The war in Ukraine has set off the dynamics of a new Cold War: a standoff between democracy and authoritarianism, whatever the ideological stripe. Faraway parts of the world will be affected by what happens on the ground in Ukraine.
LONDON — Two months into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians and their leaders' political skills have created responsibilities for the West and the democratic world. The first day of the invasion was a wake-up call for the West and its allies. The world is returning to bipolarity and a new Cold War.
If the last Cold War was between Soviet communism and Western capitalism, this one is between a front of liberal democracies and their authoritarian rivals. Younger people might call it Cold War 2.0.
So what will be the characteristics of this next-generation Cold War? That will depend on how the war in Ukraine ends.
The invasion has already shown the West with cruel scenes its governments cannot easily ignore. These images will play a role in shaping future relations between the Western and Eastern fronts. There are several possible scenarios.
If "Putinism" prevails
The first is a limited war with a Russian victory. President Vladimir Putin no longer speaks of a "special military operation" as he initially termed the invasion, but has suggested the war could end by May 9 (the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Hitler). Its declared aim was to "liberate" the Donbas or Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, bordering Russia, where a separatist movement emerged after the 2014 Russian takeover of the Crimea.
This outcome would boost Russia's geopolitical influence and role-playing in Eurasia, eastern Asia and notably the Middle East. Europe and the United States would see their political and diplomatic weight reduced in that case.
Some see this as the right time to strengthen Iran's relationship with Moscow.
Another scenario is a limited war with a Russian defeat. The victors would include not just Ukraine, but the EU, the United States and their allies, with Russia cornered, for a while at least. Observers believe this might produce one of two outcomes inside Russia: either the end of the Putin presidency, indeed "Putinism," or the regime's radicalization and an exacerbation of tensions with the West.
Dragging in China, Japan Or Arab States
Another outcome could be a ceasefire followed by a compromise. Ukraine would forgo its desired membership of NATO, the Donbas "republics" would remain as they are, without international recognition, and there would be a return to pre-Feb.24 conditions. That would leave Ukraine in ruins, and the Baltic states in a state of fear, in spite of their NATO memberships because Western states have already shown that they are loath to confront Russia.
A limited conflict may then continue — for an unlimited time. This could produce clashes beyond Ukraine or Europe, and drag in distant countries. China, Japan, India, Iran, Arab states and even certain African states may be unable to maintain their present neutrality.
Japan, for example, recently reiterated its charge that Russia had been illegally occupying its Northern Territories or the disputed Kuril islands since 1945. As a sign of the current state of unease, this was the first time since 2003 that it has raised the issue of the islands it had to cede to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
American submarine monitored Russian exercises in the Kuril Islands
U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr
Moscow's isolation as opportunity for Iran
A little before the war, the Vienna negotiations on Iran's nuclear program were broken off without the Islamic Republic and world powers reaching an agreement. Russia had played a leading role in the preceding weeks, but it is now mired in war and uninterested, in any case, in ending the talks. For U.S. and EU negotiators, a pact with Tehran would only be of interest if it could distance it from Moscow. China is not in any hurry to end the talks either.
Russia's estrangement from the West could thus prove an unexpected boon for Iran.
The Islamic Republic imagined that Western parties would become more flexible and focus on the bigger crisis of Ukraine, accepting the new "red lines" its negotiators had been instructed to present. But the Western side has merely postponed talks to an unspecified date, when relations with Russia are clearer and fighting has ended in Ukraine.
Inside Iran, partisans of a closer bond with Russia see the Ukraine war as the right time to strengthen the relationship with Moscow. They believe that facing sanctions and with a downgrading of ties with the West, Russia will be much keener to upgrade ties with the Islamic Republic. This, they hope, will consolidate the regime and finally fuel Russian enthusiasm for arms sales and military cooperation with Iran. Russia's estrangement from the West could thus prove an unexpected boon for Iran, and an opportunity to end its own isolation.