The most popular RD articles of the year covered all the major trends influencing Russia’s troubled relationship with the West, including the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s pivot to China, fears of a new Cold War, the collapse of the ruble and plunging oil prices worldwide.
2014 was a challenging year for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Throughout 2014, Russia was the subject of headlines around the world. What started with the Sochi Winter Olympics in February continued with Russia’s surprise annexation of Crimea in March, the expanding scope of the Ukraine crisis to Eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s diplomatic initiatives to counteract what it saw as Western attempts to isolate it on the world stage.
By mid-year, talk was of a new Cold War between Russia and West, Moscow’s pivot to China and the rise of ISIS as a potential wildcard factor in the U.S.-Russia relationship. The tumultuous year ended with plunging oil prices, concerns over the impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy and daily speculation of what might happen next with the collapsing Russian ruble.
Below, we present our most popular articles of the year. Taken together, they represent our best and smartest thinking about the current dimensions of Russian foreign policy.
Our most popular article of the year contextualized the Ukraine crisis as a failure of the West to understand the new trends and developments in Russian foreign policy over the past 20 years. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Russian Studies has become a neglected field of study in America’s leading universities. As a result, the bench of top Russia experts in the U.S. was no longer deep or wide and the Washington think tank community had stopped learning about the needs and strategic concerns of modern Russia.
Instead of deep analysis, America’s top Russia watchers were offering simplistic Cold War allusions in an attempt to describe fundamentally new changes in the world order. What’s needed is a dedicated and deep understanding of Russia that extends beyond stereotypes of Russia’s top leaders and flawed historical parallels. A failure to develop a new foreign policy framework for the current geopolitical environment will leave American politicians turning to Hollywood and late night TV comedians for an understanding of Russia.
RD readers were interested in understanding not just the reasons for the start of the Ukrainian crisis, but also what the fallout might be from the crisis. As economist Christopher Hartwell argued in mid-March, a prolonged Ukraine crisis might slow down the pace of Eurasian integration and raise the stakes for greater integration with China. Hartwell took a deep look at Russia’s ability to drive the Eurasian integration process, arguing that the first sign of trouble for integration might be if the Russian economy sputtered or became a victim of exogenous economic shocks.
By the end of the year, this piece looked remarkably prescient. Round after round of Western economic sanctions had battered Russia’s economy, placing additional pressure on the Russian ruble, and forcing Russia to look to partners such as China for support. As a result, the Eurasian Union – the much-anticipated economic integration project of the Kremlin – now faces a steep climb in 2015 if it’s going to be a success.
As tensions between Russia and the West escalated, there was extensive debate of whether or not Russia and the West were now involved in a new Cold War. At conferences in Washington and Moscow, leading academics were struggling to define the current period of tensions – was it a Cold War II, a new Cold War, or a Cold Peace? In an effort to sort out the distinctions, we turned to Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, to give us his take on a “new Cold War” in late April.
As Legvold pointed out in this exclusive RD interview, a new Cold War had the potential to derail U.S.-Russian bilateral cooperation in regions from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific. It would also result in steps backwards in a number of different areas – including the fight against international terrorism, the Syrian chemical weapons initiative, and collaboration in Middle East and Afghanistan. In fact, warned Legvold, all forms of bilateral collaboration would be at risk. His prognosis turned out to be spot on, as all forms of collaboration between the U.S. and Russia appeared to be frozen by the end of the year.
Amidst the growing Ukrainian confrontation in Europe, chaos was also brewing in the Middle East, in the form of ISIS. The rise of ISIS and the need for stepped-up counter-terrorism collaboration on a global level turned out to be a recurring theme in any analysis of ways to repair the U.S.-Russian relationship. As ISIS extended its reach from Iraq to Syria, counter-terrorism collaboration between Russia and the U.S. transformed from a theoretical possibility to a very real practical opportunity.
