As 2016 comes to an end, pundits are coming up with gloomy forecasts for 2017 based on the wide range of geopolitical threats currently facing Russia and the world.

A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with a mural of the Islamic State in the background, stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria. Photo: Reuters

The key global trend in 2017 will be the development of Russian-American relations under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the impact of this relationship on other regions. This is the conclusion Russian pundits came up with in a recent report prepared by the Foreign Policy Advisory Group, which took a closer look at international threats facing the world.

According to these experts, the readiness of Washington and Moscow to reach a compromise will determine whether the Western sanctions imposed on Russia will be lifted, as well as whether or not the Kremlin and the White House will be able to team up to fight international terrorism in Syria and Iraq and resolve the regional problems in the post-Soviet space.

In 2017, other global threats might emanate from countries such as Saudi Arabia (where the regime might be destabilized) and Indonesia (which might face the risk of collapse). There is also the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. These threats are typically referred to as “black swans,” or low probability, high-impact events. Yet, according to the experts, it is necessary to spread awareness about them to provoke discussion among observers and those interested in global politics.

The key question in this debate is what kind of measures global leaders should undertake to prevent these threats or alleviate the implications, if their gloomy forecasts come true.

“Today’s world has stopped developing in a linear way, with the present no longer being the result of the past,” said one of the authors of the report, Andrei Sushentsov, the director of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group. “The key trend in international relations is uncertainty.”

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U.S.-Russia relations

The authors of the report primarily focus on the key trends in the international agenda, including the future of U.S.-Russia relations under Trump and how these relations will reshape the global landscape. According to Tatiana Shakleina, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), Washington’s policy toward Moscow will be pivotal in 2017.

“The key questions are if the U.S. will change the paradigm of its foreign policy and if a new American political elite, despite its inclinations, will be able to change the state’s foreign policy foundations,” she said during the presentation the Foreign Policy Advisory Group’s report. “So far the situation is ambiguous and there are no grounds to change the political course.”

At the same time, the authors of the report argued that Moscow has the capability to create an environment for improving the relationship with Washington and outlined a possible scenario of cooperation that would shape the entire global agenda.

Middle East

Russian experts also attach a great deal of importance to the situation in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East, in general. One of the challenges is to stop the proxy wars among the third parties — regional and global stakeholders, including Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and others.

The most likely scenario in 2017 is that Turkey will give up its attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the United States decreasing its support of the Syrian moderate opposition. However, experts are pessimistic about the possibility of a Moscow-Washington anti-terrorism alliance: the odds of them teaming up to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) are not so high, even with Trump at the helm.

At the same time, pundits pin their hopes on the negotiations between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which could come up with a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian war in 2017. Moreover, the authors of the report believe that ISIS will be destroyed in the next year.  

Regarding the situation in Iraq, where the U.S.-led international coalition keeps fighting with ISIS, a successful anti-terrorism campaign is possible provided all necessary conditions for bringing the country’s authorities together are created. Specifically, it is necessary to reform the army in accordance with the principle of inclusivity.

In addition, the Iraqi Kurds should give up their ambitions to create an autonomous state within Iraq. The Sunni minority should be involved in the decision-making process of the Shia political elites. Finally, the U.S. should take responsibility for moderating the dialogue between Iraqi domestic stakeholders to resolve the perennial conflict in the country.        

However, the experts are realistic in their assessments and don’t think that these problems will be resolved immediately in 2017. So, the conflict in Iraq won’t be resolved.

New sources of instability

But a new source of instability and conflicts might emerge elsewhere and this could attract the attention of global powers. Among the countries that might provoke a global conflict is Indonesia, with its increasing religious and ethnic tensions among its population. According to the authors of the report, this could lead to Indonesia becoming a failed state.

Another black swan might come from Saudi Arabia, at least because the ruling elites are facing the risks of destabilization. The key reason behind these concerns is the poor health of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The situation is aggravated by the possibility of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef refusing to take over power. This might lead to the rivalry within the country’s political elites and, thus, bring even more instability to the country.

Post-Soviet space

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory claimed by two former Soviet republics Azerbaijan and Armenia, will become key challenges in the post-Soviet space in 2017, according to the report.

“The domestic situation in Ukraine will depend on the financial support of [Kiev’s] Western partners, but in general, the country will avoid a new economic crisis and the state institutions will keep working,” said one of the authors of the report, Nicolay Sylaev, a senior research fellow at MGIMO University.    

At the same time, the expert sees the Minsk Agreement as the major tool of dealing with the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of Kiev dragging its feet on implementing the Minsk Protocol requirements. Regarding U.S.-Ukraine relations, most experts agree that the Trump administration won’t pay much attention to the Donbas conflict.  

In 2017, Nagorno-Karabakh might also become another headache for the participants of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — Russia, France and the United States. The fear is that increasing military escalation might complicate the negotiation process.

Also read: "How Russia dealt with post-Soviet protracted conflicts in 2016"

Europe

According to the authors of the report, the odds of German Chancellor Angela Merkel being re-elected during the 2017 political campaign are very high. This means that Berlin will keep promoting the agenda of robust European integration regardless of the challenges - such as the increasing clout of right-wing populist parties in Europe and the fallout from Brexit.   

Moreover, experts don’t rule out that other European countries might initiate a referendum on leaving the EU. However, the key threat for Europe’s security will emanate from terrorism and a new wave of the migration crisis, which resulted from ongoing instability in the Middle East. This also could fuel Turkish-European tensions because of Europe’s alleged failure to meet the requirement of the Ankara-Brussels refuge deal.

[On March 18, 2016, the 28 EU countries signed a deal with Turkey, which aims at addressing the overwhelming flow of migrants and asylum seekers traveling from Turkey to the Greek islands by allowing Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants” arriving after March 20. In turn, the EU  countries will increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalization for Turkish nationals, and boost existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population – Editor’s note].

Regarding the Western-led sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for its policy in Ukraine, 2017 will be even more challenging for Russia than 2016. And Europe might remain intransigent in this question despite the possibility of the Trump administration alleviating the sanctions. Amidst such a background, experts don’t rule out that Russia might change its political course in the next year.

Sushentsov highlights that even though all forecasts might not come true and appear to be unlikely (at least on the surface), they might be a good guide for understanding the threats and opportunities of the upcoming year. It is crucial to withstand the risks and prepare for unpleasant surprises.