Marko Bojcun

Ukraine’s counter-offensive that drove Russian forces out of Izium on 10 September and forced them to retreat has triggered a sea change in the balance of geopolitical forces across Eurasia. China has blocked Russia in the struggle to shape Eurasia into its own great power platform.

Think of the Russian Federation as a cube whose walls are also those of the neighbouring states as in a honeycomb. The dynamic of the war which Russia started six months ago has now turned from one of aggressive expansion to self-inflicted isolation. States on which Russia was relying to support it diplomatically, economically and militarily, states it expected would join it against Ukraine, such as  Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, India and above all China have now adopted either a hands off position, neutrality, or they have openly dissociated themselves from the aggression altogether. Belarus is the only exception. Here we see the polarity of interstate ties switching away from Russia across the entire region towards China. Xi Jinping is being consulted first by Central Asian leaders on Russian matters.

The resources which Russia has been depending upon are beginning to disappear. China will no longer rely on Russia to make up for its shortfalls in oil and gas purchases. They were replacing revenues from oil and gas sales to the EU countries which were then lost as a result of sanctions. Russia cannot get electronic targeting equipment for its missiles and rockets from Chinese companies, which had previously replaced US and EU- based suppliers. China does not want to be hit by wider trade sanctions by the West.

Soviet-era weapons, munitions and fighting vehicles stored by Russia’s formal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation are increasingly withheld and readied for CSTO member states to use themselves against domestic insurgencies and foreign state rivals. There is no shortage of conflict now along Russ­­­­ia’s underbelly, from Georgia to Afghanistan.

 Russia’s army is fraying steadily under the strain of Putin’s ill conceived campaigns and poorly motivated soldiers. Its mobilisation of 300,000 reservists is meeting popular resistance. It has just been halted in Dagestan. We can list as evidence surrender, desertion, mutiny, soldiers killing their officers, professional soldiers refusing to renew their contracts or to take up their guns once they are on the field of battle.

Thousands of men eligible for the new mobilisation are hiding from it or leaving the country for Turkey, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and anywhere close with a settled Russian diaspora  community. However, nless they are financially secure and with good family support a flight from conscription can only be a desperate, short term measure. Russian authorities, capacity to catch them is limited once they go abroad.

Referenda to annex four occupied Ukrainian oblasts in the south east – Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia were also meant to locate Ukrainian citizens who can be conscripted right away. The occupation officials prioritised Crimea for a surprise swoop of towns and villages in order to force those most hostile to them into military discipline. But that has been difficult in recently seized oblasts with newly implanted administrations and few willing collaborators.

As for the civilian Ukrainians still living under occupation, popular reaction is full of derision and contempt for the process underway. People are herded, their internal passports taken from them so they comply, or they are lured with packets of food and a bus trip to town for the day. They are casting their ballots in the presence of armed soldiers. They can also do so from their homes. Those collecting ballots do not always ask for identity papers; they allow a joint casting of the vote by the entire household whether or not all are present!

Putin has already proven a failure in tactics and utterly devoid of strategy, military or political. He is rather a thug trying to get his way by violence and bullying. “I mean it, I am not bluffing” he has said several times now, waving his nuclear trigger finger. Look further and you will see that he regards all humans to be just like him, devoid of humane treatment towards others. He intimidates millions and sends his own citizens to kill and to die for his dystopian vision of a medieval world headingbackwards in time toa wilful ignorance, servitude under dictatorship, popular reaction and irrationality. He is actively promoting an international alliance of the far right based on this world view.

Russian nationalist hardliners are now openly critical of Putin for not having been harsh or brutal enough in his pursuit of an early victory in the war. But he had no strategy or clear objectives to lead them to victory in the first place. Should it be the hardliners of his inner team who remove him from the presidency, his replacement could be worse because they will cling to power in more desperate circumstances than what we have today.

Russia is crumbling as a long standing imperialist project. Its colonial acquisitions have peeled away like the layers of an onion ever since the 1917 Revolution brought down the Czarist autocracy. The collapse of the USSR accelerated the disintegration. Putin led its domestic recovery and reclamation of some lands lost with the Soviet collapse. Russia learned to rebuild networks to new neighbouring, now sovereign states by economic means – trade and investment in the extraction of oil, gas and minerals. However, this recovery was short lived and on unsustainable foundations. These states and especially Ukraine remained doggedly resistant to re-incorporation by military alliances and full membership in multi-state structures like the Eurasian Economic Union formed in 2000. Russia always insisted on the largest share of votes of any participating state in “collective decision making.” There was no mutual trust or confidence, no mir of even formally equal partners, but lingering doubts about the security of their national independencies. Ukraine and now several more states in the region can see they were right about the nature of Russian imperialism. The Russian state then started to replace the smooth talk of co-operation with the stutter of guns.   

How will Russia now act to stay in this war? What will China and the USA do now they see that Russia is losing on new fronts, not just in Ukraine? These are big questions we need to address.