CGI Asks: What Should We Watch in Russia in 2016?

January 8, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about Russia and Eurasia. This week, we ask experts which developments in Russian domestic and foreign policy to expect this year.

Ian Kearns,  Co-Founder and Director of the European Leadership Network 

@iankKearns

KearnsThe economy and its impact on regime confidence and stability are likely to be crucial in shaping Russia’s relationship with the West in 2016. Some are dismissive of the impact of sanctions and believe Russia can bounce back to growth this year but at the time of writing, oil has fallen to lower than $35 a barrel for the first time in more than 12 years. Even if Russia’s domestic economy shows signs of successfully adapting to sanctions, the dampening effect of low oil prices on state budgets will mean hard times for many Russians.

The potential for, and fear of domestic unrest will be watched ever more intently by the Kremlin in this context and both domestic and foreign policy modifications could come as a result. Domestically, there could be more repressive measures. On foreign policy, there could either be more flexibility and progress on implementing the terms of the Minsk accords to relieve sanctions pressure, or alternatively, more moves to destabilize Ukraine to ensure that it does not become an effectively functioning modern European state capable of being compared favorably with Russia.

Another element to watch will be the scale and progress of Russia’s military entanglement in Syria. If Russia is forced to become more involved, this will both increase the risks of Russian and Western actors becoming directly embroiled on different sides in the civil war but also conversely, could open a possible window of diplomatic flexibility in pursuit of an honorable Russian exit.

Yury Barmin, Strategic Risk Consultant on Russia in the Middle East

@yurybarmin

Barmin2016 begins for Russia on a bad note with crude oil sliding to below $35 for a barrel, which is an indication that in the year ahead Moscow will have to deal with the worst stage of the economic crisis in its post-Soviet history. The government will make attempts to downplay the extent of the crisis and is likely to increase the spending of its already depleting international reserves. The key goal for the Russian government in 2016 will be to create a semblance of economic stability in the run-up to the September Duma elections to avoid any unwanted public discontent.

Most politicking in Russia this year will have to deal precisely with that, the 2016 legislative election. While there is little doubt as to who will take the lead in the elections, this is probably the major event on the domestic front for two main reasons. First, with the Duma elections behind the presidential race in Russia will officially kick off. The results of the parliamentary elections will serve as an indication to what lengths the government should go in the next year and a half to conduct smooth presidential elections in 2018. Second, the Duma elections will uncover the true potency of the Russian opposition that has been largely in demise since 2012. Protest activity has been slowly dying in Russia since Vladimir Putin came back to power, and the Duma elections will show whether the opposition is still capable of rallying people’s support.

Internationally the key area of interest to Russia watchers will be Moscow’s strategy in the Middle East, specifically in Syria. Over the past year Russia significantly raised the stakes in the Syrian conflict and by doing so has progressed to become a major player in this conflict. It is expected that Moscow will continue increasing its military presence in the country for as long as it takes to settle the conflict in Assad’s (meaning in Russia’s) favor. Since Russia’s presence in Syria has dramatically changed the way it is viewed in the Middle East, the dynamic of Russia’s relations with regional powers is also going to be in the spotlight. The Moscow-Ankara spat will be the key conflict to watch due to its possible economic and political ramifications for both countries, as well as for Turkic countries of the former Soviet Union. The downing of a Russian civilian plane over Sinai, Egypt has also cast a shadow on the stability of the Russia-Egypt alliance. While so far Moscow has been unable to come up with a viable solution to this crisis, in 2016 it will need to develop new confidence-building steps so as not to lose its main partner in the Middle East.

Maria Snegovaya, PhD Candidate at Columbia University and Columnist for Vedomosti

@MSnegovaya

Maria Snegovaya

For Russia in the new year, trends shaped by earlier developments in 2015 will continue to intensify. Russia’s domestic economic situation will steadily worsen, although according to many analysts, at least in 2016, the Kremlin will have enough resources to sustain the status quo. The number of local protests (such as the recent protests by Russian truck drivers against new highway tolls) will steadily increase across the country. But in 2016, they are not yet likely to reach the level that would create real problems for the system.

Nonetheless, the regime’s paranoia about its survival will keep intensifying in light of the worsening economic situation. Hence a new set of more repressive laws is likely to follow, and the overall intensity of the repressions will increase. Expect more opposition activists jailed, more limitations on civil and political freedoms, and more prohibitive laws. Some remaining quasi-independent media may become victims of a new wave of repressions.

In the economic domain, currency control laws might multiply due to the scarcity of dollars. This would include new bans on imported products (Russia’s so-called “anti-sanctions”) and bans on holding foreign accounts. The same lack of rubles might induce higher taxes, fines and fees, as well as delays in salary and pension payments.

In the foreign policy dimension, the important development is that the Kremlin is running out of resources in light of collapsing oil prices and a deepening recession. This could lead to less aggressive Kremlin adventures on the international stage. Therefore, the scarcity of oil revenue in 2016 might push Russia towards a more compromising stance on its Ukraine and Syria policy. Read full response >>

Richard Gowan, Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

@RichardGowan1

GowanWill Russia cooperate with the West at the United Nations in 2016 or use the UN as a means to stymie American and European initiatives, especially over crises in the Middle East?  Moscow has used its power in the Security Council to reassert itself on the international stage, vetoing resolutions on Syria and Ukraine.  But it also uses the UN as a conduit for cooperation with the West, and most importantly with Washington, as in the most recent round of talks on achieving a ceasefire in Syria.  It seems probable that Russia will attempt to boost the Syrian process at the UN in the coming months, as it provides the best available “exit strategy” from Moscow’s intervention there, which could otherwise drag on indefinitely.

For all their differences over the future of President Assad, therefore, Russia and the United States may ironically end up jointly defending the UN’s role in Syria from Saudi Arabia and other potential spoilers in the Middle East.  That doesn’t mean that Russia will become more helpful on other issues at the UN: Moscow still doesn’t want the Security Council to play a serious role over Ukraine, for example, and will probably try to limit any fresh UN sanctions on North Korea after the so-called “hydrogen bomb” test.  But when it comes to big crises involving DPRK, China and the U.S. call the shots in the Security Council and Russia has to follow Beijing’s lead.  There have also been interesting, though small, signs that the Chinese desire a more general diminution of East-West tensions in the Security Council – Beijing may be quietly urging Moscow to maintain a cooperative approach with the U.S. whenever possible in New York through 2016.