To read our full Net Assessment of Russia, click here.
Since Geopolitical Futures published its net assessment of Russia on Dec. 2, Russia’s fundamental strategy has not shifted, but the tactics Moscow uses to achieve its goals have evolved. At the same time, Moscow is continuing to grapple with the implications of low global energy prices for its economic and political stability, as well as defense priorities. Our long-term view is that Russia will weaken and the country’s internal unity will erode. A net assessment, however, focuses on the state of Russia at this moment. While Russia has options and remains a powerful actor in the region, it is facing a growing number of challenges.
Russia’s Strategic Goals and Evolving Tactics
Russia’s top national security priority is the status of Ukraine. For the Kremlin, Ukraine is a critical buffer zone and must become, at the very least, militarily neutral. Moreover, a growing U.S. and NATO military presence along the alliance’s eastern edge, especially in countries like Poland, is seen as a threat to Russian interests.
Russia does not want a direct confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. As a result, Moscow is working to reach a negotiated settlement, whether formal or informal, with the United States over the future of Ukraine. Russia does, however, have some tools it can use to pursue its goals. These include lower-cost tactics like limited military interventions, covert operations and information warfare.
In our December net assessment, we outlined that Moscow launched an air campaign in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime with the hope of using its enhanced role in Syria to increase the Kremlin’s negotiating position with the U.S. regarding the future of Ukraine. While some Russian forces are still active in Syria, President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in March that the bulk of Russia’s forces would leave the country signals that Russia is turning its attention back to its primary strategic challenges in Europe. Russia’s limited intervention in Syria has largely fulfilled its purpose. It has reshaped perceptions of Russian power, strengthened the position of Assad’s forces, and led to increased discussions with the U.S. over both the Middle East and the future of Ukraine.
The Russian regime’s power depends on the security services, provision of economic incentives to a small group of elites and the acquiescence of the Russian population. In December, we wrote that Putin’s regime is firmly in place. While the regime is still in a strong position, since our net assessment was published, the regime’s challenges have grown: Russia’s economic outlook has worsened, the Russian regime has begun signaling more that it is worried about internal stability, and the impact of financial troubles on Russia’s external activities have come to the fore.
Russia’s continued economic troubles are posing a challenge for the regime. The World Bank estimates that Russia’s economy will contract by 1.9 percent in 2016, in contrast to an earlier forecast of merely 0.6 percent, and much of this shift is due to the price of oil. Russia’s state budget is still heavily reliant on energy revenues, and as a result the Russian government has implemented a series of budget cuts. Declines in government spending, as well as rising consumer prices and a weak currency, have a direct impact on the everyday lives of constituents, while also limiting the amount of resources the regime can distribute to loyal elites.
In April, Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard, which will be accountable directly to him. The National Guard will take control of OMON, Russia’s riot police, and SOBR, the country’s SWAT forces. While Putin remains popular and there has been no significant social unrest, the creation of this new force under Putin’s direct control signals that the president is highly concerned about internal stability, and perhaps even about the reliability of Russia’s elites and security services. The State Duma elections planned for September 2016 are also likely driving regime fears about stability and potential protests.
At the same time, there are indications that Russia’s budget woes are undermining the Kremlin’s ability to pursue some of its strategic goals. Significantly, the government is opting to cut defense spending by 5 percent, a move the Kremlin had earlier sought to avoid and that could create further delays for the Russian military’s modernization drive. Leaders in places such as Crimea and Abkhazia have already complained about a lack of sufficient funding from Moscow. Over the past several years, Russia has financed breakaway regions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, far-right political parties in Europe and other groups in order to boost its influence in strategic areas. Russia’s economic troubles are not preventing Moscow from acting abroad: Russia still provides military and economic assistance to allies in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and beyond. However, budgetary pressures are reducing the amount of funding available for these projects.
Russia is constrained and facing a host of internal and external challenges, but it is still a major regional power with military and financial tools it can exercise. Russia’s primary objective remains protecting its buffer zones, and it is working toward ensuring that its chief priority at the moment – Ukraine – becomes a neutral buffer state.