2022 saw major geopolitical shifts. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed how fragile many global economies truly were. We also saw the beginning of the largest and most brutal conventional war between two states in three decades.
Autocrats had flexed their muscles unchallenged for years, but they felt pressure in 2022 from their own constituents over their reckless policies. Autocratic leaders across the world, long blinded by power, were reminded in 2022 that they serve the people, and not themselves.
The chairman of the Communist Party of China has overseen a growing authoritarianism in Beijing. After spending years purging political rivals and crushing dissent in Hong Kong and abroad, Xi was recently re-elected to a rare third term during the Communist Party’s Congress this fall.
Despite broadcasting himself as the new premier of the world, attempting to raise China above the U.S in terms of influence, the situation in his country has not favored Xi. China’s so-called Zero Covid policy has come under criticism by human rights activists and Chinese nationals, especially as evidence emerged of people being forcibly locked indoors under the system’s rules. One such case left residents unable to escape from a locked building after a fire broke out. Protests broke out demanding an end to the policy, and the CCP caved in to several demands.
Economic growth has remained stagnant in China. Many younger intellectuals are increasingly moving overseas, because they lack the opportunities their parents and grandparents had at home. In Taiwan, the U.S has recommitted its support for Taipei, hampering potential Chinese plans for an invasion. The growing demographic collapse of China, attempted reunification with Taiwan, and the growing housing problem will be major issues for Xi going forward.
Growing up in a poor neighborhood and eventually building himself up as a man of the people, Pedro Castillo, the president of Peru, became enshrined in corruption. As a left-wing president, Castillo faced political gridlock from his more right-wing Congress.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Peru suffered from rising fuel costs and general inflation. People lost faith in Castillo, and the president became desperate, culminating in a self-coup attempt. The self-coup was met with international ire – Castillo had tried to subvert the rule of law and dissolve Congress to serve his own ambitions.
The populist leader of the Fidesz party, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has come under increasing pressure within NATO and the European Union. Orban’s government is a modern-day Trojan Horse within those organizations, vetoing sanctions against Russia, causing disarray within the EU, and threatening to withhold critical aid to Ukraine.
These policies have sparked ire and disappointment from some of Orban’s strongest allies, who, like Hungary, suffered under the boot of Moscow for decades, but unlike Budapest did not forget the threat the Kremlin poses to Europe. One of these allies is the ruling PiS party in Poland, which has been at the forefront in supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Attempting to blackmail the EU into releasing frozen pandemic funds for Hungary has backfired, as the bloc was able to bypass the Hungarian populist. Orban has aligned himself with the fringe-right section of American Republicans, a faction that severely underperformed in midterm elections while a more moderate and pro-Ukraine section of the GOP moved into power — another gamble thus failed for Fidesz. Increasingly opening his country up to Russia, China, and Iran, Orban may have isolated himself from his neighbors – the Visegrad allies – and the remainder of the West.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The Turkish president has been embroiled in internal and geopolitical conflicts since becoming the nation’s premier. Using his charisma and cunning in foreign policy, Erdogan has heightened Turkish soft power throughout the world. But self-promotion abroad has not helped his domestic position.
With growing inflation due to policies known as “Erdoganomics,” the average Turkish citizen has taken the brunt of the ruling AKP’s financial decisions. Domestic violence, negligent spending, and the arrest of journalists, critics, and dissidents have put pressure on the government to either reform or face an election loss next year.
Erdogan may have made a martyr out of one of his most prominent rivals by playing a hand in the opponent’s court sentence. This has sent the country in a rage and might help bring about the end of the autocrat’s rule.
The Turkish president has also drawn the ire of some of his most prominent international allies. U.S.-Turkish relations are at a near low as Washington sees Ankara’s growing closeness with Russia, and its aggressiveness toward Kurdish paramilitaries, as reckless. Erdogan feels the same way about the U.S sheltering groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces from a potentially looming Turkish offensive.
Taking a more aggressive policy towards Greece’s and Cyprus’s maritime claims has increased Ankara’s tensions with Athens and Nicosia to levels not seen since 1974. This has prompted Washington to bolster its military presence in Greece and to lift the Cyprus embargo, moves condemned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Erdogan has long been a risktaker, and luck may have finally caught up to him.
