Will 2023 prove to be a seismic year for Russia and Iran?

How the power structures in both countries respond to their respective crises could have widespread consequences

Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to rebuild his country's military after enduring setbacks in 2022. AP Photo
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Among those who were betrayed by their luck in 2022 is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose "special military operation" in Ukraine exposed the structural cracks in the Russian military – which Mr Putin today seeks to reassemble as if no war is taking place.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have also seen their luck and prestige diminish greatly, after the regime showed intransigence in the nuclear talks, in the response to popular protests, and in its wager on strategic relations with Russia and China.

The winners in 2022 are the courageous women of Iran, who have been able to bring about a shift in US and European policies that had been too lenient with the regime. More importantly, these women have been able to mobilise an unprecedented protest movement that has not staked its bets on foreign support, but on the unwavering Iranian people. They have forced capitals around the world to reassess their calculations.

Two scenes in Moscow and Washington over the space of a few days last week carried military implications that could have a decisive impact in the war.

At a time when Mr Putin was criticising the Russian military over its failures, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was presenting to the US Congress, where he delivered a speech, a huge Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers. He also gave a Ukrainian soldier's medal to US President Joe Biden.

Mr Zelenskyy’s survival represents one of the biggest setbacks for the Kremlin, which had calculated that his removal from power would be straightforward. Some might argue that Mr Zelenskyy is not the shrewdest leader, having given Ukraine to Nato as ammunition in its conflict with Russia. What matters, however, is that he has this far succeeded in the political and media war.

Mr Putin’s speech to the Russian Ministry of Defence revived memories his speech to the brass a year ago, when he effectively announced his intention to invade Ukraine believing Nato would ultimately yield to his demands. But by doing so, he limited his options.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a productive trip to the US. AP Photo
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Western preparations could be afoot to redraw the map of the international order without Russia

This year, he pledged to maintain nuclear deterrence and increase combat readiness of his nuclear forces, and to equip the strategic forces with modern weaponry. He indicated that the special military operation would continue until it achieved its goal. He intends to increase the size of Russia’s forces next year to nearly 1.5 million troops. He also made it clear that there was no room for negotiations.

Mr Biden, meanwhile, also signalled the door was closed to US-Russia talks on Ukraine. This is an achievement for Mr Zelenskyy, who is categorically opposed to allowing the US and Russia to determine Ukraine's fate. Mr Zelenskyy also secured the delivery of the US Patriot missile systems that the Kremlin deemed to be an escalation of the war and a direct US intervention. As one military expert put it, Mr Biden has achieved the dream of US generals to test and use the missiles against Russia.

Mr Zelenskyy also secured Mr Biden's support for a peace conference early next year, bringing together the coalition of Ukraine’s backers. One Russian expert compared this proposed meeting to the Tehran Conference of 1943, when the Allied Forces forged a consensus to open a second front against Nazi Germany and drew up a map of post-war coexistence among the winning powers, except now Russia was being excluded.

In other words, western preparations could be afoot to redraw the map of the international order without Russia. The process to exclude it had already begun, from global sports events such as the Qatar World Cup and the Paris 2024 Olympics, and from international summits such as the Munich Security Conference.

Around this time last year, I had argued in these pages that a Russia-West confrontation was inevitable, after Mr Putin had demanded that Nato provide written guarantees on Ukraine. The question of who lured whom into the conflict matters less a year later.

The war isn’t over. Russia hasn't been defeated yet, but it could yet be, and this notion until recently was considered impossible. Even China has not rushed to Russia’s side.

Iran, on the other hand, has linked its fate to that of Russia. Today, its drones are being used in Russia’s war, with all the adversity this entails in terms of European-Iranian relations and the US's willingness to revive the nuclear agreement with Tehran. The regime has precluded a new deal despite its investment in it to get rid of sanctions, and launch efforts for economic recovery and expansion of its regional influence through militias it backs in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

The Iran nuclear deal is dead, yet it remains a dream for some European leaders. The Biden administration is frustrated by the use of Iranian drones in Ukraine, for which American and European firms may have supplied crucial parts, most likely inadvertently, yet in a manner that has caused embarrassment to Washington. The Biden administration is also troubled by the regime’s crackdown on young women and men in recent months.

A year ago, Mr Biden himself enthusiastically determined to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement that Barack Obama signed in 2018. Today, the same Mr Biden is determined to block pleas from the European states still seeking to revive the deal.

Indeed, the Europeans are still engaging Tehran behind the scenes for nuclear, oil and even emotional reasons. They feel they have invested too much in the talks and still believe in the validity of their draft proposal for a new deal. Some are still trying to extract positions from Iran that can help avert closing the door completely, such as an Iranian recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

But Mr Biden is insistent on his position. He has understood that Tehran was never honest in its claim it was ready to place its nuclear programme under transparent monitoring. He has understood that his administration had been wrong to wield to Tehran’s diktats of excluding its regional behaviour and ballistic missile programme from the nuclear negotiations.

Iran’s women are the ones to awaken the Biden administration, not just the Iranian drones and missiles in Ukraine. Yet, none of this constitutes a policy. What the US must do is to build on recent steps to repair relations with the Arab Gulf countries and be vigilant about the IRGC’s infiltration of a number of fragile Arab states.

While one can put Gulf countries among the winners of 2022, the countries of the Arab Levant are in dire straits, hostage to the decisions of the Iranian regime and its Persian project, though this may have now started to crumble.

2023 may, therefore, be the year for decisive conclusions for the states whose leaders thought arrogance is the key to greatness.

Published: December 25, 2022, 2:00 PM