Russia is not the only empire that may be crumbling

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
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Ukraine has made major and surprising advances against retreating Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, and many wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Russian influence in the region. Now, there’s speculation that other countries with ties to Russia could see their own power weakening. Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan takes a look at Armenia, Belarus, Syria, Mongolia, Moldova, and more — all susceptible to rivals who may see an opening for a power grab.

Excerpted from Peter’s Sept. 15 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

The success of Ukrainian forces against Russian troops over the last week is forcing a series of reevaluations of Russian capabilities–especially in the places most of us might not yet be thinking about. There’s been a lot of focus on whether or not Russian threats have teeth. But what of Russian promises of support?

For a certain swathe of the world, particularly those countries hostile or indifferent to the US-led Order, Russia was about as good or proximate a neighbor as they could hope for. With Russian capabilities under serious scrutiny, countries from Armenia to Belarus to Syria to Mongolia and Moldova are going to see their strategic environments change rapidly.

There is an elephant in the room in many of these scenarios… and that’s Turkey. Whatever their current economic headaches, the Turkish state under Erdogan has maintained a constant march toward realizing a populist, Islamist-tinged, pan-Turkic nationalism that has played out in several ways. One of the most recent has been Turkey’s arming and not-so-tacit support of Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia. Even with Turkey’s erstwhile EU aspirations and current NATO membership, Ankara has been equally at ease in pursuing its own priorities during the bloc’s conflict with the Russians over Ukraine.

But perhaps nowhere will see the full unfurling of Turkish geopolitical ambition in the wake of Russian strategic senescence more than Syria. The Alawite regime in Damascus relies (relied?) heavily on its Russian and Iranian backers, and with Moscow out of the way Ankara faces little opposition. Squashing Kurdish ambitions, redrawing borders, setting up a puppet state, coordinating with Israel to counter Iran–all are on the table for a would be neo-Ottoman Turkey without strong pushback from Russia and Iran.

 

Hi everybody, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Montreal where I am by a chunk of the former Berlin Wall, which meant that I thought it was a wonderful time to talk about the collapse of empires specifically for the Russian one. 

Now, as everyone has seen in early September, the Ukrainian counter assault in places like Kherson, and Kharkiv, in Donetsk, and Luhansk has been historic. It’s going to be a few weeks before we really have an idea of just how successful the Ukrainians have been. But to give you an idea of scale here, the Ukrainians have captured more Russian equipment in the last week than the rest of the world has given Ukraine in terms of equipment in the last six months. 

And the captures have been so holistic that the Ukrainians have been able to extend to their offensive using nothing more than captured equipment. How long this will run remains to be seen whether the Russians are going to be able to counter attack we just don’t know yet. But it’s extreme. And it means that the image of the Russians as a regional power, much less a global one, is gone. And it’s not coming back. Which means just like when the Berlin Wall fell, it’s time for us to start thinking about all of the countries that had signed on to kind of a Russian Alliance, if you will, that now we’re on their own completely. 

And that provides opportunities for their rivals to take matters into their own hands. Now, the first of these happened about a week into the assault on September 13, when the Azerbaijanis started launching artillery into Armenia and and [unintell], which is their personal backyard spat,  way too soon to know how that’s gonna go. But if you look at the last conflict, that was less than a year and a half ago, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijan got a hold of some Turkish drones and used them to completely obliterate the Armenian position, defeating them handily, in about a six week war, you should expect to see something like that again. 

Now. There are other places in the former Soviet Union that are facing similar issues. Belarus, of course, is the sexiest of them, you know, here’s a country of 10 million people that is basically hitched itself to Putin’s star, and the Poles, the Latvians, Lithuanians, the Estonians, the Finns, the Swedes, they have been chomping at the bit for years to try to take Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus down to size, and basically peel Belarus out of the Russian orbit, they will now have the opportunity. And it’s unlikely that anyone in Europe or the United States is going to try to stand in the way. If anything, they’re probably going to be encouraged to do it.

So unless Lukashenko sues for peace with the Baltics and the Nordics very quickly, we should count on seeing him being brought up on war crimes before very long because after all, he did provide the access that was necessary for the assault on Kyiv early in the war. 

A little bit different are things going on in the Caucuses, not in [unintell] or Azerbaijan and Armenia, but in Georgia. Now here, I do expect things to be a little bit more circumspect. The Georgians tried to call Russia’s bluff and invade their former secessionist republics of North Ossetia and Abkhazia several years ago in 2004. 

And it was a trap. And the Russians were able to destroy the Georgian army. So the Georgians are not going to do this until a couple of other countries in the region have already pulled this off successfully. So look to Armenia and Azerbaijan first, and then second look to Moldova. 

There’s a small secessionist Republic there called Transnistria. It’s only 10% of the population of a country of like three and a half million people. There’s not much going on there. But the Russians intervened decisively right at the end of the Soviet collapse, to basically make sure that trans Dniester could be functionally independent under Russian sponsorship. But unlike the Georgian secessionist territories, which share a land border with Russia proper, transducers on its own, the only way to supply it is through Ukraine, and that is obviously stopped. So the Moldovans and their sponsors in Romania have now a vested interest in ending this historical aberration. And I would expect to see that being wrapped up within a year or two. 

Okay, so that’s in the former Soviet Union. The second big category is Israel. The Russians have very publicly unfortunately for them, relocated a lot of hardware, from Syria to Ukraine, specifically air defense equipment to help them with their assaults. Which means that if you are Israel, the only thing that is standing in your way of going after the Syrian regime, is someone from the Biden administration saying, You know what, we really don’t want a nuclear event to erupt because there are Russian troops involved. 

Well, the tone of the Biden administration in the last 72 hours has kind of changed now it’s more of a like, you kids go have fun sort of vibe. So I expect us to see some very interesting pyrotechnics between the Israelis and the Syrians in a very short period of time, followed by the Syrian suing for peace, which means that we get to revisit the entire Syrian civil war, now, without the Russians being players.

Iran is going to factor that into that as well. And that brings us to the final category, the ones that the United States really cares about. Now, I don’t think the United States is about to go after Iran. It’s not like Iran without Russia is actually all that much weaker. It’s more like the United States saw Russian sponsorship of Iran as a problem, because it meant that going after Iran, but there would be problems in other areas that we care more about. 

So I don’t think we’re about to like, go and knock heads with the mullahs. But all of a sudden, Tehran has lost its primary weapons sponsor, and its primary Security Council sponsor, and that is going to force the Iranians to think differently and act differently in every theater that they care about. So this is a negotiation question more than a military one.

On that general topic, are the two remaining issues that the Americans care about – Cuba and Venezuela. In both cases, the United States is finds that awkward. Now in the case of Cuba, the Cuban government has had an on again off again interest in renegotiating the terms of its relationship with everyone in the western hemisphere. So you should expect that to pick up again, it started under the W. Bush administration, it continued under Obama, we will now see a rebound under the Biden administration. 

And that just leaves Venezuela. If it wasn’t for the likelihood of global energy shortages, this would be an opportunity for the Biden administration to end the Venezuelan regime once and for all. So now it is purely a question of how quickly energy can be brought online from other players, and how that informs the Biden administration’s decision making progress. 

So ironically, we’re now in a situation once again, it’s gonna seem very reminiscent to you for those of you who have been following energy since the 70s, where it’s the Saudis who decide the future of the government in Caracas. 

Okay. That’s it for me. Until next time, take care.

 


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