‘Russia is doomed’ is a common refrain of newspaper articles and think tank reports. It is quite refreshing, therefore, to read something which while not entirely optimistic about Russia’s immediate future is nonetheless a little more circumspect. A new report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), entitled 2018 Security Outlook: Risks and Threats, aims ‘to explore the drivers influencing the security risks and potential threats related to specific regions of the world and themes by the year 2018.’ According to the introduction, ‘five leading global thinkers were commissioned’ to write about China, the Middle East, Russia, weapons of mass destruction, and ‘state power and cyber power’. CSIS doesn’t reveal who these ‘leading global thinkers’ are, but the one responsible for the chapter on Russia has produced 15 pages of sober analysis without any of the hyperbole normally associated with the subject.
The chapter begins by noting that ‘Pessimism characterises much Western analysis of Russian futures,’ and states that ‘the consensus appears to be that the future is alarming.’ However, it then lays out a far less negative picture, stating at the end of the introductory segment that ‘the [Russian] government’s long term family development and transport policies have shown some sign of success … Serious health problems … have substantially declined … [and immigration] is likely to sustain Russian population growth.’
After this, the chapter discusses three so-called ‘mega-trends’ which will determine Russia’s condition in 2018.
The first mega-trend is the economy. The chapter states that Russia ‘faces a wide range of problems’, and that security concerns are having an ever greater influence on economic policy. This is resulting in greater defence spending, import substitution, and increased Kremlin ‘control over macroeconomic policy.’ The chapter suggests that there is considerable ‘potential for at least the partial reversal of either liberalisation [or] international integration.’ Nevertheless, it concludes that these factors are unlikely to substantially alter the trajectory of the Russian economy, which ‘is more likely to slowly adapt to the adverse environment.’ The economy will probably move ‘firmly into positive territory in 2017 with growth of 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent in 2018.’
The second mega-trend is Russian domestic politics. The report says that the ruling United Russia party will probably do well in the forthcoming Duma elections. Although minor changes in personnel in the government are likely in the next two years, major changes in Russian politics are not. Theoretically, terrorism and social protest could produce significant changes in the political environment, but in practice are most unlikely to do so. The chapter therefore concludes that, ‘despite potential influences, the push and shove of political life, and some contradictions within the system, the main trend in Russian domestic politics is one of evolving consolidation.’
The third mega-trend is ‘Russia on the world stage.’ The chapter notes that Russia would like to improve its relations with the West and ‘there are strong lobbies, particularly in continental Europe, who seek to stabilise relations with Russia.’ But there are too many points of contention between Russia and the West to permit the two sides to draw closer together in the near future. In the face of ‘considerable turbulence and insecurity’ brought about by ‘Western regime change operations’ and ‘increasing competition between states over resources and values’, Russia will continue to act assertively to defend its interests. The chapter concludes that ‘the Russian leadership shows little sign of softening its position, even under economic duress. Quite to the contrary … Russia responded not by changing course, but by reinforcing it.’
Since 2014, Western policy has been to sanction Russia in an effort to undermine its economy, weaken its political leadership, and encourage a change in Russian foreign policy. If the analysis in the CSIS report is correct, none of these objectives are likely to be achieved. By 2018, the Russian economy will once again be growing; the ‘Putin regime’ will have further consolidated its power; and Russia will still be pursuing an independent line in defence of its interests. The CSIS report does not draw any policy conclusions – that is not the role of intelligence agencies – but the conclusions seem fairly clear: current Western policy is failing and will probably continue to fail; a new policy is needed.