Uncertainties and False Certainties in 2019

Every year, analysts from the Valdai Club, MGIMO University and the Eurasian Strategies Consulting prepare their forecasts on the main global threats for the following year. It is time to see if their forecasts for 2018 have materialized.

Last year, we correctly forecast six global trends. The first trend is the continued rise of populism and the strengthening of the centrifugal forces in the EU. There is evicence of this in the ongoing Brexit process and the results of the elections held in the EU countries. The second forecast concerned the crisis of power in Saudi Arabia. We wrote that the ambitions of the Crown Prince would destabilize the country. Third, it was a bad year for Russian-US relations, just as we forecast, because the Congress prevented President Donald Trump from making any positive moves towards Russia. Fourth, we predicted that the situation in Ukraine would become increasingly uncontrollable and that President Poroshenko would be ready to stage dangerous experiments and provocations to ensure his reelection. Fifth, we were right in forecasting Russia’s continued military presence in the Middle East. And lastly, we forecast the increasing technological rivalry between the United States and China.

On the other hand, we did not foresee several major international events, which came as a big surprise. The first such event was the revolutionary change of government in Armenia. Although we did not predict the Armenian revolution and the ensuing differences between the Russian and Armenian elites, we correctly pointed out communication problems among the different generations of the post-Soviet elites.

Second, we did not expect the poisoning of the Skripals or the provocation in the Kerch Strait. But such events cannot be foreseen. Other strategic surprises were the worsening of Russia-Israel relations over the downing of a Russian aircraft in Syria, the US decision to pull out of the INF Treaty and the religious crisis in Ukraine.

Imperialism, Geopolitics and Religion: The Split Between Moscow and Constantinople
Dimitris Konstantakopoulos
A very serious rift regarding Ukraine is now developing between the Ecumenical (Universal) Patriarchate of Constantinople and the biggest and more powerful among the Orthodox Christian Churches, the Russian one.
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It is notable that not only destructive but also strategically positive events took place in 2018. For example, a political thaw in Uzbekistan has led to the intensification of Russian-Uzbek relations. Other positive examples include the maintenance of peace in Nagorno-Karabakh and the easing of tension on the Korean Peninsula, despite a high probability of war in these two regions.

What possible uncertainties do we expect in 2019? Predicting the future of international developments depends on two things: overcoming uncertainty and resisting illusions based on false certainties, that is, our long-held views on political circumstances.

Our main forecast for 2019 has to do with a possible escalation of the situation around the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which has been compounded with the religious divide and Poroshenko’s political experiments. Russia must do its utmost to minimize the influence of Ukrainian developments on itself.

Second, we expect US-Chinese differences to intensify in East Asia. President Trump has been consistently attacking China’s trade and economic policies. The US intention to pull out of the INF Treaty with Russia is primarily connected with China’s missile program because Chinese warheads are carried mostly by intermediate- and shorter-range missiles. The United States will withdraw from the INF Treaty in 2019 and will likely increase its military presence in East Asia.

Death of the INF Treaty
Robert Legvold
The death of the INF treaty is but a last piece in the story of how the half-century effort to control nuclear weapons and stabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship perished. When the INF treaty disappears, as key members of the Trump Administration are keen to see, the way that it ends will almost certainly spell the end to U.S.-Russian strategic arms control.
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Third, the subject of Russia’s alleged interference in US elections will be put on the back burner. The upcoming publication of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which will include information about contacts between certain Russian citizens and members of the US administration, will disprove the allegation of collusion between Moscow and Trump’s team.

Fourth, we expect trade and economic relations between the EU and Iran to improve despite the US sanctions. Sanctions are becoming a new standard of international relations alongside trade restrictions and tariff barriers.

Fifth, we forecast an increased populist presence in the next European parliament in 2019. East European candidates will criticize the current model of European integration, whereas West European candidates will argue increasingly actively that Western Europe is not obliged to pay the bills of the poor EU countries.

Sixth, Nord Stream 2 will be successfully completed. German businesses and Chancellor Merkel personally are clearly interested in this project, while the resistance of the United States, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine is not strong enough to prevent its implementation. The project has survived numerous provocations, including the Skripal case and the incident in the Kerch Strait. The German establishment is coming to see that the United States is an unpredictable partner who tends to put pressure on its allies and Germany is hence in a situation comparable to Russia in terms of the difficulties this may create.

Nord Stream 2:The Last Rubicon for the Liberal Order
Nora Topor Kalinskij
The European Parliament passed a resolution last Wednesday calling for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project to be cancelled. This statement came a day after the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in favour of sanctions against the pipeline project. Yet at this stage, only a force majeure could stop the completion of Nord Stream 2.
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Seventh, the war in Syria will end, opening the door to the country’s reconstruction. The planned Syria donor conference will bring together the leading regional forces, which will coordinate and launch the transition from martial law to peaceful life in Syria.

Our eighth prediction has to do with expectations of political crises in Western Europe, primarily the UK and France. The expected crisis in the UK will be provoked by the ambivalent Brexit policy, which has already resulted in the resignation of several key ministers from Theresa May’s government. A second Brexit referendum is still possible but will hardly be decisive. Taken together, these events could provoke a constitutional crisis, new elections and a change of government.

France’s problems are rooted in confrontation between President Emmanuel Macron and sections of the population that have been badly affected by his reforms. These groups could serve as the core for a new populist coalition. A potential paralysis of the executive branch and early elections could further unbalance the wobbly position of the French prime minister.

Overall, we expect 2019 to be an extremely difficult year for Russia’s foreign policy. The negative impact of the sanctions will continue. There is no reason to expect any breakthrough in the key areas of Russian-US relations. In this situation, it is important that other countries begin to regard Russia as a more reliable partner than the United States.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.