And that chatter only intensified with the release of a new ISIS video threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin in early September. While the real prospects of bringing the Islamic Caliphate to the Northern Caucasus remained unlikely, some policymakers and experts claimed that Chechnya might indeed become the next target for ISIS. Just months later, a major terrorist attack in Grozny almost 20 years to the date after Russia launched counter-terrorism events in Chechnya once again raised the specter of ISIS and rekindled fears about the export of radical Islam to Russia.
By the end of the year, the steep decline of the Russian ruble against the U.S. dollar and euro had made the ruble a central topic of discussion not only among economists, but also among everyday Russians, who watched as their savings and foreign currency earnings evaporated almost by the hour. As a result, our Explainer on the steep decline of the Russian ruble was one of our most popular articles of the year. It offered a brief summary of everything Russia watchers needed to know about the Russian ruble – why it has depreciated in value so much this year, what factors influence the dollar-ruble exchange rate, and what has been the impact of the falling ruble on the Russian domestic economy.
The $50 billion Sochi Winter Olympics, a blockbuster event that was originally envisioned by the Kremlin as a way to showcase a modern Russia to the world, instead became a symbol to the West of Russia’s corruption, fiscal mismanagement and failure to understand the changing social norms of Western society. But how accurately did memes like #SochiProblems, commentary about a potential boycott of the Winter Olympics over LGBT rights and concerns about terrorist threats in the North Caucasus really reflect the reality on the ground in Sochi?
While the Sochi Games were the most expensive Winter Olympics ever, they also turned out to be phenomenally popular within Russia, especially as the host nation continued to win medals by the handful. As a result, “Putin’s Games” became “Russia’s Games,” leading to an outpouring of national pride. By the end of the Games, even Western commentators admitted that they had largely been a success - further proof that memes and stereotypes offer little value in understanding modern Russia.
Throughout the year, Russia’s pivot to Asia gained momentum. The highlight was Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Shanghai in May, when he signed an historic $400 billion gas deal with China. Given the importance of this visit and its potential impact to re-orient Russia’s energy flows to China, RD turned to a number of top experts in Russia and the U.S. – Richard Weitz, Alexander Panov, Nikolay Murashkin and Alexey Fenenko – to give us their take on Russia’s pivot to China and its potential to change the way that the West views Russia.
There was perhaps no bigger catalyst for change in the Russian economy in 2014 than the stunning drop in global oil prices. Without a doubt, falling oil prices could be precarious for Russia’s economy, even if new energy projects in China or Turkey prove successful. The problem, quite simply, is that Russia’s economy is overly dependent on earnings from energy experts.
While it may be easy for Russia’s bureaucrats to blame conspiracy theories involving Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for the sinking fortunes of Russia’s biggest oil and gas firms, that only puts off the day of reckoning for the Russian energy sector. It’s now obvious that Russia needs to modernize its oil and gas industry, ensure the stability of its energy exports, and find creative new ways to circumvent Western sanctions targeting Russia’s energy sector.
The forces that led to the appearance of separatists in Eastern Ukraine have been around for more than a decade - we just didn’t recognize them. The balaclava-clad girls of Pussy Riot, so celebrated in the West, are part and parcel of the same phenomenon that gave us the masked men of Eastern Ukraine.
As a result, Zakhar Prilepin’s book “Sankya” turns out to be a remarkably powerful tool for understanding current events in Ukraine. As the characters and events in “Sankya” illustrate, there is actually a very fine line between distinctions such as “nationalist” and “separatist” or “democrat” and “patriot.” Events like Bolotnaya, Maidan and Donetsk should be seen as part of a broader political continuum linking together the Russian protest movement with the broader dimensions of the Ukraine crisis.
If there’s one area of U.S.-Russian collaboration that has the potential to change the way both sides view each other, it’s counter-terrorism collaboration. The rise of ISIS in the Middle East means that the export of radical Islam to other states in the region has become a common source of concern in both Moscow and Washington. In order to make sense of possible avenues of anti-terrorism cooperation, we turned to a number of top experts – Mark Kramer of Harvard, Robert Legvold of Columbia, Vitaly Naumkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Alexander Sotnichenko of St. Petersburg State University – to give us their take on ways that Russia and the West might collaborate despite the tensions of the ongoing Ukraine crisis.