On the RD website, articles that analyzed Russian military involvement in Syria and the changing geopolitical dimensions of the Middle East were among the most popular of the year.

As the pressure on President Obama grows inside the Administration, he may be forced to change his Russia policy. Photo: White House / Pete Spuza

Throughout 2015, Russia managed to insert itself into just about every major foreign policy story of the year. By mid-year, focus on the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine began to shift to concerns about growing volatility in the Middle East. By the end of the year, Russian military intervention in Syria and the fate of Syrian leader Bashar Assad was by far the leading foreign policy story in Washington, Brussels and Moscow.

However, a host of other important foreign policy events also played out over the year – Russia’s diplomatic initiatives to counteract what it saw as Western attempts to isolate it on the world stage, the new pivot to Asia marked by the appearance of Xi Jinping in Moscow for Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, the spread of the Islamic State of Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and radical Islamist terror to European shores, and Russia’s foreign policy maneuvering around the lifting of sanctions on Iran. By the end of the year, the shoot-down of a Russian military warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border threatened to complicate the outlook for the Middle East even more.

Below, we present our most popular articles of the year. Taken together, they represent our most popular articles about Russia and its foreign policy. Interestingly, some of these articles were exactly those that examined possible ways that Russia and the West might find some form of fragile rapprochement despite a clear difference of opinions on many geopolitical issues.

#1: There is no Europe without Russia and no Russia without Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Photo: AP

Our most popular article of the year was an interview with Walter Schwimmer, a prominent Austrian politician and Secretary General of the Council of Europe from 1999-2004, who shared his views on what Russia should do next in order to find common ground with the nations of Europe.

As Schwimmer argues, it’s too simplistic an argument to say that Russia must choose either Europe or Asia. Instead, Schwimmer raises the prospect of “a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific” that would include Russia. Quite simply, says Schwimmer, there is no Europe without Russia and no Russia without Europe. That means there is a real need to find a common ground for cooperation between the new Eurasian Union and the European Union.

Read the full article here.

#2: Bilateral exchanges are the key to the future of Russian Studies in the US

One of the central problem in Russia Studies in the U.S. is theory is dictating reality, but everyday experience tells a different story. Photo: AP

In support of our report that ranked the top U.S. Russian Studies programs – by far our most popular monthly report of the year - Russia Direct conducted a panel discussion that brought together academics, experts and students to discuss the future of Russian Studies in the U.S. during a time of deep crisis in U.S.-Russia relations.

One idea that was raised again and again was the prospect of bilateral exchanges – academic, scientific and cultural – to smooth over tensions between the two nations. There appears to be one clear takeaway: the youngest generation of Russian Studies experts, who did not grow up under the constant threat of the Cold War, have a much different view of the world than politicians in Washington and Moscow might assume.

Read the full article here.

#3: Two reasons why ISIS claims to have downed a Russian airliner

Russian EMERCOM head Vladimir Puchkov, background fourth left, examines the fragments of the Airbus A321 that was carrying out Kogalymavia Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, on the crash site 100 km south of El Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Photo: RIA Novosti

The tragic crash of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt – a crash that was later determined by the Russian authorities to have been the result of a terrorist attack, became part of a broader information war between Russia and ISIS brought on by Russia’s expanding involvement in the Middle East.

The main objective of the terrorists is to sow fear, wrote Sergey Markedonov, and fear is multiplied by misunderstanding. Through this approach they seek to impose their own vision and interpretation by showing that they are the ones in charge. Ultimately, modern terrorist networks are not only about attacks and explosions, but also about seizing control (or at least gaining influence) over the information space.

Read the full article here.

#4: What's next for US-Russia relations in 2015?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (centre left) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry (centre rignt) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Indonesia's Bali on October 7, 2013. Photo: AFP

One consistent theme that resonated with RD readers throughout the year was the need to maintain open dialogue between Moscow and Washington. While small steps towards bilateral dialogue started mid-year, the first real results of that dialogue appeared to be the growing acceptance by the U.S. of Russian President Vladimir Putin at international summits, and then the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow in December.

