New Year, Old Problems
Where Will Russia Pick a Fight in 2018?
After success in propping up Syria’s government, undermining Ukraine, and meddling with Western elections, look for Russia to dip into its same bag of tricks this year.
In 2017, Russia fought a bloody and indiscriminate war in support of a brutal Syrian regime, armed rebels occupying eastern Ukraine, and continued its propaganda campaign targeting elections in Western democracies—the same campaign that helped to put Donald Trump in the White House.
There's no reason to believe 2018 will be any different. Ignoring Trump's own personal fondness for Vladimir Putin and his autocratic regime, the Trump administration's national security team in December named Russia as one of the top threats to American interests. But it's unclear what the divided administration of a compromised president will actually do to confront a resurgent Russia.
The coming year could be a dangerous one as Russia continues its attacks on the West and its interests, and America and its allies struggle to respond in a coherent way. "The net result of all of this will been an erosion of stability and peace in the world," the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council warned.
Russian forces intervened in the then-four-year-old Syrian civil war in late 2015. Moscow's ships and planes bombarded anti-regime fighters. Russian special forces launched raids targeting opposition leaders. Moscow insisted its aim was to destroy the Islamic State, but many Russian attacks struck communities and groups actively battling the terror group.
In fact, Putin's war in Syria is consistent with "Russian support for a long-standing ally and Russia’s stance against regime change," according to the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank. Moreover, preserving the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad also preserves Russia's naval and air bases in Syria—and options for future campaigns against NATO and the West. "These bases could enable Russia to challenge the United States and its allies in the region," RAND explained.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Russia has announced plans for a permanent military presence in Syria, even as ISIS retreats from the country. "The Russian force grouping in Syria will concentrate its main efforts to provide support to Syrians in recovering peaceful life and observing reached ceasefire agreements," the Kremlin stated.
But Moscow's war in Syria could be a harbinger of future interventions. Emboldened by the survival of the Assad regime, Russia could directly involve itself in other regional conflicts where Moscow stands to gain strategic bases. It's worth noting that, in 2017, Russia boosted its support for the Libyan National Army, the armed wing of one of several competing regimes in Libya, another country bordering the Mediterranean.
Whereas Russia intervened in Syria to preserve the existing government, in 2014 it invaded Ukraine in an attempt to destabilize a government that was beginning to turn toward the West. Repeating a strategy that Moscow used to decisive effect in the Republic of Georgia in 2008, infiltrating Russian forces quickly seized Ukraine's strategic Crimean peninsula before assuming a less direct role supplying and supporting pro-Russian separatists in the country's eastern Donbass region.
That conflict dragged on through 2017 despite an official ceasefire in 2015. In a surprise move in December, the Trump administration announced it would allow American firms to sell some types of weapons to Ukraine—a reversal of President Barack Obama's policy of only sending nonlethal supplies to the embattled country.
Russia condemned the potential U.S. arms sales, claiming they could escalate the conflict. "Americans, in fact, directly push Ukrainian forces to war," Russian lawmaker Franz Klintsevich said. Never mind that Moscow for years has deliberately escalated the Ukraine war in order to weaken a wary neighbor and ensure its hold on disputed territory.
Three years of war have been enough for at least one influential U.S. analyst—and could signal the ultimate success of Putin's Ukraine gambit in 2018 or later. "There is one way in which, without compromising our values or sacrificing the interests of any of our allies and friends, we may be able to help ratchet down the risks of NATO-Russia war," wrote Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"It begins by recognizing that NATO expansion, for all its past accomplishments, has gone far enough," O'Hanlon asserted. "We should seek, if Putin will do his part, to create a new security architecture for eastern Europe that would explicitly rule out bringing countries like Ukraine and Georgia into the 29-member alliance."
O'Hanlon's proposal, were it to gain widespread acceptance, would essentially reward Russia for invading a neighbor in order to subvert the will of its electorate. And that could embolden Moscow to double down on what has arguably been its most effective strategy to date—spreading fake news in order to undermine democratic elections in rival countries without having to send in tanks and special forces.
Among other votes, Moscow interfered in the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and France's presidential election in 2017. The French vote didn't go Russia's way. The British and American votes did.
"Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 sent a signal to the West: democratic societies are deeply vulnerable to foreign influence," the Atlantic Council's Alina Polyakova wrote. But it's far from certain that the U.S. government will do anything to mitigate that vulnerability.
If anti-Trump Democrats continue their recent winning streak and dominate the midterm elections in November 2018, as projected, they could deal a crippling blow to pro-Russia elements inside Trump's administration. With primaries beginning in the spring, lawmakers are running out of time to safeguard the vote with, for example, better cybersecurity. “Not a lot of time, no question,” admitted Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.
Strategically, Russia enjoyed a successful year in 2017 swaying elections, destabilizing rivals, shoring up friendly regimes and guaranteeing access to vital bases. Moscow will almost certainly continue this strategy in 2018. The question is what the targets of the Kremlin's aggression will do to stop it.