Key Trends for 2019
Military Buildups and an Intensifying Arms Race
The U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) will intensify ongoing military buildups by the United States and Russia throughout 2019, particularly in the European borderlands. Poland, Romania and the Baltic states will be the most willing to host additional U.S. assets, though it will be at least another year before the United States deploys intermediate-range missiles in the region. For its part, Russia will add to its military presence and assets in Kaliningrad, western Russia, Crimea and the Black Sea. Negotiations between Washington and the Polish government about building a permanent U.S. military base in the country will move forward, though construction will not likely begin in 2019.
Beyond its saber-rattling, Russia will physically bolster its military footprint in the former Soviet periphery through 2019.
In turn, Russia will advance its own efforts to increase its military presence and infrastructure in Belarus, including the opening of an air base. Another front in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia will continue to develop in the Sea of Azov. Both countries will build up naval assets, and the United States will weigh in with security support for Ukraine. The U.S. withdrawal from the INF will put pressure on other arms control arrangements but will not cause a full break between Russia and the United States over New START, the strategic arms treaty signed in 2010 that limits the number of nuclear warheads each country can deploy. Read more about the ramifications of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF in this assessment.
The Hybrid Warfare Campaign Intensifies
Russia will vigorously pursue its hybrid warfare campaign against Western and Western-leaning countries by interfering in national politics, spreading propaganda and launching cyberattacks and covert operations in a bid to undermine European Union and NATO unity. EU parliamentary elections in May will give Russia an opportunity to support far-right and anti-establishment parties throughout Europe, particularly in Hungary, Italy and France. Russia will also target the Balkan states, especially Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, with a mix of political meddling, disinformation tactics and economic sweeteners to try to stymie their EU integration efforts. Russia will be most effective in its hybrid warfare efforts in Moldova, where parliamentary elections in February are likely to produce political gains for the pro-Moscow Socialist party. That result would drive Moldova to deepen its pivot to Russia while freezing — if not reversing — its integration efforts with the European Union.
The West will counter Russian hybrid tactics by increasing sanctions pressure while intensifying and coordinating cybersecurity and counterpropaganda strategies.
The United States can be expected to impose sanctions on more Russian officials and entities and cut off trade channels and could perhaps downgrade diplomatic ties. The U.S. Congress could pressure the White House to take the more extreme option of targeting Russian sovereign debt or banning dollar transactions with its largest state banks. Sanctions will be more controversial in the European Union, but the bloc will maintain them throughout the year. Russia's efforts to insulate itself from sanctions by building up foreign exchange reserves and wealth funds, diversifying trade ties, and decreasing its exposure and dependence on dollar transactions will enable it to avoid a major economic crisis in 2019. As the United States increases security support for pro-Western states such as Ukraine and Georgia, Washington will also push back against Russian influence in states closer to Moscow's orbit, like Armenia and Uzbekistan. See our assessment of the U.S. outreach on Russia's former Soviet periphery.
Challenging the U.S. World Order
Russia will seek to expand its ties and involvement around the world to peel back Western hegemony and challenge the U.S.-led world order. China, whose interests in challenging Washington within the great power competition align with its own, will be a key focus of Russia's efforts. Russia and China will ramp up their economic and energy ties this year, and Beijing will also increase its investment in building factories, pipelines, roads, railways and other infrastructure projects in Russia, especially in its Far East. The countries will also strengthen military ties, likely increasing the size and scope of their joint military exercises both bilaterally and multilaterally such as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Moscow and Beijing will sustain their trade in weapons despite sanctions pressure from the United States and their competition for the same weapons markets.
Elsewhere in Asia, Russia will seek to strengthen its economic relationship with Japan, though their lingering territorial spat over the Kuril Islands will limit significant expansion of ties. Russia will sustain political and economic support for North Korea — including pushing for inter-Korean infrastructure projects — while resisting and circumventing U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang. In the Middle East, Russia will maintain its military support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and increase ties with Iran as a source of leverage against the United States. Read our assessment for a more in-depth look at the deepening relationship between Russia and China.
Russia's Domestic Challenges
Unpopular economic reforms like the increases in the Russian retirement age and the value-added tax will drive domestic protest, spurred by opposition figures like Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin will respond to demonstrations with a mix of crackdowns, political reshuffles and selective concessions to public demands. The ruling United Russia party's dominant position will diminish as systemic (or Kremlin-friendly) opposition parties like the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and A Just Russia contest gubernatorial and parliamentary seats in regional elections in September.
Russia can expect continued domestic turbulence in 2019, but political parties opposing President Vladimir Putin's rule will struggle to seriously challenge him.
Opposition parties will increase their cooperation with one another to form a more potent challenge to United Russia, a move that President Vladimir Putin will cautiously allow to prevent the rise of non-systemic opposition forces. On the security front, Russia will reshuffle the leadership of the GRU military intelligence agency following a series of controversial operations abroad and disperse some of its responsibilities and assets among other security organs, most notably the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Read our assessment of United Russia's recent political defeats for more on Russia's internal political shifts.
- Regardless of who wins its presidential and parliamentary elections, Ukraine will keep its broader foreign policy toward integration with the West.
- Azerbaijan's relationship with Iran will come under strain as the government pivots toward the U.S. containment strategy.
- Russia and China will cooperate in counterterrorism initiatives in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan and the Tajik-Afghan border area.
- Russia's resumption of natural gas imports from Turkmenistan to help ease a prolonged economic downturn and to stave off the West's overtures related to the Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline project.
Key Dates to Watch
- Early 2019: Japanese Prime Minister Abe is expected to visit Russia.
- Early 2019: Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Washington, D.C.
- Jan. 1: Russian pension and value-added tax reforms take effect.
- Jan. 1: Russia is scheduled to resume natural gas imports from Turkmenistan.
- Feb. 24: Moldova holds parliamentary elections.
- March 31: Ukraine holds a presidential election.
- June: Kyrgyzstan hosts a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
- September: Russia holds regional elections.
- Oct. 27: Ukraine holds parliamentary elections.
- December: The Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline from Russia to China is expected to come online.