Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s Dec. 7 visit to Moscow demonstrates the solidification of their new axis. The twin Eurasian rimland wars in Ukraine and Israel are coalescing; congressional stasis over Ukraine aid, therefore, raises the odds of an even broader Eurasian war in the next 36 months.
Iran, Russia and China are the three core members of a new Eurasian revisionist axis. All three have distinct ideologies that share one characteristic — authoritarianism. All three chafe under the constraints of the U.S. security and economic system in Eurasia and need to reorder it to serve their domestic proclivities.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is grinding into its third year. The Kremlin’s objectives have not changed; it still seeks to absorb Ukraine into a revitalized Russian empire. The greatest shift, however, in the Eurasian balance has been the budding relationship between Tehran and Moscow, whose full flowering now bears the promise of poisoned fruit.
Iran and Russia once were considered competitors and potential adversaries in the Middle East despite their tactical cooperation in Syria to support the Assad regime. Russia, it was thought, desired regional stability to protect its strategic rear in the Levantine Basin, thereby allowing it to turn west and pressure NATO’s soft maritime underbelly. Iran, by contrast, had clear designs on regional domination and sought to stitch together an alliance of overwhelmingly Shia proxies in the Levant.
Hence, some two years ago, Israel temporarily built an apparently constructive strategic relationship with Russia in Syria, allowing Israel to hit Iranian targets while Russia supported Assad. But that relationship has changed since February 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia needs Iran more than any other partner aside from China. Iran offers it an existentially relevant sanctions-evasion pipeline; Iran has more experience than any other actor in skirting Western sanctions and has provided Russia with access to its dark oil-tanker network, along with crucial technological and military support.
Iran supports Russia in Ukraine, in turn, because it views Russia’s conquest of Ukraine — and any growth of Russian power — as a boon for its own regional objectives: Russia’s undermining of NATO’s ability to support its eastern flank offers Iran far greater freedom of action in the Middle East.
The Russian military is largely incapable of advancing in a meaningful sense in Ukraine today. Its air force and navy still bombard Ukrainian cities, but Russian ground forces are not able to conduct anything beyond Iran-Iraq War-style wave attacks. Russia just recently lost between 11,000 and 15,000 men killed and a similar number of wounded, according to varying reports, along with 200 or more armored vehicles, in its attack on the city of Avdiivka. Ukraine has suffered losses, too, but this is a severely lopsided engagement, nonetheless.
Russia may well still take Avdiivka but, like its previous major assaults against fixed positions in Severodonetsk, Bakhmut and Vuhledar, the attacks will exhaust Russian military capacity and necessitate another reset of several months.
However, the U.S. strategic system is now extremely stressed. Israel’s campaign in Gaza presses on quickly, and it may eliminate Hamas’s presence there by February at the latest. Yet Iran and its proxies still mass forces in Syria and Lebanon, run guns into the West Bank, attack American bases in Iraq and Syria, and attack U.S. warships and civilian ships in the Red Sea.
The U.S. has signaled its limited understanding of (and, apparently, appetite for) escalation’s deterrent value. There is scant evidence that Iran and its proxies are meaningfully deterred by U.S. actions and warnings. Rather, Iran seeks to pressure and disrupt the U.S. and Israel, over-stressing both, and winning an attritional war with Washington and Jerusalem.
The strategic situation in the Eurasian rimland therefore hangs in the balance, as the Ukraine War continues and the Middle East simmers. For America’s foes, the political situation in Washington could hardly look better.
Republicans have linked Ukraine aid to comprehensive border reform, a reasonable political proposition considering the immigration crisis that began in the first year of Biden’s presidency. Yet this has placed Ukraine aid in political limbo.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.