With limited diplomatic support, can Russia fight back in Ukraine?

Moscow has Beijing in its corner, but how it can claw its way back in the war remains to be seen

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Friday. AP Photo
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The Russian military finds itself in a difficult position, following recent setbacks to its forces in Ukraine. It will be difficult for Moscow to regain the initiative in Kharkiv, as the cost of retaking the province will be prohibitive, even though it could be key to avoiding an even bigger, more fateful defeat.

Given the delicate situation, it surprised some at home that Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to the Uzbek city of Samarkand last week to attend the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit. But the purpose of the visit was evident, as he met leaders of somewhat friendlier countries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The outcome of the summit was complicated, reflecting the complexity of Sino-Russian ties at this juncture. Indeed, while the construction of the China-Russia-Iran troika is a priority for the concerned parties, Beijing is looking to deepen its ties in Central Asia, which has traditionally been Russia's sphere of influence. The receding prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the global powers is also vexing for Moscow.

The consequences of Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine are reverberating around the world. Syria is one such example, where Russia has all but lost interest in what it had built over the years, because of the Ukrainian conflict. Moscow thought it could largely outsource its mission there to Iran, but the security situation in the country has since been deteriorating, with Tehran seemingly not up to the task.

The Ukraine war is also casting a shadow on Russia’s leverage over Israel and the latter’s operations against Iranian-linked targets in Syria. Not long ago, there was a de facto arrangement between Russia and Israel over Syria. Today, Israel is pursuing a new strategy in the country, focused on cutting off Iran's military supplies to the Syrian regime and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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The consequences of Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine are reverberating around the world

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will head to New York next week for the UN General Assembly, just days after his country joined the SCO. To be sure, Iran’s membership will help ease its international pariah status. However, it remains symbolic given the grouping’s limited influence, even though it represents 40 per cent of the world’s population and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Indeed, the SCO is held back by rivalries between member states, like China and India, and by their reluctance to invite US sanctions by engaging in certain economic activities with Iran. As long as a nuclear deal remains elusive, member states will not take a chance on Tehran.

Mr Raisi's message to the UN is likely to be on the lines of “this is the last chance for the West” to agree to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Were he to deliver such an ultimatum, it is unclear what the consequences of a no-deal will be. But Iran has options, including stepping up its nuclear programme and engaging in military confrontation in the Mena region.

This doesn't mean that the Iranian regime is in a comfortable position. Its current stand-off with the International Atomic Energy Agency is ultimately not in its interest. Even Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, this week said that the negotiations had hit a dead end, blaming the deadlock on Tehran. This could mean that European leaders are now more willing to criticise the Iranian regime than they were in the past.

All sides are aware that there can be no return to negotiations before the November mid-term election in the US, particularly as domestic opposition increases in tandem with Israeli opposition to a deal. The US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, faces a backlash in the US Congress, where some members have accused him of appeasing Tehran and of hiding details of the putative deal from them.

A Russian soldier fires from a Kornet, a Russian anti-tank guided missile, at an undisclosed location in Ukraine. AP Photo

US President Joe Biden’s participation at the UN General Assembly will be notable, especially with regard to the Ukraine conflict and Nato’s role in it. Mr Biden is unlikely to be interested in Iran’s international isolation, but he may not mind the same for the Russian leadership.

China is expected to provide diplomatic support to Russia at the UN, including blocking draft resolutions against Moscow. However, it won't give Russia what its leaders want: economic support. Beijing won't risk incurring secondary sanctions that could be imposed on third parties engaging in commercial activities with Russia. Yet, the meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Putin in Samarkand last week was important. It came at a time of great challenge to the Kremlin, and will have been seen as a lifeline despite the fact that Beijing wasn't forthcoming with the kind of assistance Moscow had sought.

China’s position won't change before the governing Communist Party holds its next twice-a-decade conference in November, when it is expected to end the traditional two-term presidential limit and back Mr Xi to a third term.

In the meantime, the Russian leadership will be under pressure to make radical moves to turn around its military's fortunes in Ukraine. There are fears in the West over Moscow's possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia will certainly need to double the number of its troops, step up resupplies and mount an attack on the city of Khakiv, which is inhabited by more than a million people.

This means that the conflict can no longer be called a "special military operation", as Mr Putin described it before the invasion. Clearly, it has become a full-fledged war in the eyes of several military experts, who are calling on Mr Putin to recognise it as one.

Published: September 18, 2022, 2:00 PM
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