Farid Hajili Analysis 8 January 2019

As we are nearing the first decade of January 2019, we can for sure predict what challenges the year will bode for Russia. Neither the European Union nor omnipotent America nor the eternally reckless Middle East will be insured against trouble along with Russia. The rules of the global game change rapidly and Russia is alerted to keep pace with them lest it is left on the sidelines. Which of the impending challenges will prove the most troublesome for Russia?

The key trend of 2019 will be Russia's endeavour to recognise the changes that have occurred internationally. "The West is a very influential part of the world. But we lack ideas of how to build relations with it in the present specific situation and in the upcoming period, which will be no easier," Fyodor Lukyanov, chief of the Foreign and Defence Policy Council, believes.

Moscow is to get accustomed to the unpleasant reality that it is becoming increasingly less interesting to the West, it will simply be warily by-passed and ignored. Russia has yet to fully understand that nothing will happen in this area and that attention shouldn't even be paid to this or time and efforts to be wasted. It is for this reason that experts believe that the United States treats the possibility of summits with Russia so airily.
What changes in relations with other world players should Russia recognize? What may be expected of Moscow’s closest neighbours?

Pundit Lukyanov is convinced that in 2019, as in 2018, the world's attention will be focused on events unfolding around the U.S.A. "First, its internal investigation. Donald Trump, at least for the next couple of months, will have to withstand a most potent attack from the new U.S. Congress's House of Representatives and Special Prosecutor Mueller's investigation. But even in spite of the domestic circumstances, Washington and the president will continue to determine the global situation. Everyone else will be reacting to this one way or another," the pundit says.

Under these conditions, it will have to develop the policy which it mapped out in 2018, around China particularly. In his opinion, the dynamics of American-Chinese relations are fundamental. China will have to understand how to behave in response to the continuing U.S. pressure. "Trump is implementing this policy very consistently, and, by and large, it enjoys support both in the United States and in Europe. China has no one to count on particularly in this respect," the pundit says.

"Relations between America and Europe will not improve. The U.S. has clearly set America First and is acting in personal sovereign interests," he opined. The year 2018 showed that the Old World is not ready for the challenges the EU countries encountered. Problems with immigration policy are not yet resolved. Many countries, particularly from the Eastern bloc, are refusing to accept the refugee quotas imposed by Brussels.
Britain's decision to quit the EU has run into severe contradictions within the country itself. This has put Premier Theresa May, who has become a hostage of Brexit, in jeopardy.

Germany - one of the most powerful countries of the European Union - has encountered unprecedented pressure on the part of the U.S and its allies. Berlin is literally being barred from maintaining economic ties with Moscow and from participating in the laying of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. All these events clearly suggest what the next year will be like and what to expect of it.

Not all is smooth in the south of the continent either. You don't have to be a Nostradamus to divine further discord between the Italian government of "friends of Putin" and European Commission bureaucrats. "Italy is increasingly becoming the leader of the southern European countries, which are unhappy with the policy of Brussels. Economic shocks await us there," the German expert forecasts.

Rahr sees as the general trend of 2019 the collective West finding itself in self-defence. "Liberal values are experiencing disturbing pressure. Self-defence also means a siege. Meaning continued accusations against Russia, which allegedly wants to undermine the West and is attempting by hacker attacks to disunite the countries of the West and run down politicians in the eyes of the EU citizenry. All this will only intensify," the German expert said.

"Europe is in a weak position. Europe could be weakened by the elections to the European Parliament, which will be elected by the entire citizenry next May," Rahr points out. He emphasised that there are among the elite’s big fears that rightist forces will achieve a serious result at these elections, and the centrists will lose influence, which "will be reflected in the top EU leadership." The upcoming elections "will be a powerful symbolic step, a large and influential faction of those who are essentially against it will appear in the European Parliament," Fyodor Lukyanov forecasts.

Ukraine will supply the news leads. Even if the presidential election is not cancelled and there is no "third Maydan" or something else out of the ordinary there, the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a challenge for neighbours included.

"I believe that Kiev and American strategists will most likely continue the policy of maintenance of the low-effectiveness conflict, sail close to the wind, create provocation and awkward situations and create 'information funnels' negative for Moscow, but will refrain from involvement in full-scale combat operations," political analyst Mikhail Remizov, president of the National Strategy Institute, said.

"A reason for this is that Kiev's reserve of strength is greater both socio-psychologically and socio-economically than for the self-proclaimed republics of the Donets Basin (Donbass) at this time, to our great regret," the expert believes. He thinks that time is against the present situation, against Donetsk and Luhansk.

For the United States also maintenance of this "smouldering" conflict is not only an acceptable but also a propitious scenario, Remizov maintains. "Moscow is more concerned for a resolution of the situation, in my view. But Moscow continues to occupy a wait-and-see position. Whether it changes or not, many people are awaiting the start-up of Nord Stream 2, which could, presumably, expand freedom of manoeuvre for Russian diplomacy. Maybe this is to some extent true, but there will be more clarity here in 2019 than at this time," the expert argues.

Ukraine is not the sole centre of conflict which poses a threat to Russia and through which pressure will be put on Russia's weak spots, Remizov believes. "The Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh remains another such centre. Its exacerbation, owing to this adverse period in Russian-American relations included, cannot be ruled out," the expert believes.

He believes that a favourable opportunity for "raking the coals on this bonfire" is emerging for Azerbaijan. "An escalation in this area is primarily a threat to Moscow's military integration structures because any position - both the support of Armenia and abandonment of this support - is a blow to the CSTO," Remizov believes.

"Support of Armenia is a blow to the CSTO owing to the manifest, strongly-worded disagreement with such a policy of Kazakhstan and Belarus." Abandonment of support could devalue the CSTO as an entity presupposing allied security guarantees.

"Another point of vulnerability for Moscow is the Dniester region," the expert points out. "Here also the keys to control of the conflict are in the hands of other capitals, Russia has few levers for influencing the situation and quite little room for manoeuvre. There could be an escalation in this area also."

Relations with our immediate neighbours - Belarus and Kazakhstan - are developing unfavourably," Remizov voices his fears. "In both cases, we are seeing a geopolitical drift away from Russia. Kazakhstan is increasingly making it understood that it sees itself as part of the Turkic world, making no secret of its irritation with many elements of Russian policy, from Crimea to Syria," the source believes.

"Both Lukashenko and Nazarbayev were in at the start of the integration processes on the post-Soviet territory.... But today both leaders have made a choice in the direction of drift toward other centres of power and influence," the expert states. This geopolitical drift of Belarus and Kazakhstan is the key long-term challenge on the post-Soviet territory, Remizov sums up.