its outcome could determine the balance of power in the whole of the Eurasian landmass for at least another generation.
Some Western analysts warn that even a semi-defeat in Ukraine could drive Russia into the arms of Communist China.
I doubt that such a thing would happen. In the Russian historic-cultural mindset, China remains the number one threat. The fact that the Russian economy is in no position to seek more or less balanced relations with China must also be considered.
As things stand now, a Russo-Chinese relationship could only assume a neo-colonial identity with Russia as an exporter of raw material, including oil, gas and minerals, and an importer of capital, manufactured goods and even settlers. Right now, an estimated 3.3 million Chinese settlers are developing new farming and light industrial projects, mostly in Siberia and the Sino-Russian border lands.
At the same time, Russia is too small in terms of economic power for China to risk relations with the United States, the European Union, Australia and Japan in order to save Putin from the consequences of his miscalculations.
Even then, left as a lone wolf, Russia could still play the role of troublemaker, not only in Europe but also in the Middle East and, through mercenaries, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Two examples of the latter possibility have already taken shape in the Central African Republic and Mali, where Putin has succeeded in having the French and other European militaries evicted while his Wagner mercenaries take over.
Although beginning to reduce its footprint in Syria, Russia is likely to remain a significant player in that ungoverned territory through local surrogates and mercenaries recruited and controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Russia also has a $4 billion contract to sell arms to Iraq and train the Iraqis in using them.
Sitting on top of the world's fourth-largest oil and gas reserves, Russia could also use a mixture of threats and bribes to influence other oil exporting nations. We are currently witnessing one example of this in Russia snatching away Iran's share of the oil market in China by offering a discount of $1.50 per barrel to Beijing against the $1 that Tehran offers.
Despite formal sanctions, the negative role that Russia can play in the so-called "grey" oil and gas market cannot be underestimated.
Cast as "perturbateur", as French President Emmanuel Macron suggests, Russia could further encourage the current trend in Western democracies towards strengthening the military, increasing defense budgets and shelving urgently needed reforms in both the European Union and NATO.
If even Finland and Sweden rush to join NATO, how can anyone call for the reform of an organization that Donald Trump called "irrelevant" and Macron described as "brain dead"? And would it be long before other traditional "neutrals", such as Austria and Ireland, also apply for NATO membership?
Putin is certainly unable to trigger a larger hot war while he knows that he has no chance of winning a new version of the Cold War. But, pushed into corner, he may opt for "lukewarm" war by fomenting tensions in Europe, raising fires in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
US President Joe Biden and Speaker of House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi say the Ukraine war will continue "until victory is achieved", but neither of them has said what might constitute victory. Other US and some British officials have said the aim is to so weaken Russia that it won't be able to launch another war like the one Putin wages against Ukraine. But even if that happens, Russia's capacity for low-intensity "lukewarm" war will not disappear.
All that brings us back to the real question: Who is the foe, Putin or Russia?
The answer to that question could determine the strategy needed to achieve real and lasting victory, which could only mean ending all possibility of Russia becoming a lone wolf or "perturbateur".
Which brings us to what the Florentine clerk advised 500 years ago: "Never wound a deadly foe and let him live. Either kill him or turn him into a friend."
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.