Russian navy ships, among them the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, second from left, sail near Kronshtadt naval base outside St. Petersburg on July 20, 2018. Russians from all walks of life believe the West will stop at nothing to undermine their country.
The Russia-West standoff is likely to intensify in the coming year, as Moscow will be largely unwilling to make the kinds of concessions that the United States and European Union are seeking in order to end their sanctions and military buildups.
Russia's ties with China have strengthened and will continue to grow, but any sustainable Moscow-Beijing alignment will ultimately face limits due to the Kremlin's deep-seated concerns about China's rise as a major power.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will face growing economic and political challenges on the home front, but these challenges will be manageable for the leader in the coming year.
It was October 1939, and Winston Churchill was on BBC radio, describing Russia: "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Of course, World War II had just begun, and the question regarding the intentions of the Soviet Union — and particularly its relations with Nazi Germany — was of paramount importance to the United Kingdom, Europe and the world at large.
Bookending Churchill's characterization of Russia was the following: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia … but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." This quote has unique relevance to the work that we do at Stratfor. We produce forecasts, and driving our forecasts is a geopolitical methodology that considers first and foremost the broader national interest above the subjective considerations of individual leaders, decision-makers and ordinary citizens. But that does not mean that such people and their subjective considerations don't matter at all. Driven by geography and a state's geopolitical imperatives, the national interest provides the framework in which the trajectory of the nation plays out over the long term. But in the short term, people — from politicians to business leaders to blue-collar workers — do have an impact on shaping the policy and trajectory of their nation.
The Big Picture
In its 2019 Annual Forecast, Stratfor outlined the key trends that will shape Russia and the Eurasian region in the coming year, from the Russia-West standoff to Moscow's growing ties with China to Russia's internal challenges. A recent trip to Russia offered an opportunity to test these forecasts against the realities on the ground and the perspectives of Russian citizens themselves.
With these principles in mind, I recently set off for a visit to Russia. Having just completed work on Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast, I wanted to test our forecast at ground level and see how it stacks up against the perspectives of Russian citizens themselves. Of course, Russia is a big and diverse place, and it's impossible to capture a comprehensive picture in a country as vast and complex as Russia. But my visit — which included stops in my birthplace of Moscow, as well as St. Petersburg, Kazan and some small towns in between — and discussions with citizens from a diverse array of backgrounds and professions provided an excellent opportunity to test our forecast against realities and views on the ground.
A Russian Take on the Russia-West Standoff
Headlining our Eurasia forecast is the enduring standoff between Russia and the West. Ever since Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution in 2014 — along with Russia's resulting annexation of Crimea and provision of support to separatists in eastern Ukraine — Moscow and the West have been locked in a confrontation that has run the gamut from military buildups to economic sanctions, cyberattacks, propaganda dissemination and political meddling. Russia's strategic interest in keeping Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet periphery within its sphere of influence, in contrast to the West's desire to deny Russia this sphere of influence, has provided a backdrop for this standoff, which has now spread from the European borderlands to Syria and North Korea. In 2019, this standoff is only likely to intensify, as arms control treaties collapse and sanctions expand.
Rightly or wrongly, Russians view their country as a great power that deserves a major voice on the world stage, and many citizens believe the West, especially the United States, is actively trying to undermine Russia.
According to the prevailing view among the Russians I spoke with, the tensions between Moscow and the West are here to stay. Rightly or wrongly, Russians view their country as a great power that deserves a major voice on the world stage. Many citizens believe the West, especially the United States, is actively trying to undermine Russia, both in terms of its role in the world and its domestic stability and cohesiveness. On several occasions, people described Russia as a country that does not respond well to pressure from the outside; many also depicted it as a "besieged fortress." The more Moscow faces this pressure — again, especially from the United States — the more it will double down on its position and strive to protect what it deems to be its rightful strategic interests.
The Ukrainian conflict is a case in point. Russia's standard line is that the Euromaidan uprising was a Western-backed (if not organized) affair whose primary goal was to weaken Russia at the most strategic and sensitive point in its immediate periphery. To many Russians, Moscow merely acted defensively in annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. For them, Ukraine was simply the West's latest move in a decades-old campaign of encirclement and containment that has previously included such actions as NATO's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, as well as U.S. support for color revolutions across the former Soviet periphery. After Russia extracted itself from the chaos and instability of the 1990s, it could scarcely stand idly by as these events unfolded, as it was not clear how far the West would go in its ostensible campaign against Russia.
Because of this, I was told that Russia is not in the business of making major concessions to the West, even when it faces significant pressure in the form of military buildups or economic sanctions. And while the West may have imposed sanctions only in response to Russia's actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Moscow's foes have now broadened the measures to encompass many more aspects of Russian behavior, including everything from meddling in Western elections to North Korea and Syria. This expansion in scope has convinced Russian decision-makers that the West will not ease the sanctions or pressure in any significant manner, even if Moscow did offer concessions. As a result, more Western sanctions will likely only prompt greater resistance and greater retaliation from Moscow.
