by Janusz Bugajski
September 07, 2022
September is a crucial month. If Ukraine’s counteroffensive along the southern front is successful, then Moscow will stand on the verge of a historic defeat — even, that is, if Russian forces temporarily hold on to Crimea and the Donbas. Military failure despite six months of war will have global reverberations by damaging Russia’s reputation and influence.
The Ukrainian army plans to push Russian forces out of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. If successful, the momentum will shift toward other occupied territories. While Kyiv continues to rearm with modern NATO weaponry, Russia is experiencing severe problems in replenishing its depleted ranks and replacing thousands of pieces of destroyed equipment.
Moscow may try to disguise military failures by claiming victory in the Donbas, but this will look increasingly hollow as its territorial control recedes and its military casualties mount. Indeed, a recent appeal for talks with Kyiv by Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicates a growing realization in the Kremlin about the negative course of the war for Russia.
A military defeat in Ukraine will signal that despite its assertions, Russia will no longer qualify as one of the “poles of power” alongside the United States and China. Parallel to its military inadequacies, Russia’s economy is spiraling downward as international sanctions throttle civilian and military production. Europe is also freeing itself from Russian fossil fuels, and even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared that Moscow is an unreliable energy supplier. The U.S. is set to replace half of the natural gas Russia once delivered to Europe by the end of 2022, and more gas will arrive from other sources. Moscow will no longer be able to blackmail the continent as it becomes excluded from European markets, and its revenues will shrink.
The realization of Russia’s weakness will have a wide-ranging global impact. China will seek to exploit the failing state by arranging cheap energy deals and beneficial investments. It will also promote Chinese influence, population movements, and eventual absorption of Russia’s far eastern regions that nationalists claim as Chinese territory unfairly appropriated by Moscow in the 19th century.
Moscow’s post-Soviet alliances will start to fray, especially in Central Asia, where the two largest countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, already welcome Russia’s decline. Both states are trying to free themselves from the Kremlin’s orbit without falling prey to an ambitious China. As Russia weakens its grip and its alliances are disentangled, Central Asian and south Caucasian capitals will increasingly engage with NATO and the U.S. to consolidate their independence and security.
Moscow will be unable to maintain its proxies in regions outside of Ukraine. Russia’s client statelets, such as Transnistria in Moldova or South Ossetia in Georgia, will become increasingly untenable. Some of these entities will reintegrate with the states from which they separated when
Russia provided military assistance, while in others, local leaders may promote violence to hold on to power. Moscow’s clients in the Balkans will also be rocked by its failures in Ukraine. Russia’s reputation among Serbian nationalists will be damaged, its influence among ordinary citizens will diminish, and its propaganda outlets will be exposed as factories of disinformation.
The U.S. will clearly benefit from a declining Russia. Moscow’s structural frailties will undermine its ability to wage future wars. Washington must also plan for a constructive future by building cooperative relations with Russia’s former allies, helping divided states such as Georgia and Moldova to reabsorb their territories peacefully and preparing for the emergence of new states that will seek Western involvement as they escape from a failed Russian federation.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, has just been published.