The West's relationship with Russia remained a dominating question of 2015, and 2016 holds promise for much the same.
2015 was an unprecedented year for international relations in Eurasia and the Middle East. Russia’s overt entry into the war in Syria, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet, the mass killing in Paris, and continued negotiations between Iran and the West have each made 2015 a year which will be remembered long into the future.
The Russian air campaign in Syria, in full coordination with the Syrian Armed Forces and with probable Iranian support, has changed the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield. While Assad’s forces have made relatively little territorial gains, Russian support has reversed the trend of ISIS and rebel expansion, and further reinforced Damascus’s dependency on Moscow. This particularly displeased the Turks, who shot down a Russian jet which had been striking Turkomen rebel targets in the north of the country.
Diplomatic fallout between Moscow and Ankara resulted in the former imposing economic sanctions, travel bans, and even banning participation in the Turkvision song contest. As the second largest military in NATO and a rapidly growing economic and technological power, Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, and one of Russia’s few genuine rivals for influence in Eurasia. Russo-Turkish rivalry will be one of the defining trends of international politics in 2016, both in the Middle East and in the post-Soviet space.
The terrorist mass-killings in Paris this past year brought the war on ISIS home to the center of Europe. As Western Europe, France especially, continues to struggle with illegal immigration, the migrant crisis, and domestic Islamist radicalization, these issues are unlikely to go away anytime soon. France has taken a more active role in the struggle against terrorism, both in the Middle East and in Africa, and is likely to continue to do so for all of 2016 and beyond.
Negotiations between Iran and the West revealed political divisions both in Tehran and in Western capitals. As pragmatists on both sides struggle against their respective hardliners, it remains unclear what concrete results will follow. Nevertheless, economic incentives for cooperation have manifested themselves this year, convincing many of the benefits of further cooperation.
2016 will likely see an increasing polarization of European societies between opposing forces of radical Islam and nativist politics. As economies continue to worsen and governments continue to appear non-responsive, demand for political change will fuel anti-establishment parties, whether they are on the far-left or the far-right.
The rivalry between Russia and Turkey will become one of the dominating factors of Eurasian politics in 2016. Their respective zones of influence not only overlap, but expand over a wide geographic area: from the Balkans, through the Middle East, into the Caucasus, and even Central Asia. Initially supportive of Turkey, many Western governments will likely begin to diverge from Ankara, especially as Islamism resurges in Turkey and European politics becomes increasingly right wing.
Iran and the West will continue to negotiate, and gradually put into place greater economic and eventually political agreements. Cooperation between Tehran and individual Western capitals is likely to begin in the economic sector due to persisting political taboos on both sides. Iranian allies in both Iraq and Syria will remain the primary resistance against ISIS and other Jihadist expansion, resulting in an increasingly necessary, if very uncomfortable, need for limited cooperation on the part of Western coalitions.
At start of 2015, all eyes observing the Russian military were fixated on its covert activities in eastern Ukraine. In June and July 2014 Russia infiltrated spetsnaz (special operations) forces into the Donbas with conventional forces joining the fight albeit covertly on 11 August 2014. Late 2014 saw the first round of peace talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko leading to the first Minsk ceasefire.
The ceasefire collapsed in late 2014, leading to a new phase of fighting that continued into early 2015. Russian soldiers and their separatist comrades prioritized capturing Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub. This phase of the fighting ended with the signing of a second Minsk agreement, occurring three days after Debaltseve’s capture by pro-Kremlin forces. The ceasefire still holds, albeit with minor, sporadic violations by each side.
What caught many analysts by surprise was Russia’s 30 September intervention in the Syrian Civil War in the form of airstrikes, despite repeated denials from the Kremlin that it was committing forces to Syria. Despite claims to the contrary by Moscow, the predominant targets of Russia’s air campaign in Syria have been rebel groups that are not the Islamic State (IS) or even the al-Qa‘ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Syrian rebel groups represent a greater tactical threat to Syria’s Alawite regime under Bashar Assad than ISIS, which is focused on establishing itself as the predominant interpretation of Sunni Islam rather than overthrowing the Shi'ite regime. Several rebel groups have received arms and training from the United States and its allies, both European and Middle Eastern, though many also form occasional coalitions with IS and al-Nusra, making no secret their desires to turn Syria into a sharia state. Russia’s intervention in Syria also saw it deploying air-to-air fighters and electronic warfare systems, which serve little use in combating Syria’s rebel factions but could easily be turned on Western (or Turkish) air assets. More recently, the Syrian battlefield has become Russia's testing ground for some of its newest weapons platforms, including cruise missiles and certain fighter craft.
