Axis, Allies in the Eurasian rimland reminiscent of 1930s

    WORLD  30 November 2023 - 23:12

    The American conservative National Review publication has outlined a perspective on the geopolitical landscape, emphasizing the interconnected nature of conflicts in different regions, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. It suggests that the United States is engaged in a major Eurasian rimland war against revisionist powers like Russia, China, and Iran, who are seen as forming an entente similar to the Axis powers of the mid-20th century. Caliber.Az reprints this article.

    "With the Middle East primed for a conflagration, American policy-makers must recognize two realities. First, the United States is embroiled in a major Eurasian rimland war, one that must be fought and won to preserve American power. Second, the benefits of fighting forward — and fighting limited small wars rather than purely focusing on 'the biggest threat' in Asia — are on full display in the Middle East today. The US must stay the course in Europe and the Middle East to win the struggle for Eurasian mastery.

    Russia, China, and Iran have forged an entente with clear resemblance to the Axis of the mid-20th century. These new revisionist powers share a number of strategic objectives with their historical forerunners. They chafe under the restrictions of an international system that refuses to grant authoritarian states the right to aggrandize themselves at the expense of smaller neighbors. They seek to dominate their regions to ensure their long-term economic control over the world around them, primarily for domestic purposes. And they espouse ideologies — Russian national fascism with its syncretic blend of racial hierarchy and Soviet nostalgia, Iranian Khomeinism with its universalist demands and antisemitism, Chinese totalitarianism with a cult of personality — that are inimical to liberalism, representative government, and prudent and balanced rule.

    The revisionist powers have a series of unmistakable coordination problems, however. This is natural for actors with structurally similar but intellectually distinct ideologies and, in turn, an unbounded desire for power and expansion. Again, they resemble the 20th century’s revisionists, a coalition equally divided over fundamental strategic questions. Until the Nazi invasion of France, Italy strongly considered defecting from the Axis. Mussolini’s essential failure was his lack of recognition that the German partnership severely limited his freedom of action. Japan, despite having joined the Berlin Pact, looked with unease at German escalation against the Soviet Union. The Soviets, meanwhile, were squarely within the revisionist camp and joined the Allies only by virtue of necessity after the Nazis invaded the USSR. Otherwise, Stalin would have been content to let the Germans topple England while the Soviets dealt with Japan separately.

    Of the three ideologies, only Iranian Khomeinism has legitimate universalist appeal, by virtue of its religious bent. Russian national fascism is too rooted in Soviet symbolism, mythologized Russian history, and Slavic-Aryan racial theories to attract long-term support beyond the Russkiy mir (the ideologically and geographically defined 'Russian world') and receives limited support within it. Chinese totalitarianism has yet to transcend the specter of Mao Zedong. Even if Xi Jinping is a committed Stalinist in practice, in principle he and his intellectual coterie grasp the need to articulate an alternative to Maoist or Stalinist communism, given the emptiness of post-1970s Marxism.

    The result is that, while all three powers can be extraordinarily flexible in their choice of partners, Russia and China cannot but view each other with suspicion, since neither can articulate a framework that accommodates the other’s role. Both revert to discussion of 'multipolarity' and 'democracy,' by which they mean an international system that protects illiberalism and leaves will to power unchecked. This allows for tactical partnerships with Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and increasingly Pakistan and Brazil, for either legitimate ideological or cynical political reasons, along with growing coordination with one another and with Iran. But mutual suspicion remains paramount.

    Far weaker than China economically and, at this point, militarily, Russia seeks to avoid vassal status even as it maintains a strong relationship with Beijing. Indeed, while Chinese electronics are essential to sustaining Russian economic and military capabilities — and while China undoubtedly would see Russian success in Ukraine as furthering its own objectives — Russia has resisted providing China with access to its territories in the High North and, equally critically, turned increasingly to North Korea and Iran for sustainment. Russia and China are not currently at odds in Central Asia, but at some point the vast resources compressed between Beijing and Moscow, combined with the proclivity of regional capitals to balance between poles, will spark friction. Moreover, it is very unlikely that Russia wants to play second fiddle to China. The grandiose Russian mission of supposedly saving civilization from Western decadence and Nazism already rings hollow. Serving as China’s decrepit gas station would be all the more humiliating.