Although this confrontation now appears lasting, its start was not inevitable, according to Moscow. Indeed, Russian officials and foreign policy experts emphasized to me that during President Vladimir Putin's first term as president in the early 2000s, Moscow made serious efforts to integrate with the West — going so far as to consider joining the European Union and NATO, albeit on equal terms. This, obviously, never occurred, and by the end of Putin's second term — by which time the European Union and NATO had expanded into Central Europe and the Baltic states and disregarded Russia's position on Kosovo — it was clear to the Kremlin that Russia had to go it alone, even if that entailed direct conflict with the West and its allies. Confrontations duly ensued, first in the Russia-Georgia war (2008), and later in the battle over Crimea and eastern Ukraine (2014).
The Ukrainian conflict has reinforced the Russian perception that it is impossible to cooperate with the West on equal terms, resulting in Moscow's quest for partners and influential roles elsewhere in the world.
The Ukrainian conflict has reinforced the Russian perception that it is impossible to cooperate with the West on equal terms, resulting in Moscow's quest for partners and influential roles elsewhere in the world. One such role has been Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict in support of Bashar al Assad's regime against the Islamic State and Western-backed rebels. My interlocutors told me that Russia doesn't really care about al Assad per se, but that Moscow felt it had to draw a red line on regime change imposed from abroad (that is, the United States). Russia was uniquely positioned to delve into Syria given its historical ties to the country and its strategic location, while Moscow also wanted to send the message that it, too, could be a major player in the Middle East — as well as in other theaters like Afghanistan and Africa — both militarily and diplomatically.
The Russia-China Alignment and Its Limits
Another key aspect of our annual forecast for Eurasia touches on Russia's aforementioned quest to expand its ties around the world to scale back Western hegemony and challenge the U.S.-led world order. The key to this is China, which also has its own interest in challenging the U.S.-dominated world order in the context of great power competition. Moscow and Beijing have enjoyed burgeoning ties in recent years, just as Russia's relations with the West have frayed. The two countries have bolstered their cooperation on trade and military drills, as well as their political coordination on issues such as North Korea.
Most Russians I spoke with acknowledged that ties between Moscow and Beijing have grown, particularly on security. Nevertheless, many cautioned that a sincere alliance is not emerging between Moscow and Beijing. Deeply mistrustful of China's rising clout and intentions, many Russians fear — justifiably or not — that Beijing has designs on Russian land in the Far East and the Arctic. China may not challenge Russia's political model in the way that the West does, I was told, but it may one day challenge its survival. It's perhaps an exaggeration, but it's a fear that gnaws at the back of the mind for many Russians. At the same time, many told me that Chinese investment in Russia isn't all it's cracked up to be, and one businessman who frequents Russia's large investment forums in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok told me that only around 5-10 percent of the multibillion-dollar deals between the countries actually come to fruition, mostly in the energy sector.
The Challenges From Within
On the domestic front, our forecast also pointed to a number of economic and political challenges for Putin, including a sanctions-weakened economy, public discontent over unpopular pension reforms and pressure to reform the country's powerful security organs. Our forecast noted that these challenges will test Putin as he enters his fourth — and perhaps final — term, although the long-serving leader will ultimately succeed in managing them this year.
Within Russia, the views on Putin himself are decidedly mixed, with those against the leader citing everything from corruption to unpopular plans to raise the retirement age as reasons for their opposition, while those in favor base their support on the president's track record of fostering stability, as well as the dearth of credible alternatives to his rule. But whether for or against Putin, nearly everyone agreed that there will be no significant changes or upheavals to Russia's political system so as long as the president remains at the helm. The more the Kremlin feels pressured — whether externally or from within — the more Moscow will centralize control, meaning security organs like the National Guard will only accumulate greater power.
Whether for or against Putin, nearly every Russian agrees that there will be no significant changes or upheavals to the country's political system so as long as the president remains at the helm.
From a macroeconomic perspective, most finance and business professionals believe that the Kremlin has the tools to cope with the economic challenges posed by sanctions, as the government has padded its foreign exchange reserves and wealth funds and taken measures to prevent currency volatility by decoupling the ruble from the price of oil. On the ground, however, it is clear that sanctions have taken their toll. Almost everyone lamented rising prices and stagnant wages, while foreign travel has become more expensive and difficult for some — and virtually impossible for others. Overall, however, my impression is that Russia is not on the verge of a major economic crisis.
But when it comes to Russia's longer-term outlook, there may be more cause for concern. According to one financial journalist, Moscow can manage economic shocks for 2019 or for a few years, but the long-term economic prognosis, particularly in regards to Russia's continued dependence on oil and natural gas and the brain drain of young professionals, is poor. Russia's anticipated demographic decline (the country is projected to lose 10 percent of its population by 2050) and looming social changes as a post-Soviet generation emerges could one day create more acute pressure and increasingly test the Kremlin's ability to maintain stability across the vast country.
The viewpoints that Russians from all walks of life expressed to me aligned, in many ways, with our forecast; in other certain respects, they added nuance to our thoughts for the year to come. Nearly 80 years on from Churchill's speech, Russia may still be "mysterious and enigmatic," but the combination of studying its national interests from afar and listening to the perspectives of its people from up close certainly offers important clues as to what to expect for the country moving forward.