Before Russia’s intervention in Syria caught observers off guard, most experts speculated that should the Minsk II ceasefire collapse, any joint Russian-separatist offensive would most likely target Mariupol, a vital industrial hub. Experts formed this conclusion based primarily on Russia’s construction of multiple forward operating bases (FOBs) on the Russo-Ukrainian border as well as one within Ukraine itself.
Despite the continued presence of Russian forces in Ukraine and a Ukrainian military that is poorly-equipped to deal with a pro-Kremlin offensive, Syria will likely remain Russia’s primary focus in 2016 (Some of the Russian ground troops reportedly fighting in Ukraine come from units that previously served in Ukraine). Though the ISIS attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian commercial airliner over Egypt have pushed Moscow towards working closer with the West, the potential for military confrontation remains. Some reports indicate that despite public claims, the Obama administration remains skeptical of allowing Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s client, to remain president of Syria even temporarily.
Several of U.S. President Obama’s closest military advisers have reportedly left the administration over its confrontational stance with Russia. These include former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General Martin Dempsey and former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director General Michael Flynn, the latter of whom has become publicly critical of the administration’s stance on Russia. As U.S. public opinion becomes more resolute, the U.S. may be forced into action; however, the nature or scope of such action remains unknown. Additionally, opposition to President Assad remaining in power will remain a central debate question for the prospective 2016 presidential candidates, likely fueling calls for action one way or another.
Russia will retain a number of weapons platforms in Syria configured to confront Western military assets through 2016, including air-to-air interceptors, electronic warfare platforms, anti-air (AA) missiles, strategic bombers laden with aircraft carrier-killing cruise missiles, and warships boarded with personal defense weapons and anti-submarine helicopters. Given Turkey’s recent downing of a Russian aircraft and the killing of a Russian marine by rebels equipped with American-made anti-tank missiles (ATMs), the West would be wise to seek cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia in Syria lest it risk relations deteriorating further than they already have.
Putin and United Russia's public support is a well-known phenomenon in the West, and his approval ratings continue to soar despite economic and diplomatic isolation. 2015 got off to a worrisome start after Boris Nemstov, a prominent opposition leader and one of Putin's few serious contenders, was assassinated in the heart of Moscow. Opposition rallies honored Nemstov's memory and railed against Putin, however effected no changes in the political structure. Nemstov's loss and the resulting inaction strongly suggests a continuance of the current political situation throughout 2016.
Muslim communities in Russia's south, namely Dagestan, contributed large numbers of fighters to ISIS - a potential nightmare scenario for the federal establishment. Dagestan, Chechnya, and other regions have a history of violent rebellion and insurgency against Russia, as does Russia have a history of violent suppression of separatist Caucasian groups. ISIS threatens to reignite the conflict over the region, viewing the struggle in Islamic rather than national terms, and the group's willingness to strike at the heart of other nations' capitals no doubt has Moscow on edge.
Since its medieval founding, Russia has been a "middle ground" savaged by both Eastern and Western incursions and domestic upheaval on a scale only matched by China's Cultural Revolution. Time and time again, the Russian population has teetered on obliteration and anarchy, and yet the people have persisted on largely the same course. 2016 will almost certainly be no different, despite opinions that economic hardship may result in social unrest.
Caucasian militants from Syria are faced with a stark choice: come home to execution, or continue the fight overseas. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority are choosing the latter, and reports indicate that those who wish to resist the federal government are actually fighting in Ukraine alongside Ukrainian forces. So long as returning militants are unable to hide within the population and the majority of the population remains relatively placid, ISIS fighters may remain a relative side-issue for Russian internal security on the outside of the North Caucasus. 2016's developments will play a critical role in this regard - a Russian victory against Syrian rebels would propel forces into greater conflict with ISIS, encouraging large-scale attacks on Russia cities similar to those against Paris. The result would no doubt be a crackdown on domestic Muslim populations, straining tensions and fueling insurgency.
