Echoes of the Cold War
The standoff between Russia and the West will continue through the fourth quarter. Diplomatic spats, strategic differences and political tensions will persist between Russia and the United States. In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration will have few options for alleviating the strain because of heightened checks on the president's power and expanded sanctions from the U.S. Congress. In Moscow, meanwhile, upcoming local and national elections will prevent the Kremlin from making significant concessions. As a result, sanctions enacted on Russia by the United States and the European Union likely will stay in place through the end of the year. Depending on how the investigations into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election shape up, Washington may even ramp up the political and economic pressure on Russia.
Similarly, North Korea will be a critical issue in determining the direction of U.S.-Russian relations over the fourth quarter. Russia will keep going along with the limited sanctions that the United States has pursued against Pyongyang, but Russia will also skirt the measures and provide economic assistance to North Korea as it sees fit. In addition, it will probably veto more substantial measures offered against North Korea's government. As Moscow's stance toward Pyongyang puts it more at odds with Washington, its relationship with China will continue to improve. Moscow and Beijing, after all, are united in their opposition to the U.S. missile defense plans in their regions, and they will work to undermine the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea by emphasizing their differing interests. At the same time, Moscow will try to create inroads to stronger economic relationships with Tokyo and Seoul, playing them off each other, and off Beijing, to its advantage. Japan and Russia have another round of talks over economic cooperation planned for November, though China is still Moscow's main partner in the region.
Meanwhile, near Russia's western border, negotiations over the conflict in Ukraine will pick up as the year winds down. Russia's proposal to send a U.N. peacekeeping force to Donbas will gain traction this quarter, despite disagreements between Russia and Ukraine, along with its Western supporters, over the deployment's parameters. The plan probably won't come to fruition by the end of the year. Nevertheless, it could reduce the violence in eastern Ukraine, easing the pressure on Moscow and giving the Kremlin more room to maneuver with the United States and the European Union in the process. And although the United States will continue to threaten to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, it won't follow through on the rhetoric, which was intended merely to deter Russia from ramping up the violence in Donbas.
Two other breakaway territories in Eurasia — Transdniestria and Nagorno-Karabakh — will remain potential flashpoints this quarter. The joint border controls that Moldova and Ukraine imposed in Transdniestria will spur Russia to increase its security activity there, whether by conducting more frequent military exercises or amassing more weapons in the territory, for instance. And in Nagorno-Karabakh, the long-simmering standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan could flare up again. Still, the disputed regions will avoid full-blown war for the remainder of the year.
Compared with the prospects for progress in Ukraine, the chances for a breakthrough in the Syrian civil war, where Russia is involved militarily in support of the Syrian government, will be slim in the fourth quarter. Negotiations between the United States and Russia have so far largely stalled at deconfliction, and both sides will be wary to compromise beyond perhaps arranging another cease-fire. Their differences notwithstanding, Washington and Moscow will strive to prevent escalation as Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalist troops converge on Deir el-Zour, where U.S.-supported rebel forces are fighting the Islamic State. Israel also will try to negotiate with Russia to limit Tehran's influence as Iran and the loyalists gain momentum in Syria. Moscow, however, will be focused on hammering out tactical agreements and arranging safe zones with Iran and Turkey. Moscow may make some headway with Ankara and Tehran in this endeavor, but their competition for influence in the region will keep them from reaching a comprehensive deal.
Closer to home, Russia will maintain a larger military presence in its Western Military District and leave some of its military assets in Belarus in the wake of the Zapad military exercises, held in mid-September. The United States and NATO, in turn, will boost their security support for the Baltic states to counter Russia's buildup and discourage Moscow from taking offensive action.
Keeping a Lid on Growing Opposition
As Moscow works to shore up its borderlands and secure its interests abroad, the Kremlin is gearing up for a domestic political battle. With less than six months to go before the next presidential election and with local votes following close behind, the current administration will bolster strategic sectors to help Russia's slow economic recovery. Many Russian firms and banks are still on shaky ground since the country pulled out of a recession earlier this year, and the Kremlin will be sure to bail out or take over those businesses that could make the most difference to the electorate. To keep voters happy, Moscow will also use its limited funds to prioritize social spending, craft a less austere budget for 2018 and broker deals in and beyond OPEC to prop up oil prices ahead of the elections. Concurrently, Moscow will have to contend with growing opposition movements.
Even so, the Kremlin will manage to contain the unrest this quarter. President Vladimir Putin's popularity is still more or less intact, despite the popularity of various opposition groups, some of which chalked up significant wins in September's municipal elections and continue to gain supporters. To keep the growing movements on the left and right from coalescing into a credible political threat, the government will seize on their differences and detain their leaders. And using its new laws on social media, the Kremlin will shut down online platforms as needed to thwart protests and flood others with pro-government messages to influence voters.
The struggles among members of Russia's political elite, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly pronounced as two prominent factions work to maintain their influence. Oil czar Igor Sechin has expanded his power base over the past year by commandeering energy firms, accessing foreign funds, reshuffling the Federal Security Service and taking down his rivals. In response, Putin will continue building his coalition of politicians, silovarchs, financiers and National Guard personnel to protect his position as the Kremlin's ultimate authority. However, the president will refrain from launching crackdowns against his rivals ahead of the elections to avoid destabilizing the Kremlin. Clashes between the two camps could play out in the energy, finance and security sectors, as well as in the Cabinet.
Instability in Central Asia
Central Asia will experience its share of political upheaval this quarter as well. Kyrgyzstan's presidential election in October could spawn violent protests. (No matter who wins the vote, though, the country will still be aligned with Russia.) Furthermore, the economic weakness and political instability that have long beset the region will continue this quarter, and the threat of militancy will keep growing across Central Asia. The region's volatility, as well as its geographic proximity to Russia, will give Moscow a pretext to enhance its security presence there. In October, Russia will hold bilateral military exercises in Uzbekistan — its first in over a decade. Moscow will continue collaborating with Tajikistan to secure the Central Asian country's long, porous border with Afghanistan as the quarter progresses, while also holding discussions with Kyrgyzstan over a possible second Russian military base in its territory. Because of their shared interest in the region, Moscow and Beijing will work together in Central Asia to keep instability and militancy at bay. But their cooperation in the region will give way to competition in the long term.