2023 is set to be even more messy with China, Russia and Iran

Xi Jinping facing 'serious turning point’ says expert

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But volatility brings opportunity, too.

This time last year, while the West emerged chick-like from the ravages of the Covid pandemic, democracy’s main threats – Iran, Russia and China – seemed unassailable.

The steel vice of Russia’s armed forces, untested since Vladimir Putin’s modernisation programmes, surrounded Ukraine.

China, while economically damaged by the pandemic, presented a showcase of internal control through its zero-Covid policy.

And Iran was already demonstrating its intent to ignore the international community and build nuclear weapons.

Now, each is undergoing tumultuous domestic challenges and has never looked weaker. Iran and China remain badly shaken by unprecedented protests.

Russia’s domestic propaganda machine continues to successfully contain the populace, but a fire has been lit in poorer provinces over an estimated 80,000 war dead.

And it is becoming more difficult for sanction-hit Moscow to overcome destabilising economic challenges.

The institutional weaknesses of Russia’s military machine, in the meantime, have been exposed in Ukraine.

For both Russia and Iran, regime change over the next 12 months is not beyond the realms of possibility. While in China, Xi Jinping’s legitimacy has been deeply shaken by an enforced U-turn on the disastrous “zero-Covid” policy.

While all this offers slithers of opportunity, there will be a bill to pay.

Though their relationships are fraught with difficulty, the “axis of autocracy” will have no choice but to bind more closely.

We should expect all three regimes to double down over the next few months as they attempt to solidify tenuous positions.

We worked with strategic analyst group Sibylline to assess the current state of affairs – and what to expect in the coming year.


The war with Ukraine may no longer be Russia’s to win, but Vladimir Putin knows it remains the West’s to lose. The next few months will see a macabre game of musical chairs in which he intends to be the last one sitting when, he hopes, a 2024 Republican presidency will alter US support.

While the woeful performance of Russia’s army and navy will limit his options, Putin still has cards to play.

Having retreated from Kherson, Russian forces are now embedded behind the river Dnipro. The ensuing stalemate will stem the flow of Russian bodybags, easing discontent at home, while allowing Moscow to pursue its only real remaining strategy: a war of attrition against both Kyiv and the West.

Increasing attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure aren’t just intended to sap Ukrainian morale – they are aimed at increasing the financial burden of the war for the West. We should also expect an increase in grey-zone attacks on Western infrastructure, including cyber attacks and the sabotaging of undersea cables.

There is a chance that Putin’s “escalate to de-escalate” policy may see the use of radiological dirty bombs or low-yield nuclear weapons.

But even if his generals allow it, it is a risky strategy for Moscow – Western retaliation takes away what Putin craves most: time.

In the meantime, Putin’s sole focus on Ukraine will leave other areas of control, such as the Caucasus, exposed to increasing Chinese influence.


While Xi Jinping solidified his status after last year’s CCP Congress, the enforced reversal of his disastrous zero-Covid policy – intended to reassure foreign investors by reassessing economic stability – has greatly dented his credibility.

We have yet to see the effects of Chinese New Year, when hundreds of millions of unvaccinated people will travel across China to see family, exchange experiences and, potentially succumb to a strain of Covid, with more than a million deaths predicted.

While Covid protests will abate, other protests – such as against bank runs and pensions – continue.

With youth unemployment now running at 20 percent, two movements – Tang Ping, or Lie-flat, and Bai Lan, or Let it Rot – are also gaining momentum.

Like Putin, Xi is likely to compensate by doubling down. It is no coincidence that Taiwan president President Tsai Ing-Wen last week bolstered mandatory military conscription. It is worth noting that Xi will have learned many lessons from Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine.

The continuing trade competition between China and the US will expose the West to an ever greater threat from industrial espionage by the Chinese state.


The islamic regime is also in a race against time. Nationwide protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, characterised by unprecedented criticism against the regime itself, have reached the 100 day mark and show no signs of abating.

As with Russia and China, the challenge is likely to be met with a doubling down in foreign disruption.

And human rights abuses against protestors are likely to prove the death knell against any hope of resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

The deal, only struck in Austria in July 2015, already seems a long time ago.

This could lead to direct hostilities between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel.

And it is doubtful that the West is prepared for the kind of global and regional disruption this would cause.

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