That said, the oncoming economic hardship will have notable effects on Russia's domestic situation. The Siloviki, Russia's military elite, will continue to drive foreign policy, however may lose momentum as Russia's failing economy invades the spotlight. As a result, Putin will likely turn back to some of Russia's oligarchs to spur industry, most notably in an effort to diversify exports away from oil and gas and make Russia less reliant on Western imports.
Analysts predict Russia’s economy contracted 3.7 percent in 2015 and the Rouble dropped to 73 to the Dollar – the weakest on record apart from December 2014’s bank run scare. The heaviest blows came early in late 2014 and Q1 2015, most notably Western sanctions and Crude Oil Brent’s slide from 110 to an average of around 60. Oil prices in particular pose a threat to Russia’s stability, as Moscow worked out its 2016 budget on the assumption that prices would remain around USD 50; as of December 31, Brent Crude was trading at 36.85.
2015 exposed deep cracks in Russia’s falling productivity, shrinking labor force, uncompetitive industries, and government corruption’s adverse effects on private enterprises. Capital outflows also continued throughout the year, totaling an estimated USD 87 billion, however stabilized in Q3. Unemployment stayed fairly stable around 5.2 percent, however Russia’s market traditionally adapts by reducing hours and cutting salaries rather than laying off workers. Poverty rose above 14 percent, and citizens are reportedly sticking to much tighter budgets as they brace for the future.
Overall, the sense is that the heaviest blows have landed and the economy, though in a dismal state, should level out. Assuming Brent Crude averages USD 50 throughout the year, analysts expect less than half a percent of estimated economic contraction.
European nations are beginning to question whether to renew sanctions, which could bring both political and economic relief. Russia’s exposed over-reliance on oil exports could also force economic diversification, however previous government efforts to do so were dependent on oil and gas subsidies. Russian citizens will feel their budgets strained, but this is hardly a new experience and support for the regime remains high, reducing the likelihood of any domestic surprises from unrest.
2015 was undoubtably the "year of the hack," but Russia's predominance in cyberwarfare was shadowed by more publicized allegations against China. Russia and China negotiated a cyber pact this year that inextricably links the two nations when it comes to digital affairs, however the exact nature of the intellectual exchange, like many aspects of cybersecurity, remains highly classified. What is certain is that, although China's cyberattacks are more visible, Russian efforts saw successes in more critical networks, the vast majority of which probably remain undiscovered.
Details of Russia's offensive cyber operations revealed to the public imply enormous, and more importantly, stealthy, success. Russia's successes against hardened targets, including banks, the Pentagon, and even the White House, firmly maintained its placement as a top-tier cyber actor. More importantly, Russian non-governmental groups, most notably Kaspersky Labs, continue to reveal and disrupt cyber intrusions attributed to Western governments. The number of options available to organizations like the NSA or GCHQ are no doubt still substantial, but revelations of highly advanced malware are likely beginning to strain the West's options and closing off needed avenues for intelligence collection.
The most defining quality of Russia's cyber operations is its stealth; it is more than likely that Russia successfully breached large numbers of critical networks in 2015, and that many of those breaches remain undiscovered. Furthermore, methodologies like the Epic Turla campaign demonstrate that even when attacks are discovered, it's virtually impossible to link them to the Russian government. 2016 will almost certainly hold firm to these trends, and revealed network breaches will continue to impact high-value government targets. Cyberintelligence represents the most successful and efficient way to collect massive amounts of intelligence; these qualities will spur innovation in the field, however Russia's technical know-how is unlikely to surpass Western governments in 2016, or even within the next several years.
Unlike Western organizations, which (supposedly) operate strictly under government sanction and through government employees, evidence came out that Russia enlists local hackers who operate at will under the condition that they will not attack Russian interests or entities. This employment, which allows Russia to maintain distance from potential accusations, comes with a number of implications: advanced hacking techniques, including those reverse-engineered from revealed Western attacks, and methodologies will proliferate outside of state-sponsored groups, trickling down and into larger populations; and financially motivated hackers will use these techniques against non-government entities, increasing the likelihood of more large-scale breaches similar to Ashley Madison and Sony.