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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-05-2022 00:01

What a Russian defeat could mean

The Ukrainians are not the only ones who think Russia is heading for a historic defeat. Their opinion is shared by many in London and Washington.

A majority of Finns and Swedes want their countries to join NATO because they fear they could be near the top of Vladimir Putin’s hit list. Talk about such a risk sounded plausible enough in February, when the Russian autocrat sent his troops into Ukraine to counter what he said was the existential threat posed by Western aggression, and hinted that, once what many used to call “Little Russia” had been forcibly returned to the fold and properly ”deNazified,” he would proceed to push NATO back to where it had been before the Soviet Union, which was basically a Russian enterprise, finally collapsed. However, since February so much has changed that the Scandinavians can now sleep in peace. Were Putin crazy enough to invade Finland, he would quickly lose much of what remains of his Armed Forces.

Russia’s military machine which, experts told us, was second only to that of the United States and, untrammelled by what Putin regards as sentimental nonsense about human rights, was far more lethal, has turned out to be much less formidable than anyone had dared to imagine. The Ukrainians are not the only ones who think it is heading for a historic defeat. Their opinion is shared by the many in London and Washington who make no bones about their willingness to help them humiliate Russia on the battlefield and then see her permanently weakened by economic sanctions.

You do not have to be a big fan of Putin to understand that such an outcome, which now looks probable, could have some very ugly consequences for a great many people. Should Russia implode, a considerable proportion of the world’s land surface would be up for grabs. Without plenty of hard power or, failing that, the assumption, which until March was almost universal, that Russia possesses more than enough of it to deal harshly with any enemy that dares attack her, neighbours of a predatory disposition will not hesitate to make the most of an opportunity few can have thought would ever come their way.

There can be no doubt that the Chechens, whose bid for independence was brutally crushed 20 years ago by Putin’s forces which, to teach them a lesson, reduced Grozny to rubble as they have just done to Mariupol, are closely following events in Ukraine and taking heart from the poor performance of the Russian military. Its incompetence, extraordinarily low morale and inability to maintain its equipment in working order must also be encouraging those Turks, among them president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who are attracted to the idea that what imaginative 19th-century ethnographers called the “Turanian” peoples, to which they belong, should rule much of north Asia. For them, Russia’s evident lack of military prowess will have come as a most agreeable surprise.

Russia is an enormous country. She is because, unlike the seaborne empires of Western European countries, hers grew by the addition of swathe after swathe of contiguous territory that had previously been ruled by people of different cultures, most of whom were unable to resist her remorseless advance. This made it much easier for the Russians to settle and then hold onto what they had conquered, but it also made it harder for them to distinguish between home and abroad, between land which has been theirs for at least a millennium and what had been acquired more recently.

Although Russia is almost twice as big as China or the United States, she is thinly inhabited. There are about 130 million ethnic Russians, spread out between Finland and the Pacific Ocean, who live alongside an assortment of peoples of different origins and religious beliefs. To keep them all in order, the tsars, followed by the Communists and, since December 1991, their successors, notably Putin, never had any qualms when it came to using overwhelming force. Without it, the Russia we know could never have come about.

A resounding defeat in Ukraine and the resulting awareness that, despite owning a large nuclear arsenal, her military power is limited, would be bound to loosen Russia’s grip on Siberia, which is huge, larger than either the United States or Canada, but has only about 33 million inhabitants, not that many more than Shanghai, a city with about 26 million and fewer than the metro area population of Tokyo. For well over a century nationalists in Asian countries, such as China and, until 1945, Japan, pondered the pros and cons of trying to prise such a resource-rich piece of real estate from Russia’s hands, but did little because it was adequately defended and because its sheer size, poor transport systems and pitiless climate would have confronted them with too many logistical problems.

Though China’s leader Xi Jinping did not object openly to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he has kept his distance because he would rather not rile the United States and the other Western powers which provide his country with the prosperous consumer markets its economy needs. Many take it for granted that, had Putin’s “special military operation” gone as smoothly as had its more limited equivalent in Crimea in 2014, Xi would have tried to take over Taiwan in a similar fashion, but perhaps he now thinks that for the time being it would be better to turn his attention to other prospective victims. Should trouble start brewing in Siberia and, as is more than likely, Central Asia, where Muslim ideologues who do not take kindly to what is being done to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are thick on the ground, China would surely seek to protect her own interests by sending in “peace-keeping” forces to help her Russian friends. 

For Western leaders who very much want Ukraine to drive out all the Russian invaders, the geopolitical prospects which are now opening up pose an uncomfortable dilemma. They know that, apart from the Ukrainians themselves, the main beneficiaries of a Russian defeat would be the Islamists and the Chinese. This is why some foreign-policy specialists in the United States and Europe insist it would be a serious mistake to leave Putin without an “off-ramp” he could make use of in an effort to save face after making an enormous strategic blunder, but seeing this would involve letting him hold on to bits of a sovereign country that, with Western help, is fiercely defending itself, they will simply have to hope that he soon leaves power and is replaced by a genuine democrat with whom the NATO powers could cooperate in order to prevent Russia from getting carved up by people who, from a Western point of view, are every bit as bad as the man in the Kremlin.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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