Russian think tanks sum up the past year and make predictions for the hear ahead. The consensus appears to be that things were tough in 2015, but they will get even tougher in 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (second right) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meet in the Kremlin. Photo: RIA Novosti
In December, Russian analysts discussed world oil prices and the economic problems of Russia, offered their views on events that took place in 2015, and analyzed the results of the UN climate change conference in Paris.
Looking back at 2015
All Russian experts agree that the past year was a difficult one for Russia and the world; however, their evaluations of the results vary. Among the pessimists were analysts from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), while the optimists included analysts from the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Andrey Fedorchenko, expert at MGIMO, in summing up the year 2015, noted the inability of world powers to settle a number of difficult conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and in particular in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. We should not expect the conflicts in these countries to end any time soon, and so Russia’s involvement in Middle East problems will only increase – and there are no doubts on this point.
This is connected directly to the increased terrorist threat hanging over not only the states of the Middle East, but also the entire world, including Russia, which cannot stand idly by and wait for decisive action on the part of the West – after all, Russians quite well know firsthand what terrorism really is.
In this sense, the main result of the outgoing year has been Russia’s decisive engagement in a full-scale war against international terrorism, and this will continue in 2016. After all, currently all prerequisites for the development and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), an organization banned in Russia, remain unchanged.
Alexey Fenenko, analyst at RIAC, with regret noted that in 2015 Russian-American relations, and thus overall, the relationship between Russia and the West, reached a new level of confrontation. If earlier the Russian leadership held illusions about the possibility of the country’s integration into the international system being built by the United States, then today these hopes are gone forever.
The ideological contradictions between Russia and the United States have now grown beyond a stage that can be resolved diplomatically, and in 2015, these became so serious and obvious, that no common challenges or threats, including terrorism and the collapse of the Middle East subsystem of international relations, could unite the opponents. Fenenko believes that there is some hope that this situation can be changed, but it is hardly possible without major shocks in world politics.
“The struggle against transnational terrorism no longer unites Russia and the United States, even at the level of theory or ideology,” the expert concludes.
Unlike his colleagues, the head of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) Fyodor Lukyanov tried to find some positive trends in 2015. Among them, he especially emphasized a shift in priorities in the Middle East – in 2014, at the level of the international community there was mostly talk about the need to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which had led to endless disputes between the great powers.
In 2015, a unifying theme made it onto the international agenda, and this was the realization that the world was facing a common threat – that of terrorism, against the background of which the future place of Assad pales in importance. Lukyanov thinks this is a positive development and it portends well for 2016, which might become the year when classical diplomacy makes a solid comeback.
Analyst Alexander Baunov at the Moscow Carnegie Center also sought positives in 2015. Unlike his colleagues at RIAC, Baunov believes that the main event in 2015 was the end of endless bickering and conflicts in relations between Russia and the West. The past year has demonstrated that Russia and the West, and in particular the United States, can engage in constructive dialogue when it comes to common threats.
“The time has come when the West does not view every conversation with Russia as an acknowledgment of its own defeat, and Russia should stop considering every such conversation as a great diplomatic victory, and the defeat and routing of a potential enemy. The West has left behind its previous frame of reference, where whatever Putin said meant taking the contrary position,” optimistically declares Baunov.
The fall in world oil prices as a blow to the Russian economy
The drop in world oil prices in December has not gone unnoticed by Russian analysts. For Russia, a country dependent on energy exports, the collapse in the oil market became a source of endless stress and headaches, especially during this New Year holiday period. Against the background of the international successes, the country’s crumbling economic position raised particular concern among Russian think tanks.
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Andrey Movchan, economic observer at the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicts tough times ahead for the Russian economy. Movchan lays the blame here not only on the falling oil prices, but also on the entirely inefficient and irrational economic system in Russia.
The expert announced a disappointing forecast – stagnation, cuts in spending on social services, rising inflation due to stimulated emission, a sharp decline in living standards, as well as the lack of resources to pursue an active foreign policy. Perhaps in 2016 we will see only the beginnings of these processes, but in the future, we can expect to see these developing further, the analyst said.
