Russia and Eurasia

The next five years will see the Russian leadership continue its effort to restore Russia’s great-power status through military modernization, foreign engagements that seek to extend Russian influence and limit Western influence, nuclear saber rattling, and increased nationalism. Moscow remains insecure in its worldview and will move when it believes it needs to protect Russia’s national interests—as in Ukraine in 2014—or to bolster its influence further afield, as in Syria. Such efforts have enabled President Putin to maintain popular support at home despite difficult economic conditions and sanctions, and he will continue to rely on coercive measures and information control to quash public dissent. Moscow will also continue to use anti-Western rhetoric—and a nationalist ideology that evokes the imperial and moral strength of the Russian people—to manage domestic vulnerability and advance its interests.

The Kremlin’s ideology, policies, and structures—and its control of the economy—enjoy elite and popular support, notwithstanding significant repression of civil society and minorities.

  • This amalgam of authoritarianism, corruption, and nationalism represents an alternative to Western liberalism that many of the world’s remaining autocrats and revisionists find appealing. In Moscow’s view, liberalism is synonymous with disorder and moral decay, and pro-democracy movements and electoral experiments are Western plots to weaken traditional bulwarks of order and the Russian state. To counter Western attempts to weaken and isolate Russia, Moscow will accommodate Beijing’s rise in the near term but ultimately will balk before becoming junior partner to China—which would run counter to Russia’s great power self-image.

Russian insecurity, disappointment, and distrust of the liberal global order are firmly rooted in the simultaneous enlargement of NATO and the European Union (EU) following the Cold War, motivating its actions abroad; its use of “gray zone” military tactics, which deliberately blur conditions of war and peace, is likely to continue. Russia’s various moves in recent years, however—in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, and via support to far-right populist parties in Europe—raise three important questions:

Which of the principles of international order from the 20th century will Russia support in the 21st century?

How far will Russia go in championing a “Russian world,” playing up the centrality of Russian civilization and the rejection of Western liberal values?

What, if any, challenges to the current political borders in Eurasia will Russia pose in defending its perceived sphere of influence?

Geopolitical Relevance of Region in Next Five Years: Revisionism, Again. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy will be a source of considerable volatility in the next five years. Moscow almost certainly will continue to seek territorial buffer zones on its borders, including in the Arctic, and to protect sympathetic authoritarian governments, particularly along its periphery. This assertiveness will harden anti-Russian views in the Baltics and parts of Eastern Europe, heightening the risk of conflict. Moscow will cooperate internationally in ways that enhance Russia’s geopolitical influence and encourage progress on issues of importance to the Kremlin, such as nuclear nonproliferation, while challenging norms and rules it perceives as inimical to its interests. Moscow believes it has little stake in the rules of the global economy and—even though a tepid economy will remain a source of strategic weakness—will take actions to weaken US and European influence over them. Moscow will test NATO and European resolve, seeking to undermine Western credibility; it will try to exploit splits between Europe’s north and south and to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.

  • The Putin government will continue to give priority to military spending and force modernization, with an emphasis on strategic deterrence, even in the face of economic stagnation or recession.
  • Russia will continue to react to NATO deterrence measures and an increased military presence—even if not permanent—in the Baltics and Central Europe. Moscow will also remain highly sensitive to US engagement in those regions, which Moscow sees as within its rightful sphere of influence.
  • Russia’s robust cyber operations almost certainly will pose an increasing threat to the West as it seeks to reduce dependence on Western technology and to improve its indirect and asymmetric warfare capabilities.
  • Given the centrality of the United States to global affairs, Russia will also continue to devote resources to efforts to shift US policies in its own favor.

If Moscow’s tactics falter, its geopolitical influence may steadily fade, and Russia may suffer domestic instability. On both counts, the adverse economic outlook—lower oil prices, Western sanctions, stagnant productivity, poor demographics, chronic brain drain migration problems, and inability to diversify into high-tech sectors—is likely to undercut Moscow’s ambitions in the long term. Economic and political reform—the usual remedy for such problems—will not be forthcoming in Putin’s Russia.

  • A further decline in status might result in more, rather than less, aggressive international conduct, although growing economic constraints and a desire to avoid overextension ultimately could temper Putin’s foreign policy capacity, if not his ambitions.
  • Nevertheless, the Russian population has shown resolve in the face of harsh conditions and may not abandon Putin. To the extent that the Kremlin can continue to bolster the people’s faith in Russia’s greatness, large-scale revolt may be kept at bay.

Other Considerations: Eurasia. Like Russia, many Eurasian governments emphasize control over reform and suffer from poor economic performance and corruption. They are also highly vulnerable to Russian influence—including dependence on Russian remittances, propaganda, and military and cultural ties. Reliance on Moscow, brittle political institutions, high levels of corruption, and public repression raise the risk of Ukraine-style collapses in the region. In this context, three potentially transformative developments will become evident in the next five years:

  • Increased Chinese involvement in the region, through investment, infrastructure development, and migration into Central Asia, as showcased in Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative, will test Russia’s willingness to accommodate China’s great power ambitions. China’s interests in the region will remain predominantly economic, but political and security objectives may become stronger if Beijing encounters intensifying domestic extremism. Russia—having little to offer economically other than raw materials, military technology, and migrant labor opportunities despite its Eurasian Economic Union initiative—will seek to deepen political and security integration in the region, potentially putting the countries at odds.
  • Resolution of the Ukraine conflict would have repercussions across the region. A Western-oriented Ukraine reducing the systemic corruption that has plagued the country since its independence in 1991 and implementing reforms that produce at least modest growth would serve as a powerful counterexample to today’s Russia. If Russia’s intervention in the Donbas region led to economic and political failure in Ukraine, however, it might strengthen authoritarian systems across the region and weaken the resolve of those states looking to pursue a Western trajectory.
  • Russia will continue to seek to destabilize any Ukrainian government that attempts to integrate itself into the West through the EU or NATO. Moscow will also continue to use a range of measures—from financial incentives for friendly governments to support for political parties and an active campaign of disinformation, through to military intervention—to support anti-Western forces in other states in the region.
  • Leadership transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan —long functioning as anchors of stability in Central Asia—will cause concern in Moscow. The successions are unlikely to lead to dramatic changes in how these countries are ruled, but prolonged elite infighting could raise the potential for destabilizing crises, creating security vacuums that Islamic extremists would be tempted to exploit.
Infographic - Russia's Population Projection of 135,674,000 in 2035

aEstimates for religious affiliation are based on data from the World Religion Database and are rounded to the nearest one-tenth of a percent.

bTotal Fertility Rate is the projected average number of children born to a woman if she lives to the end of her childbearing years.

Note: Demographic data is presented for countries estimated to have the largest population in each region in 2035.