After consolidating his hold on Syria thanks to Russia’s military backing, Bashar al-Assad gloated over international players who wanted him removed. With most of the Syrian rebels confined to Idlib province, and the rest under the authority of Turkey, Assad has effectively told the world that Syria’s future cannot be negotiated without his presence. Though solidifying its hold over Damascus, Assad’s regime is now decaying.
The Syrian economy continues to decline, with large-scale energy shortages meeting the winter. The Syrian pound continues to deflate. Assad now prints money to survive, inflating the economy and closing job sectors. Through his proxies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah, the country had turned into the Middle East’s largest narco-state, with the captagon drug now its largest export.
The effects of Caesar Act Sanctions, as well as years of government mismanagement and fatigue, are starting to show in Syria, particularly among the Druze of al-Suwayda, who gained international attention for renewed protests in the province. Russia’s military and diplomatic posture continues to diminish, while Iran is embroiled in one of its largest-ever protest movements. With these key allies distracted, Assad is now under increasing pressure.
The Supreme Leader of Iran finds himself in a position similar to that of the Shah in the 1970s. One of the largest progressive protest movements in Iranian history erupted in the wake of Jina Masha Amini’s murder at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police. Four months into a potential uprising, the protesters show no signs of fatigue.
Growing economic stagnation, fraud, embezzlement, unjust public executions, a lack of women’s rights, draconian laws, and prioritizing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and foreign militias over the people are some of the leading factors that have brought Iranians to the streets against the Mullahs. Despite mass arrests and the beginning of executions of protesters, Iranians persist.
Tehran, feeling the pressure, has tried to provoke its foreign enemies, hoping to unite the country under a common banner and distract them from their demands – remembering how Saddam Hussein’s invasion gave cover to Khomeini’s repression. Saudi Arabia has warned the U. S of potential Guard Corps provocations in the country, and the Mullahs have sent Russia thousands of drones and potentially ballistic missiles to aid Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Assassination plots against Iranian dissidents continue, and tensions between Baku and Tehran continue to escalate.
Recently, Iran was expelled from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and the potential leverage it held in renegotiating the deal over its nuclear program is lost for now.
Though the protests have not yet grown into a full-fledged revolution, it is important to remember the 1979 revolution took 15 months to overthrow the Shah. With momentum growing behind the protests, the Supreme Leader and his religious council remain in a precarious situation.
The Russian autocrat is starting to pay the price for his reckless policies. Escalating every time he finds a weakness among his international rivals, the Russian premier went all-in this February, launching a total invasion of Ukraine.
The results have not been as Putin perhaps expected. Russia is now the most sanctioned nation on Earth, a country that relies on oil exports to India and China to contain an economic depression. The invasion this February unified Ukrainians more than ever, and they are far more prepared to fight the Russian military compared to their military near-collapse in 2014.
After losing thousands of pieces of equipment, as visually documented by the Oryx blog, and tens of thousands of military personnel, Putin was forced to call for a partial mobilization, which also went poorly. Ukrainian victories have unleashed infighting among his inner circle. Putin gambled that Western resolve to support Kyiv would fade, but the exact opposite has occurred.
The EU and NATO have vowed to continue to fund Ukraine’s defense for as long as it will take, with vows of military intervention if nuclear weapons are used in the country. With military objectives having failed, as seen in the Battle of Kyiv as well as the losses of Kherson and Kharkiv, the Russian dictator has now directed indiscriminate missile strikes with no military objectives at the Ukrainian population, hoping to freeze more than 40 million people into submission this winter.
Russian overall casualties have been estimated to be around 100,000, making the war in Ukraine its deadliest conflict since World War II. Potentially fearing his removal if he withdraws from all occupied territories, Putin finds himself unable to solve his problems on his own favored terms. Putin’s autocratic regime is linked directly to the likes of Belarus’ Lukashenko, Syria’s Assad, and Iran’s Khamenei – these autocrats might face their own uprisings if the Kremlin collapsed today.
Autocrats in 2022 have felt the consequences of inflicting pain on their own constituents. With the prospects of a global economic recession and global conflicts, despots have now grown closer together, realizing their own policies have undermined their power. What many of these hardline rulers faced this year was force – from their own people or their international foes. Diplomacy and negotiations only emboldened these autocrats, whereas direct action taken by the people has forced their hands. This serves a good reminder, as we head into the new year, that when it matters, dictators only listen to threats of force.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”