A Year in Review: Russia’s Passive Year Ends Without Closure

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 1

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering his annual New Year's eve address (Source: Alexey Nikolsky-Sputnik)

In practical terms, Russia has not yet begun 2018—the country awakes from its traditional holiday vacation only on Tuesday (January 9). That said, Russians’ common reflection on the year past can easily be summed up with “Good riddance!” By almost any measure, 2017 was not particularly successful for Russia, but at least the country muddled through it without any major disasters. In fact, Moscow’s behavior on the international arena was surprisingly passive, especially compared to its aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015, and the not-so-subtle interference in the United States’ elections in 2016. The much-anticipated Zapad 2017 military exercises were carefully curtailed and did not bring any lasting spike in political tensions in the Baltic region (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 28, 2017). The ceasefire in the Donbas war zone in eastern Ukraine recovered despite numerous violations, and the exchange of prisoners in late December was definitely a welcome development (Kommersant, December 28, 2017). The unprecedented decision of the International Olympic Committee to punish Russia for covering up its large-scale, state-run doping program angered many professional “patriots.” But President Vladimir Putin opted to swallow that insult and allowed Russian athletes (qualified as “clean”) to partake in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games under a neutral Olympics flag (New Times, December 25, 2017).

The main maker of bad news in 2017 was actually North Korea, and Russia tried to present itself as part of the solution to that problem. In reality, however, Moscow was rather irrelevant in the joint US-Chinese efforts at enforcing de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 26, 2017). Putin was vocal in criticizing the inefficiency of sanctions, but each time a tightening of the sanctions regime was considered at the United Nations Security Council, Moscow voted “Yes,” following Beijing’s firm lead. The further cultivation of the strategic partnership with China is presented by many Russian experts as one of the main achievements of the past year (Carnegie.ru, December 27, 2017). Nevertheless, Putin hardly seems satisfied with Russia’s role as the junior partner and likely resents being taken for granted in the unexpectedly close relations between the presidents of China and the United States. For that matter, Russia had been eager to reinforce China’s opposition to the US deployment of THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and was taken aback by the resolution of that issue between Beijing and Seoul late last year (Kommersant, December 15, 2017). This development—rather than the multiple ballistic missile tests by North Korea—prompted Russian high command to plan the deployment of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system to the exposed Vladivostok area (Interfax, December 18, 2017).

The “victory” in Syria (see EDM, November 27, 2017; December 14, 2017) was supposed to be the high point in Russia’s international affairs in 2017. But Putin’s claims of triumph were swiftly disproven. First his announced plan to gather in Sochi a “congress” of opposition forces and the Syrian government fell apart (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 27). Then, the Khmeimim airbase in Syria came under a mortar attack, underscoring the high vulnerability of the Russian military presence amidst the feuds between multiple warring parties there (RBC, January 4). Russia has found itself dependent upon Iran’s massive support to the Bashar al-Assad regime but cannot fail to see that Tehran is pursuing its own “victory,” which is unacceptable for the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 25). Meanwhile, the sudden explosion of street protests across Iran has caught the Kremlin, itself chronically haunted by the specter of revolution, unable to figure out the consequences (Novaya Gazeta, January 3, 2018).

The main—and still deepening—failure of Russia’s foreign policy last year was the deterioration of relations with the United States. Initial exuberance in Moscow produced by the arrival of “the Donald Trump era” has turned into grave concern about the US’s military build-up and new sanctions (Kommersant, December 26, 2017). Putin still attributes this bilateral crisis to the intrigues of the defeated Democratic Party in Washington. He refrains from criticizing Trump with the hope of setting up a dialogue channel; nonetheless, he could not restrain himself from describing the new US National Security Strategy as “offensive” and “aggressive” (Kremlin.ru, December 22, 2017). The 1988 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed by Washington and Moscow at the close of the Cold War, is now bedeviled with so many accusations and counter-accusations of violations that desperate attempts by arms control professionals to assert its value for keeping the current bilateral confrontation in check appear doomed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 8, 2017). What worries Russian elites far more than missiles is the forthcoming enforcement of personalized sanctions. German Gref, the head of Sberbank, warned that measures against the Russian fortunes stockpiled in Western “safe havens” could make the Cold War look like “child’s play” (RIA Novosti, December 25, 2017).

The impact of new sanctions is set to be amplified by the steadily increasing US influence in the global energy market, which puts pressure on the most sensitive variable in Russia’s extra-feeble economic recovery—the oil price. For all intents and purposes, US producers of shale oil and natural gas are the main beneficiaries of the cartel agreement on oil production cuts between Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Yet, Moscow finds it difficult to back out of this deal without damaging the relative stability of the current medium-low price (Forbes.ru, January 2, 2018). The Russian government tries to discount the country’s weakening economic performance and prioritizes low inflation, but it still cannot identify any sound sources of growth (Moscow Echo, January 2, 2018). Putin appears content to preside over economic stagnation and evidently counts on low demand for reforms from the disillusioned and disorganized Russian society (Vedomosti, December 27, 2017). Nevertheless, he needs to find a booster for his presidential campaign, particularly since the key themes for political debates have been set without him—Alexei Navalny, who is officially disqualified as a candidate, has mobilized remarkably strong discontent with the “more-of-the-same” prospect (Gefter.ru, December 29, 2017).

Putin needs the March 18 election to deliver a new solid legitimization for his rule, but he has nothing to promise to the brooding country—except himself. The next exciting big event is supposed to be the 2018 World Cup; however, it is scheduled for long after the vote, from mid-June to mid-July. Moreover, beyond the international soccer championship, Russia’s future looks empty. The idea of muddling through is familiar to many Russian social groups. But the younger generations object to the boring and tightly controlled political environment, while the urban middle classes resent the predatory corruption of the elites. Many in Russia have reasons to conclude that the neither-here-nor-there 2017 was not so bad after all, and the 100th anniversary of the great upheaval (the twin 1917 Russian revolutions) was mostly shrugged off. For Putin, the best hope is for this indefinite posture to drag on. The world, however, is moving fast, and the lagging Russia is growing less, not more, ready to face the challenges of tomorrow.