Five big challenges for Russian foreign policy in 2015

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Five big challenges for Russian foreign policy in 2015
Published 9-01-2015, 12:30

Ivan Tsvetkov

Associate Professor of American Studies, International Relations Department, St. Petersburg State University. He is an expert in the field of historical science and contemporary U.S. policy and U.S.-Russian relations. Since 2003, he has been the author and administrator of the educational website “History of the United States: Materials for the course” (

There are five primary factors that will impact Russian foreign policy in the coming year. Chief among these is the potential for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy that is more aggressive towards Russia.

After a tumultuous and crisis-ridden 2014, it is natural to expect 2015 to offer a modicum of respite and a calming of tensions. There is no doubt that Russia, Ukraine and the many other countries that have borne the brunt of religious and ethnic conflicts, economic recession, epidemics and natural disasters will have aspirations to that effect. However, among foreign policy experts, the sad truth is that pessimism prevails.

Yes, it is hoped that the negative emotional strife of this year cannot — and will not — last another 12 months, and a major war in Europe in 2015 will be avoided (not least because of the nuclear deterrents still in place). But the confrontation creeping into international relations is putting patience at a premium. History has no precedent of such phases ever resolving themselves within just a few months, or even a few years. Instead, they tend to drag on for decades until the next "peaceful cycle” sets in.

It is not the first time that Russia, as a global power, has changed the international status quo through its actions, either by heightening the level of confrontation, such as prior to the outbreak of World War I and throughout the Cold War, or defusing it, as a result of its victories over Napoleon and Hitler and Gorbachev’s "new thinking” in the 1980s.

Russia’s perennial inclination to shake the world’s foundations to their core stems from its geopolitical weight that other international players have never been able to properly balance, its "rootless” Eurasian civilization, and the uncertainty of its fate. They all have pushed Russia’s rulers from one extreme to another. It seems that in 2015 the world will once again feel the impact of all these strands of Russian foreign policy.

International politics in 2015 will see a systemic deepening of confrontation. If luck has it, there will be no acute conflicts, rather more distance and less mutual understanding between the key players, as well as a sharp acceleration in the structuring of international relations along "friend or foe” lines.

Without a doubt, the United States and its allies will continue their policy of international isolation in respect to Russia, a policy that started to bear some fruit in 2014. However, it should be kept in mind that Russia is not North Korea, or even Iran. It is hard to ensure international stability and prosperity while at the same time driving one of the great (nuclear) powers into a barbed wire pen.

It is futile to even speculate what the most important foreign policy events of 2015 will be, especially if they are not restricted to major international summits and conferences. However, it is not too difficult to formulate a set of questions relating to foreign policy that the next twelve months will almost certainly need to answer.

Challenge 1: The new direction of U.S. foreign policy

The first challenge concerns the nature of U.S. foreign policy following the election of a Republican-controlled Congress in November 2014. Will the Republicans see eye to eye with the Democratic administration on the key issues? It is worth recalling that, during the Cold War era, bipartisan consensus in opposing the Soviet Union was one of the key ingredients of American success.

If in 2015 the bitter rivalry between the Republicans and Democrats is not supplanted by compromise, the country’s foreign competitors will breathe more easily. What is more, 2015 will be a critical moment for President Barack Obama and his place in the annals of U.S. foreign policy. Before his final metamorphosis into a political lame duck, next year will be the last chance to correct the prevailing image of him as an ineffectual president.

Challenge 2: Russia’s response to economic crisis

The second challenge to consider is what strategy Russian President Vladimir Putin will opt for in response to his nation’s deepening economic crisis. Will he seek a "frozen” conflict in Ukraine, or actively look for a diplomatic settlement with the West? Or, faced with the intractability of European partners and the U.S., will he risk all by pursuing a radical military solution?

At present there is a clear desire to follow the first path, but a further worsening of the economic situation and more domestic political destabilization, coupled with a tightening of the sanctions noose, could alter the Kremlin’s political calculations.

Challenge 3: China’s foreign policy

The third issue relates to the nature of China’s foreign policy. In 2014, Xi Jinping showed mixed intentions, making it clear that his country is becoming constrained by the foreign policy bequeathed by Deng Xiaoping, yet continuing to work towards normalizing relations with disgruntled neighbors, including Japan.

The most important sign of the seriousness of Beijing’s foreign policy intentions in 2015 could be the part it plays in rescuing the Russian economy. If the severity of the crisis does indeed require such assistance (which several Chinese policy makers have already stated they would be willing to provide), it would mark a major shift in the world order, comparable in scale to the end of the Cold War.

Challenge 4: European unity

The fourth challenge to address is whether Europe will retain its unity (at least for the sake of appearances) on Ukraine, or whether disgruntlement with the United States and each other, combined with Russia’s persistent diplomatic efforts, will eventually drive a wedge between the Europeans. Much will depend on the state of the economy, political events (such as Britain’s general election in May 2015) and the outcome of negotiations with the U.S. on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The publication of the final results of the investigation into the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 could also weigh heavily on European unity.

Challenge 5: The uncertainty around ISIS

The fifth and final question (although the list could run much longer) is how the situation will evolve with Islamic State and whether it is prevented from expanding its geographical scope of influence and, more importantly, from creating a new terrorist network structure in the mold of al-Qaeda, but with even greater destructive potential. It should be kept in mind that al-Qaeda operated at the peak of its influence when the world’s major powers, including Russia and China, were partners in the fight against terrorism.

One against all, all against one

As world politics enters a new confrontational phase, such partner relations are being squeezed out. This could in turn produce a malign multiplier effect, exacerbating standalone problems — from the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the Ebola pandemic, since instead of seeking joint solutions the sides in the global conflict will try to exploit such issues to weaken and discredit their competitors. Viewed from this perspective, experts in the field of international relations will clearly have plenty to chew on next year.

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