    The Chinese Communist Party, meanwhile, tacitly supports Russia’s war in Ukraine only for instrumental reasons and has been consistently circumspect in its approach to European affairs. The US and Europe have signaled strongly enough that they support Ukrainian sovereignty and see Russia as a threat to convince China that unequivocal support for Russia would trigger a profound economic decoupling, with economic consequences at least as severe for China as for the West. A decoupling is probable, regardless of whether China moves against Taiwan. But the CCP must balance its desire to snap the American regional security system with the recognition that China is in the middle of an economic crisis, which is symptomatic of a more severe sociopolitical crisis stemming from low birth rates, a shrinking population, and a materialist-capitalist culture, embraced by urban Chinese, that generally eschews martial sacrifice despite the attempt by Xi Jinping Thought to inculcate an appetite for national struggle. Moreover, there is an obvious incentive in Beijing to weaken Russian cohesion. If Moscow understands that China’s goal is to make it an imperial vassal, then the CCP must play its hand with care. Vassal status requires that Russia be weak enough to accept manipulation and be psychologically broken or co-opted enough to pretend that subjugation is in fact power. While an opportunity for China to overturn the American security order may arise in the future, it does not exist at present and will come into view only if Russia is exhausted enough in Ukraine.

    Historically, Iran and Russia have had friction over objectives in the Levant. Iran sees its Levantine expansion as a springboard to dominance of the ummah (the global Muslim community). Russia’s position in the Middle East, by contrast, is oriented strictly toward Europe. It could disrupt the US alliance system and place high-value military assets in the region to stress NATO’s southern flank. Today, Iran is the most crucial of Russia’s partners, given its role in the sanctions-evasion pipeline and its provision of military technology to Moscow. Yet regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine war, Iran’s aggrandizement poses an obvious threat to Russian leverage over oil markets and to Moscow’s ability to dictate terms in its relationship with Tehran. And if Iran can dominate the Middle East and forge the ummah into a coherent political unit, it will have tools to disrupt and co-opt Russia’s 14 million Muslims, as well as Muslims in Central Asia.

    Alliance coordination is difficult for democracies and dictatorships. But democracies have the essential advantage of open and intelligible political systems that mitigate fear and misperception, something that dictatorships lack by design. Russia, China, and Iran know that parceling out the spoils of America’s Eurasian position would not be enough to satisfy each power. Even if the revisionists were victorious, conflict among them would be guaranteed, meaning that the advantages the revisionists gain by coordination now would be offset by the dangers of supporting a potential near-future adversary.

    This is relevant because of the demands that strategic sequencing place on foreign and defense policy. Great powers must, in some manner, prioritize among threats. Even the 20th-century US, industrial titan though it was, could not sustain with equal resources the European and Asian theaters of the Second World War. America faces three revisionists today. It can defeat all three if it acts in concert with its allies, but it cannot wage three high-intensity wars at once.

    Russia’s assault on Ukraine and Iran’s developing assault on Israel, of which the Hamas massacres on October 7 were the probable opening move, are both gambits for regional power. Russia still seeks to absorb Ukraine (and along with it Moldova and Belarus), dominate the Caucasus, peel Turkey off from the Western camp, and take the Baltic states, thereby creating a political-economic bloc capable of challenging the West directly. Iran is waging a war of attrition against Israel that is meant to soak it in casualties and destroy its economy. By destroying the Jewish state’s political foundations and, concurrently, attacking US installations throughout the Middle East, Iran hopes to gain Islamic control of Jerusalem and use it — and its victory over the US–Israeli alliance — to attract all manner of Islamists to its banner, catapulting it to leadership of the Islamic world.

    Counterfactuals are undeniably impossible to prove. Yet the reasonable observer of international events can compare the current situation with an alternative in which the US did not support Ukraine’s struggle against Russia and Moscow overran Ukraine in a few months. Iran would have moved against Israel at some point. Although it is unknowable whether the barbarism of October 7 would have been replicated in another time line, the irreducible antagonism between the imperialist Iranian theocracy and the nationalist Jewish democracy made war inevitable.

    Absent the current European war of its own making, the Russian military would still have free forces capable of expeditionary deployment, including missile-armed warships and modern attack submarines, strike aircraft, and mobile air defenses. It would also have an airborne force of four divisions and three brigades, along with several special-operations units able to deploy quickly to an adjacent theater. And Russia’s presence in Syria would remain robust. It is entirely conceivable that a Russia unconstrained by the Ukraine war would be capable of deploying strategically significant air and ground forces to the Levant and naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean in a manner akin to the 1973 Arab–Israeli War.

    In 1973, the Soviets surged naval assets to the eastern Mediterranean, ultimately deploying nearly 100 warships and submarines to pressure the US Sixth Fleet. Soviet and US forces constantly probed each other, conducting an intense reconnaissance competition that both sides saw as a prelude to open warfare. Soviet operational and technical advisers supported Egyptian and Syrian forces throughout the war. Soviet commandos executed raids on Israeli territory to capture Israel’s Western-supplied military equipment. And Soviet pilots disguised as Egyptians or Syrians may well have flown combat missions, much as disguised Soviet pilots fought in Korea. Moreover, the Soviets seriously and credibly threatened to intervene against Israel, placing the Soviet Airborne Corps on high alert, embarking Soviet marines and transporting them to the eastern Mediterranean, and increasing the readiness of tactical air forces in the southern USSR.

