Russia may have something to look forward to in 2017. For the past three years, the country has suffered numerous strategic setbacks and faced significant pressure from the West. The 2014 Euromaidan uprising in Kiev ushered in a period of increased cooperation between Ukraine, the European Union and NATO. Other strategic countries along Russia’s periphery, such as Moldova and Georgia, followed suit as U.S. and NATO forces expanded their presence and activities along the borderlands from Poland to the Baltics to Romania.
At the same time, the United States and the European Union imposed and continuously extended sanctions against the country for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This put added strain on Russia’s economy, which plunged into recession after oil prices crashed in mid-2014. To finagle a seat at the negotiating table with the West — and the United States in particular — Russia got involved in the conflict in Syria. The strategy has so far failed to yield the grand bargain that Moscow was hoping for on contentious issues such as the conflict in Ukraine. But 2017 could herald a new phase for Russia’s standoff with the West.
An Opportunity for Change
Over the past year, mounting tensions have exposed the cracks in the united Western front against Russia. The Brexit vote revealed deep rifts in the European Union, and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election may portend a break in Washington’s policy toward Moscow. Elections across Europe in 2017 — in France, the Netherlands, Germany and possibly Italy — could further widen the divides in the Continental bloc and challenge the future of European integration.
For Russia, the West’s looming struggles in the coming year present an opportunity. Moscow has worked to exploit and in some cases influence the dynamics in the European Union and United States to undermine Western unity through propaganda campaigns, cyberattacks and political maneuvering. Russia will likely intensify these efforts in 2017, making the most of the discord in the West to achieve its aims, such as an adjustment or end to the U.S. and EU sanctions regimes. The recent loyalist advances in Syria, meanwhile, could improve the Kremlin’s position to negotiate with the Trump administration over a range of issues.
Closer to home, these changes will enable Russia to recoup some of its influence in the former Soviet periphery. Given the upheaval in the European Union, the bloc will be hesitant to move forward with proceedings to accede new members in 2017. As their prospects for integration with the European Union and NATO stall and perhaps fall apart in the coming year, countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will re-evaluate their relationship with Russia. In fact, in its recent presidential vote Moldova elected Igor Dodon, a candidate who has pledged to increase ties to Moscow and review the country’s EU integration efforts. Though Ukraine and Georgia are unlikely to follow suit, they may well take a more pragmatic approach to Russia, increasing trade ties to the country and compromising over the status of their breakaway territories.
Moscow will probably also gain influence in states such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, which have maintained their neutrality toward Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed. Moscow recently signed agreements to expand its military cooperation with each country. Though the deals do not signify a strategic realignment for Baku or Tashkent, they will nevertheless increase Russia’s sway in these countries. Moscow will also try to assume a more active role in ensuring Central Asia’s security in the coming year as the historically stable region reckons with a variety of challenges.
Even former Soviet countries already aligned with Moscow — including Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — will probably redouble their cooperation with Russia in the coming year. Many of these countries have already signed agreements with Moscow to deepen integration in the security sphere. The growing strife in the European Union, moreover, will discourage countries such as Belarus and Armenia from trying to further increase their bilateral relations with the bloc. Consequently, the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization — Russia’s primary blocs — could become more active in 2017 after languishing over the past two years.
A Limited Resurgence
Despite the promise that the new year holds for Moscow, however, Russia’s comeback is far from guaranteed. Because the United States and NATO are unlikely to withdraw from the European borderlands completely, Russia will not have free reign over Eurasia. Furthermore, various parties in the United States and European Union will contest the removal or easing of sanctions against Moscow. Facing the prospect of diminished support from the West, Ukraine and Georgia may look to build their own blocs with nearby countries such as Poland and Turkey for reinforcement against Moscow. Russia, meanwhile, will be cautious not to act too aggressively in its borderlands as it contends with lingering economic and political problems at home.
These factors will keep Russia from taking full advantage of the turmoil and uncertainty in the West as their standoff stretches into a new year. Nonetheless, the country could make significant headway in its negotiations with the West and in its former sphere of influence in 2017.