09 January 2019


Cristian Eremia

Image source: Mediafax

Russia - 2019 forecasts

The essential event of spring 2018 for Russia in the years to come was obviously the moment when Vladimir Putin won a new term of office, making himself an absolute political leader of the Russian state, hard or even impossible to be contested in an internal and external plan. The extensive political legitimacy he received will certainly be fully exploited in defining and implementing the domestic, foreign and security policies of the Russian state, as well as engaging Russia in the process of building a new global order.

By holding authority and influence on various vectors of international interest, the Russian president put into operation ostensibly, sometimes even obsessively, new political and diplomatic and military instruments to make the West not obstruct the materialization of Moscow's interests - whether they refer to the near neighborhood , the Euro-Atlantic area, the Middle East, Eurasia or the Asia-Pacific. This is the general line that will most likely characterize Moscow's behavior in 2019.

Russia’s strategic priorities in 2019

The first strategic priority will be to consolidate the international perception that Russia became an undisputable international power, alike the US: it can form its own economic and military block (UEE and OTSC), it can win the chronical conflict with Ukraine, it can, until the very end, be the key player in Syria. It will try to show that it is not afraid to confront any global enemy, like the US or NATO.

Secondly, it will continue to prove that it can make any state or international organization’s life difficult, if they are opposing it (Kremlin has thwarted and will continue to block, at least in the essential parts, the Western plans for Syria and those of resolving the Ukrainian conflict in a formula which could favor Kiev). It will show aggressivity, it will try to destabilize and undermine Ukraine in all possible fields, and it will make anything possible to bring this country back into orbit of Moscow.

It is likely that Moscow will take the control in the Azov Sea (here, as in the Kerch Bay, no external intervention is expected to reverse the current trend), to force the control takeover of the Black Sea (Crimea’s militarization process is quite advanced and it will be completed) and to continue the projection of force in the Mediterranean Sea. Judging by the measures announced for strengthening the Turkish military apparatus in the Black Sea, Turkey is the state which, helped by NATO, could moderate to a considerable extent Russian ambitions for this region, including the implementation of A2 / AD. This is all the more so since Moscow understands the degree of fragility of the Russian-Turkish strategic partnership, regardless of the "generosity" with which it will address other Turkish strategic interests ("Turk Stream" may be an example in this respect).

At the same time, Russia will continue Kaliningrad and Arctic’s area militarization processes, as well as the consolidation actions of the Russian military statute in the Baltic and North Seas. The “nervous” manner in which Russia military interfered in the area of the “Trident Juncture 2018’s” allies exercises and some of Brussels military leaders’ evaluations are suggesting that, in the following year, Moscow can open a new confrontation front with NATO on the Northern allied flank. And EU will probably have to respond to Russia’s insistencies to mediated the difficult negotiations with the US and Canada continental platform borders’ demarcation, with Arctic’s Council and Barents/Euro-Arctic Sea’s Council involvement. 

The provocative military actions at the borders of NATO and EU borders, or ostentatious violations of allied airspace, will also take place in the future. The NATO-Russia cooperation will continue to be blocked, but in the following year both parts may continue the process initiated this year, at the level of the high military officials, to exploit the most adequate ways to restart a constructive Alliance-Moscow dialogue. Given that Moscow will make no compromises, this dialogue would be useful for the parts to inform each other at least about some “red lines” they would like to impose, or about the planed military activities to be developed during 2019, in the common interest areas. Moscow might continue to accept the established mechanisms to avoid some accidental military clashes or incidents.

An essential priority will be to continue, with the proper methods, the hybrid modern warfare started against the West and the states which will not cede to it, from its neighborhood. The main actions for the spring of 2019 will be the interference and manipulation of the general elections in Republic of Moldovia (the objective would be to empower some political movements which are loyal to Moscow and to get the political control over this state, as it is already known that president Dodon is on Moscow’s side), and the presidential elections from Ukraine (empowering an pro-Russian president to Kiev, or at least a neuter one, would be a great accomplishment, for the end of 2019 to force the entrance, in the Ukrainian parliament, of a pro-Russian political group). The stake is enormous and the chances of success in these states are not at all illusory.

On the other hand, Russia will insist on inoculation of perceptions that it is capable of unilaterally and unlimited informational wars and advanced cyberwars. This is why, in the following years, Moscow will continue to execute cyber wars, as well as propaganda and disinformation campaigns on the European space, to deteriorate the EU and NATO cohesion (it will use the political dialogue with states like Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Greece or France), as well as specific infiltration attempts in target-states, also benefiting from some favorable "predispositions" of the political and business circles in those states. In the context, the realization of "Nord Stream 2" will of course be a priority objective of Russian diplomacy. All this can be circumscribed to the priority of consolidating the Russian foreign agenda, and it is expected to continue the offensive triggered in recent years.

Western dimension

During 2018 Russia generated and fueled the real "storm" facing Moscow's relations with the West as a whole, namely Russia-US relations in particular. This has led to the implicit articulation of the Western, NATO and EU defensive response, and to the natural resilience of the Alliance. The current year has added to the unresolved dossiers from Moscow's perspective (US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, US anti-missile shield deployed in Romania and Poland, etc.), the US initiative to withdraw from the INF treaty. The US has conditioned the cancellation of Russia's "re-entry" into the provisions of the treaty, which of course has not happened. Subsequently, Russian foreigners showed (19.12.2018) that the US had informed diplomatic channels of the final decision to unilaterally withdraw from INF. As such, in 2019, Moscow will exploit this moment to redefine the strategic platform with short and medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe in a scheme disadvantaged for US and European security interests.


