It’s the last day of January and I swore I wasn’t going to keep writing these “new year” pieces past the end of the month. The thing is, between family situations, deadlines, and–to be completely honest–a low grade case of burnout, I just haven’t been as prolific as I thought I would be. So to sum up the new year, and in what I readily admit is a cheat, here are a few things to watch for the next 11 months.
If you believe that Russia rigged last fall’s election to put Donald Trump in office, then you already know that Moscow is expecting big things in the coming year. If, like me, you’re a skeptic who is inclined to think that something fishy went down but would like to see more evidence, then…well, you should still probably know that Moscow is expecting big things, because their optimism isn’t just about the new president. But expectations have a way of leading to disappointment, and at the moment Russia is staring a pretty big one right in the face.
There’s been little that Vladimir Putin has wanted more than to return Russia to the Great Power table in world affairs, and–whatever else you may think about it–his decision to intervene in Syria has done just that. It’s Russia–not the US, or the UN, or the EU–that is calling the diplomatic shots with respect to the Syrian civil war now. It’s the one scheduling peace talks, deciding who gets to attend, and writing draft constitutions for a post-war Syrian state. This is a far cry from where Moscow was as recently as 2014, when it was eating the back of the international community’s collective hand over its actions in Ukraine, to say nothing of where it was 20 years ago (i.e., in full, shock doctrine-induced collapse). So you have to hand it to Putin–in addition to securing Russian interests in Syria, the main reason for the intervention, he now owns an entire regional war. The downside for him is that, well, he now owns an entire regional war, and his attempts at ending said war in a way that involves negotiations and not more human carnage aren’t looking so hot at the moment, what with no new Astana talks planned and the next scheduled round of talks in Geneva having been postponed. If Putin wants to be seen as a major power-broker, he’s going to have to find a path toward settling the war that he chose to adopt. But so far, settling the war in Syria has been much easier said than done.
Now, if there is anything that Vladimir Putin wants more than Russia’s return to Great Power stature, it’s a fix for Russia’s ailing economy. He’s undoubtedly looking to Trump to end US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and corporations, but I think he’s savvy enough to realize that Trump can’t do that immediately and will need to be seen getting something from Moscow in return. In the meantime, though, Putin scored a pretty substantial win last year when he reached a deal with OPEC to cut oil production in an effort to raise prices. That should help…unless prices get high enough to reactivate the American fracking industry in a major way. But in the meantime it should provide some benefit to the Russian economy as the sanctions issue unwinds itself.
How the sanctions issue unwinds itself will have a big impact on another situation related to Russia, which is the disposition of Ukraine. It’s entirely possible that Putin will, at some point this year, drop most/all of his direct support for the Ukrainian rebels and push for some kind of peaceful but destabilizing deal between the rebels and Kiev. Fighting has actually started heating up in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, but that could be isolated or it could be that one or the other side is trying to strengthen its position in advance of potential settlement talks. Putin’s objectives in Ukraine–red meat for his base and instability in Kiev–have been met, and if he wants to give Trump a “win” to cement their ties, this wouldn’t be a bad one. At the same time, though, even if the conflict in Donbas is settled there’s still the fairly giant, but largely ignored, matter of Crimea to discuss. Russia isn’t going to give it up, but neither is Kiev likely to drop its claim on the peninsula, and the international community is going to have to take this head-on at some point because, well, the annexation was a pretty substantial blow to ~70 years of post-war international consensus on wars of conquest.
Russian provocation in the Baltics in 2017 also bears watching. As in eastern Ukraine I think Putin might be inclined to take it easy here, for now, as a concession to Trump, but he’s likely to expect that Trump will downsize Washington’s NATO commitment to the Baltic states.