In this article, top experts in Russia and U.S. gave their take on what to expect from the U.S.-Russia relationship in 2015. Not surprisingly, when it came to relations between the two countries in 2015, expert forecasts were not overly optimistic. However, all recognized the importance of maintaining at least a minimum level of dialogue between Moscow and Washington.

Read the full article here.

#5: Russia ready to help investigate multiple terror attacks in Paris

Elite police officers arrive outside the Bataclan theater in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Several dozen people were killed in a series of unprecedented attacks around Paris on Friday. Photo: AP

In response to a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, Russia expressed its solidarity with the West and promised to contribute to the investigation. Coming just days after the downing of the Russian passenger jet over Egypt, the Paris attacks served to reaffirm the historical link between Russia and Europe and the sharing of common values.

Read the full article here.

#6: Syria 2015: Echoes of Afghanistan 1979?

A child inspects a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar el-Asaad at Arbin town in Damascus countryside. Photo: Reuters

In the aftermath of Russian airstrikes against ISIS, there were prominent warnings that Syria could be to Russia what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union – a quagmire from which there was no easy exit. But is that really the case? Sergey Markedonov explores why the Syria-Afghanistan parallel, while superficially attractive, fails to explain what’s at stake in Syria.

Read the full article here.

#7: The Kremlin's Syria gamble is risky, but could have a big payoff

Russian Sukhoi Su-24 tactical bombers at an airfield near Latakia, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

Andrei Tsygankov argues that Putin’s decision to bomb ISIS in Syria is a calculated risk designed to break Russia’s isolation from the West and prevent radical Islamic elements from further destabilizing the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

In short, it’s a high-risk, high-reward gamble. As the year came to a close, there was growing concern that Russia might have to raise the stakes once more in Syria, either by further military collaboration with states such as Iran, or by committing more military resources to the Syrian conflict.

Read the full article here.

#8: Will Russia contribute to solving Syria's refugee crisis?

Syrian displaced children play in a refugee camp near Atma, Idlib province, Syria. Photo: AP

With Europe facing its biggest refugee crisis in recent history, both refugees and the organizations aiding them are asking the question of whether Russia should play a greater role in alleviating the problem. 

In this article, we explored how Russia was responding to the Syrian refugee crisis by highlighting the plight of a 40-year-old Syrian Muslim, who — after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 — found himself in Moscow, attempting to wait out the worst of the civil war’s atrocities.

Read the full article here.

#9: Russia is now monitoring the world’s mass media for bias

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

The information war between Russia and the West – especially when it comes to describing what is happening in Ukraine and Syria – was one of the consistent themes of the year. While many of Russia’s early efforts to “win” this information war appeared to be clumsy propaganda, there does appear to be a growing sophistication to the Russian message.

Take, for example, a new Russian media index designed to measure the amount of anti-Russian bias in the mass media. The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank established by the Russian President in 1992, introduced its first-ever World Mass Media Hostility Index, which measures potential anti-Russian bias in the media publications of different countries, and then assigns each country an overall score.

The main goal of the index is rank how friendly countries are to Russia by analyzing their mass media content. It aims to identify the states that exercise the most aggressive media policy towards Russia and threaten its “information security.”

Read the full article here.

#10: Why Russia won't be able to modernize economy in times of crisis

Alexander Auzan: "When people talk about the “innovation storm,” it should be remembered that for wide-scale innovations to emerge, difficult circumstances are not enough. You need a sound institutional environmen". Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia’s ongoing efforts to deal with a host of difficult economic concerns – Western sanctions, the devaluation of the ruble and falling oil prices – made the Russian economy a source of reader interest throughout the year. While the economy is inherently a domestic issue in many countries, in Russia, that logic is distorted by the nation’s reliance on oil and gas as a powerful instrument of foreign policy.

In this interview, Alexander Auzan, dean and professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University's Faculty of Economics, discusses the major challenges facing Russia's economy, including a potential brain drain, slumping oil prices and the difficulties of modernizing an economy dependent on natural resources.

Read the full article here.