From the Forecast: “To move forward, the U.S. would have to ease sanctions on Russia. … It is very unlikely that sanctions will be reduced, which appears to leave U.S.-Russian relations suspended for now.”
“Russia will not be strong enough to secure its interests through force. It will intervene selectively where it must, but intervention will never be Russia’s first choice.”
Update: As 2018 ends and 2019 begins, we at GPF find ourselves transitioning from one annual forecast to the next. The incident at the Kerch Strait, then, comes at a curious time. Readers are no doubt familiar with the particulars, but for those who are not, last weekend Russia forcibly blocked Ukrainian naval ships from navigating the strait to enter the Sea of Azov. Each side has accused the other of wrongdoing, but for our purposes, the cause is less important than the effect, which is that it undermines our forecast on the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations for what little remains of 2018.
In fact, this is the second time in six weeks that we’ve had to revisit this particular forecast. The first was when the U.S. said it would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But though the threat to leave the treaty was certainly a strike against the forecast, it was difficult to quantify how much it would change things, and the incident at the Kerch Strait is perhaps even more confounding in that regard. After all, our forecast was not that Russia would refrain from using force when necessary; it was that military action would not be Russia’s first choice in achieving its strategic goals, and nothing that happened since last weekend has indicated otherwise.
That’s not to say that Russia has suddenly given up its ambitions in Ukraine. It is simply to say, broadly speaking, that Russia understands Ukraine better than the U.S. does – and better than the European Union, Germany and France do, which have all criticized Russian actions. Russia is playing a long game, betting that Ukraine’s own internal dysfunction will end its budding relationship with the West. It’s employing a strategy that combines economic tactics – such as the completion of Nord Stream 2, which will allow Russia to export natural gas without transiting through Ukrainian territory – and relatively passive political manipulation. Ukraine will hold presidential elections in March, and since no one is running away with the contest, Russia can afford to bide its time to see if democracy will return a more pro-Russia government, or at least a more neutral one, to power in Kiev.
The spoiler in all of this is Ukraine, a country that is deeply divided between the east and the west. The farther east you go, the more support there is for Russia. The farther west you go, the more support there is for an independent Ukraine, supported, of course, by the West. Ukraine is a former Eastern bloc country that never quite made it out of the Eastern bloc. Its primary imperative is still its most basic national issue – survival – and that means it must maintain a pragmatic relationship with Russia while seeking as much support from the West as Russia will allow.
We used to describe the Ukraine conflict as a frozen conflict, and to some degree it still is. War has yet to break out as it did with Georgia in 2008. Russia does not want a military conflict, nor is it prepared for one. The U.S. does not want a military conflict, nor is it prepared for one. But with everything that’s happened over the past few weeks, the trendline of our forecast isn’t what we expected it would be in the final stretch of 2018.
From the Forecast: “Israel will maintain its hostile rhetoric toward Iran, but it will not find a stable basis for dealing with Iran in 2018.”
Update: We’ve skirted this forecast since the Tracker’s inception for a simple reason: Our original wording was so ambiguous that it was practically meaningless. Readers who asked themselves what it means to “find a stable basis for dealing with” a country are not alone, for we asked ourselves the same question subsequently. But there’s been so much Israeli diplomatic activity in recent weeks that we can no longer dissemble. What we should have said is that of course Israel will try to counter Iran, but it would not go so far as to identify a coalition of partners to go against it, let alone decide on the tactics it would use to counter it. Israel has done this and that is why the grade of this forecast trends negative.
What’s done is done, but in the spirit of our original wording, Israel has “found a basis for dealing with Iran.” It has maintained its alliance with the U.S. – with a friendlier administration no less – and it is working with key Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia to secure what every Israeli government has unsuccessfully sought since 1948: political acceptance in the Arab world. To that end, it has kept in place its blockade of the Gaza Strip and, in concert with Egypt, has isolated Hamas from its benefactors in Iran. It has more aggressively attacked Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and it is making a case to justify military intervention in Lebanon.
The question is whether this basis for dealing with Iran is sustainable. Are the powers that Israel is courting, and which are courting Israel, stable? As the killing of Jamal Khashoggi showed, Saudi Arabia is constantly on the brink of political turmoil. The international outcry over the murder has called into question the succession of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
Then there are the other countries Israel has engaged in the past month – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Chad. Some of these potential allies (namely, Chad) cannot do much to solve Israel’s most pressing issues. Others, such as Bahrain, are unstable. (It avoided regime change during the Arab Spring only because of Saudi military intervention. A Sunni minority still rules a Shiite majority there, and upcoming austerity measures that will negatively affect pensions and subsidies raise the possibility of renewed unrest.) The rest are smaller and weaker than Iran, and Qatar and Oman have pragmatic working relationships with Iran. This is hardly a recipe for success.
So precarious is Israel’s position that it held a military drill Nov. 24 that simulated a two-front war – a simultaneous conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. The impetus for the drill is no doubt the conflict in Gaza that Hamas and Israel barely avoided a few weeks ago. But a two-front war is an immensely challenging proposition for Israel, even when its adversaries are proxy groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. That Israel is even preparing for a conflict with them suggests that beneath Israel’s self-satisfied confidence in its “alliance” with Arab states lies a justified skepticism of its own plan.
The letter of this forecast was wrong. But the spirit of the forecast – that Israel is facing more significant threats on the horizon than it can’t deal with alone or even with the regional partners at its disposal – is not without some merit.