    The point of the intervention would have been to rescue Egyptian forces from certain destruction. After the first cease-fire broke down, the Israelis surrounded the Egyptian Third Army and were just 60 miles from Cairo. The Soviets would not have accepted the military and political humiliation of a major regional ally. The United States’ response, putting US nuclear forces at DEFCON 3, convinced the USSR of American resolve, defusing the crisis. But a Moscow more willing to take risks might well have sparked a hot war.

    A similar move today, if Russia had the forces to make it, would have different objectives. Rather than trying to rescue an overextended ally, the Russians would seek a contest of strength, daring the US to come to Israel’s aid in the face of Russian military power. Absent the damage the Ukraine war has caused, Russia could almost certainly put together a surface action group of several cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Its Kilo-class submarines could deploy to the eastern Mediterranean. It could surge fighter and strike aircraft to positions in Syria, along with air defenses meant to prevent an Israeli first strike and make an American move against Syria prohibitively costly short of all-out war. Its airborne forces could be placed on high alert for rapid airlift into Syria as well, potentially menacing US positions in Syria and Iraq. Wagner Group mercenaries working with Russian military intelligence could hammer American bases throughout the region. And all the while, one could expect a steady stream of Russian nuclear threats.

    It is entirely unclear how this contest of strength would play out. Such a deployment would display the same Russian qualitative and logistical problems seen in Ukraine today. But in any case, the US would be less combat-ready absent the Ukraine war, while Europe, currently divided over its response to the Middle East crisis, would speak with one voice against American intervention.

    Today, Russian ground and airborne forces have been mauled in nearly two years of brutal combat through a marriage between Ukrainian skill and heroism and Western arms. Russia’s tactical air forces are badly damaged. Its strike aircraft are overwhelmingly dedicated to operations in Ukraine. Its navy is unable either to leave port or to transit from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. And it has no spare air and missile defenses that it could rush to Syria to disrupt an Israeli or American offensive move.

    The Middle Eastern crisis is likely to escalate, at minimum through an Iranian-planned, Hezbollah-executed rocket bombardment of Israeli infrastructure and population centers, and potentially through a ground incursion into the Golan Heights. Attacks on US bases and warships have already begun and will continue. Yet however brutal this war becomes, the US will not need to deal with a second Eurasian revisionist intervening militarily. Indeed, Russia’s only response to the current Middle Eastern crisis has been to deploy a handful of aircraft armed with hypersonic missiles to patrol the Black Sea, a move meant to spark hysterics in the Western commentariat, not to shift the military balance.

    America’s adversaries can choose the time and place of their attacks on the US security structure in the Eurasian rimland. But the US also can manipulate the situation. By sustaining Ukraine, the US has ground down Russian capabilities and thereby provided the US far more strategic flexibility in the Middle East. Similarly, neutralizing Iranian capabilities in the coming months will make it far easier for the US to sustain the Indo-Pacific balance in the coming years.

    The Indo-Pacific balance is, of course, trending in the wrong direction — China is more powerful in the region now than at any point in history, making Chinese attempts to revise Indo-Pacific political arrangements more probable. Yet the idea that China can hurl a bolt from the blue is fanciful, given the sheer scale of the effort that would be needed to take Taiwan even if the US did not intervene. China may pursue a phased strategy of pressure and disruption, such as increasingly deploying naval vessels to circumnavigate Taiwan, sending fighters and bombers around the island, and using merchant vessels like fishing trawlers to violate US partners’ territory. But this would carry risks as well — it would erode People’s Liberation Army strategic and operational surprise. An all-out attack rather than a gray-zone campaign — which does not use military instruments but includes cyber, economic, and disinformation measures — likely would be identified weeks to months prior, even during a period of pressure. Regardless, then, an attentive United States can marshal its allies and mobilize for conflict. America will have far more of these allies, and far more economic potential to mobilize in a war, if it preserves a favorable balance in Europe and the Middle East.

    The alternative is to husband resources only for the large war, a strategy the democracies pursued in the 1930s. British appeasement stemmed primarily from a fear of major war, but the French consistently convinced themselves that husbanding resources and biding time would ultimately put Paris in a better position against Berlin. The result was the fall of France and Hitler’s near-domination of Europe. The US must take note today and hold the line throughout the Eurasian rimland.



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