Russia’s spring offensive has stalled. Soon comes the time for Ukraine’s counter-attack. Military setbacks will compound the Kremlin’s political difficulties. Sooner or later, the stakeholders in the Russian system will dump Vladimir Putin, blame him for the war and for the painful conditions on which it ends, and return to their core activities of lying and stealing.
That remains the most likely outcome of the war in Ukraine, with the big question being the timescale: do we have weeks, months, or a year to endure before the Russian war machine sputters to a halt?
But we should consider other outcomes too. I recently spent some time with a group of senior officials who look at future scenarios for the West’s relations with Russia. We discussed the usual options: civil war, a junta, a new strongman, or a fake liberal. We even spent a couple of minutes on the unlikely prospect of democracy. But the topic that caught my attention was what they called “Iranization”: in short, the idea that the regime in Moscow might prove to be as resilient as its counterpart in Tehran.
This theocratic mafia there has been in power since the revolution of 1979. Despite the barbarity of the regime (its toolbox includes systematic rape, beatings, kidnap, and murder), Iran has not become a backward or isolated country. It has a sophisticated, intermittently rebellious middle class, a government machine that practices highly effective statecraft, and a technological base capable of making nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Iran’s state terrorism reaches across the globe. An opposition television channel has just had to move from its London offices because the British authorities cannot guarantee the safety of its staff. Supposedly consigned to the diplomatic deep freeze, Iran has just re-established diplomatic ties with its arch-foe Saudi Arabia in a deal brokered by China. It may have even arranged a prisoner swap with the United States. It has developed extensive military cooperation with Russia and maybe reverse-engineering American weapons captured in Ukraine.
The West has responded to the threat with a mixture of punitive sanctions (Iran was the most-sanctioned country in the world until Russia took the top position last year) and offers of diplomatic exit ramps. Despite confident predictions over many years, these have not worked. The curbs on trade, investment, and financial ties have made life extremely difficult for law-abiding and pro-Western Iranians, but have failed to deal a decisive, crippling blow to the economy. In fact, Iran’s oil exports are rocketing. It sells ships to African countries and Venezuela, and weapons to anyone. The nuclear deal only slowed the regime’s progress toward a doomsday arsenal.
One reason for Iran’s resilience is the regime’s continuing ideological grip on at least part of the population. This fuses Islamic piety with national pride. Another is the fusion of economic and political power, notably through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is nominally part of the armed forces, but in reality, a powerful business and political entity, with independent intelligence, financial, and military capabilities.
This setup is not identical to Russia. But the similarities are striking. Russia has so far shrugged off Western sanctions. The regime’s ideology fuses an obscurantist form of Orthodox Christianity with national pride. Military setbacks seem to have little effect on the regime’s grip. Emigration is a safety valve, repression a cudgel. Corruption and hypocrisy lubricate the system rather than just corroding it. Foreigners’ cowardice and greed enable it.
It is easy to see how the “Iranization” of Russia might develop: just continue the current trajectory. It is much harder to see how the West would counter it.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.