Moscow will continue a widespread disinformation campaign (internally and across the organizations where it has the audience), based on the thesis that Russia is currently under "attacks and hybrid warfare" launched by Western enemies. President Putin will be extremely determined in the next period to continue policies of endless confrontation with the West, with improved tools for projection of force and enforcement of Russian foreign policies. Moscow's nervousness and irritation against US, NATO, EU response, as well as the lack of signals from the West that it could engage in unconditional dialogue and negotiations to meet Russian claims, will be amplified at least in the first part of next year.

Overall, it is predictable that in 2019 Russia will not accept Western maneuvers to exert political, military, economic, asymmetrical or "mirror" pressures on it. In other words, Russia will not accept strategic constraints to move towards conciliatory approaches to regional or global security files of interest to the Russian side. Even if lately the Russian leader seems to have reduced the declarative level of hostility (indicating that "we need a new, positive agenda" to explore the common terms to retake the dialogue), no Russian actions were noted on the ground to generate optimism for what will happen in 2019.

European and global order

With regard to Europe's security, it is predictable that Russia will not become cooperative at the OSCE level to unblock the current crisis and negotiate a new European security architecture. Russia will not, in the next year, provide any trust in the OSCE instruments and Vienna mechanisms on arms control or non-proliferation, or on conflict tracking and peace negotiations. Although Russian positioning in this issue is notorious, lately it has become more severe after the Organization's involvement in the Ukraine file. Against this background, Moscow has recently categorically rejected the extension of the mandate of the OSCE mission in Donbas to the Azov Sea and the Kerch Straits, with no chance of returning next year to this decision.

At the same time, Russia believes that it has the contextual assets and the political and military instruments that allow it to ignore the European order and access the level of the global order for the establishment of a new system of international relations. Consequently, the Kremlin considers that the moment of diplomatic concentration has not come to reduce the confrontation, not least the return to a unified security system in Europe. On the contrary, Russia insists that it will not accept the "global hegemony of one" and this is the main reason for which it considers itself entitled to call for a new "equitable international order". Or to impose a new international order, reason for which the Kremlin consolidates its potential for national defense and security. Russia will therefore be motivated to take the "temptations" in the future to use military force to secure its international interests.

On the other hand, Moscow believes that the world becomes "polycentric", which is why it will use any window of opportunity in the future to become an "equal participant" in global decision making and an independent power pole. The Russian strategy will aim in the coming period to assert that a great sovereign power with a real strategic autonomy (owning the nuclear triad and the power projection capability at the global level, moving from soft to hard power) will try to take a place (G20, BRICS, RIC - Russia, India, China etc.), even under the conditions of "apparent and aggressive self-isolation" to established Western formations. In 2019, the Kremlin will probably act to strengthen its leadership role in its immediate neighborhood and its role of representing the interests of this neighborhood in international institutions with ascendants to global governance. It will act, despite some unfriendly regional pre-conditions, to develop the integration trends it is patronizing (Eurasian Economic Union - UEE, CIS, OTSC).

Russia-China Strategic Partnership will also be developed over the next period, but with a certain dose of precaution. And this is not because China could become a threat to Russia, but because, besides the benefits it brings, this partnership also has a challenging risk note. Putin will use the relationship with China to counterbalance the US's strategic dominance (not only in the Asia-Pacific region), to strengthen its negotiating platform with the West (whether it be the energy agenda or the US anti-missile shield) respectively to get dividends “by association” which will help him to validate his internal and external policies. This is the reason behind the “team” appearance with the Chinese part across the large range military exercises “Vostok 2018”, developed in 2018 in the Far East. Moscow believes that, together with China, both states will be able to win the competition for a new global order. However, prudence will be necessary for the Kremlin, because on the longer term, Russia has a potential vulnerability to lose control of the economic exploitation by China of Eastern Siberia and the Far East of Russia.

State’s economy and militarization

During 2018, Putin captured the full political power, or rather, what was left to monopolize. This power will be used in the coming years to ban, without personal political risks, the emergence of another personality or rival groups from the Russian elite and to lead the country with autocratic firmness. This detail refers both to the domestic political system and to the public administration, as well as to the orientation of the state's economy and finances. Especially as the effects of the sanctions imposed by the West must be counteracted.
So far, Moscow has been able to make the seemingly costly effects of sanctions seem declaratory. The propaganda and internal manipulation will also act next year in the same line. The Kremlin is determined to continue to show that Russia is completely invulnerable to Western attacks and sanctions, and a coherent signal will always be transmitted to the West that the only way to address Russia is negotiations and compromises to accommodate current Russian interests and perspective.

Economically, the Kremlin will co-ordinate efforts for Russia to become, at least in the Eurasian region, a more attractive "political and economic model". Ambitions are high, but Russia will remain at least in the short term an economy based on export of energy resources. It will, however, take on the status of the Eurasia 1 economic leader, vital to the "rebirth of Russia" objective.

During 2018, Putin pointed out that the main threat to Russia's sovereignty is the regression and the gap in advanced technologies, demanding a change in this trend "in the decisive years to come". Also, on the line of militarization of the economy and the state, the Russian executive financed the industrial military complex and continued the processes of re-launching the army and the fleet. For the year 2019, Putin drew the Ministry of Defense (18.12.2018, at the meeting with the command of the armed forces) the main task of strengthening the potential of the strategic armaments of the "nuclear triad." In this respect, the Russian defense industry will have to provide priority the supply of modern weapons in the world, with a key role in balancing global parity and having the necessary performance to counter US missile defense systems.