Vladislav Inozemtsev, an expert at CFDP, does not see reasons for optimism when it comes to the Russian economy. According to him, the Kremlin is underestimating the extent of the impact of falling oil prices on the Russian economy, and this factor is capable of “finishing off” the economic welfare of the country, which is already suffering from inefficient management.
Nevertheless, even in announcing a negative outlook on economic development in 2016, the expert says the Russian economy has good prospects, stressing that everything will depend on the actions of the country’s leadership, which can either save the situation or destroy the country, and their own power at the same time.
“If the government fails (or simply lacks the time) to restart economic growth, the current regime will sign its own death verdict, which will be carried out, although with some delay, but with no chances for appeal or revision,” concludes Inozemtsev.
At the RIAC website, the economist and academician Ruslan Greenberg also sees no prospects for the improvement of the economic situation in Russia in 2016. The government has been too slow to respond to the crisis, and it had little maneuvering room, as it could do nothing to prevent the sharp drop in oil prices.
The main problem, he says, is the absence of any kind of stimulation for development, as neither the state nor the private sector is able to offer this.
However, Mr. Greenberg says there is no need to despair, because we are not talking here about the collapse of the national economy: “The level of unpredictability of the future is very high, for us to be able to say something concrete. However, one thing is clear – the economic situation of the country is unlikely to get better, but then again, there is also no need to despair.”
Climate Summit in Paris
On Dec. 12, after two weeks of talks at the Climate Summit in Paris, the participants were able to conclude and sign a new international agreement on climate change.
This agreement is based on three main provisions, which the countries that are party to this agreement must implement in their environmental activities. Firstly, all countries have agreed to take measures to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to ensure that the average temperature on the planet does not increase by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Secondly, these measures and restrictions should be reviewed every five years. Thirdly, a fund will be established to help developing countries to deal with these changes, and the ultimate effects of global climate change. This new fund will have at least $100 billion to spend annually. The signing and ratification of the agreement is expected in the spring of 2016, and this Paris Agreement will start being implemented in 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol lapses.
Geologist Konstantin Ranks (Carnegie Moscow Center), after carrying out a detailed analysis of the concluded agreement, explained why such an accord had become possible just now; after all, just a few years ago at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen, similar ideas were defeated, and that summit ended without any results.
According to Ranks, there are two reasons. Firstly, during the years since the Copenhagen Summit (2009), researchers around the world have managed to accumulate more evidence on climate change. The climate was not only becoming “warmer”, but also was starting to be fully unpredictable, and the manifestations of this are being seen throughout the world.
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Secondly, big business has unexpectedly started to see a kind of “gold mine” in the environmental movement. Ecological sustainability and technological growth are no longer antonyms, and businesses around the world have launched major investment projects, not only in energy savings, but also, for example, in consumer products, from which an environmental component is increasingly being required.
However, Ranks stated that given these positive developments, it does not mean that the Paris Agreement will face no challenges when it comes to ratification, nor that it will be implemented in full. A difficult political struggle lies ahead for the ultimate fate of this agreement.
RIAC expert Igor Makarov had a nuanced view of this new Paris Agreement. On the one hand, the environmentalists were right to criticize this agreement, because its provisions provide no specifics, and even levels of financial assistance are not specifically spelled out. Moreover, in their policies each country will proceed based on its national capacity to adherence to listed restrictive measures.
In this sense, the forecast on restricting the increase in the warming of the Earth’s average temperatures to just two degrees Celsius is extremely optimistic, and in reality, we should expect the overall ceiling to be about 3.7 degrees. On the other hand, this lack of specificity makes it more likely that the agreement will be ratified, even in such traditionally “difficult” countries like the United States.
Moreover, Makarov believes that in the case of the Paris Agreement, we are not talking about technical rules, but rather about new environmental thinking, based on responsibility, as well as new attention being paid to problems in developing countries. Whereas Kyoto was based on the actual exclusion of developing countries from working on improving the ecological system, the Paris Agreement calls for providing assistance to developing countries, in order to help them overcome environmental challenges.