Analysis - Political Transformations

Fortifying Fronts

How does Russia Plan to Secure its Global Influence in 2018?

Writer : Sami Al-Salame

Monday, January 08, 2018

Fortifying Fronts

Developments in Russia during the last days of 2017 are indicative of the tracks and challenges of Russian politics in 2018. The day after the Russian ministry of defence announcement that it would set up “permanent forces in Syria”, and the refusal of some Syrian opposition factions to attend Moscow-sponsored peace conference in the Russian city of Sochi; Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would run for the presidential elections scheduled for March 2018. An explosion hit St. Petersburg city prior to the new year celebrations, although Putin praised his American counterpart Donald Trump the previous day, after U.S. intelligence had warned Moscow of possible terrorist threats in the city.

These developments demonstrate that Russia, in 2018, will face a range of significant challenges, including, maintaining its internal stability, boosting the Russian economy, countering Western pressures, counter-media warfare and infiltration attempts to its vital sphere in Eastern Europe.

Fortifying the home front

Putin adheres to “gosudarsteveniky” principle, which calls for the establishment of a strong national state while he firmly opposes the “Zapdanki” principle, which calls for rapprochement with the West at the expense of national sovereignty. In view of holding the Russian presidential elections in March 2018, Putin sets high on his list of priorities several domestic undertakings, as follows:

1- Preserving internal stability: Maintaining internal security and stability is high on Russia’s agenda in 2018, hence Putin will concentrate on strengthening the power of the central state and cementing its internal cohesion, confronting the threats of armed factions in Chechnya and extremist groups in the North Caucasus.

2- Spurring the Russian economy: The Russian economy is suffering from recession and high inflation due to Western sanctions and declining oil prices, which will push Moscow to focus on adjusting government spending and press ahead in the reform plan- previously announced by Putin in his address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on 4 December 2014- to boost investment inflows, stop the flight of Russian capital, and take decisive action against speculators who manipulate the Russian currency.

3- Bolstering the military power: Russia continues to modernize its military through strengthening the combat capabilities of Russian troops, providing them with the latest weapons and military equipment, buttressing the missile shield with advanced air defense systems S 500 and S 400, and speeding up the manufacturing of the fifth generation of Sukhoi PAK-FA fighters or T-50, which constitutes a major challenge for the U.S. F-22 and F-35, according to the U.S. National Interest magazine.

Reinforcement the military power faces multiple challenges such as, rationalization of military spending and non-engagement in an arms race with Washington, amid the decline in Russian oil and gas revenues compared to the beginning of the 21st century, which led to pressure on Russian military spending so that it accounts for only 11% of the U.S military spending.

4- Managing elections: President Putin will focus during the next period on managing the pre-election stage, although there is no strong competition from the opposition. In this regard, Putin’s opponents can be divided into two main camps: 

A- Participation camp: Members of this camp are keen to participate in the presidential elections and compete with the Putin. This camp includes Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Federal Union of Russia, and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. 

B- Seeking alternative-camp: Members of this camp will not participate in the race for the Russian presidency, but they will concentrate on garnering popular support to find an alternative to Putin. This camp includes billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced in a corruption case on February 8, 2017, rendering him ineligible to run for the upcoming elections.

Voter turnout in the upcoming elections is one of the most significant challenges facing the Russian political system, especially since most opinion polls predict that Putin will win a fourth term. A poll conducted by Levada Center, an independent public opinion research foundation showed that about 64% of Russians support Putin to remain in power for a fourth term in 2018.

Absence of a strong rival to Putin and the internal repercussions of the economic recession are catalysts for voter reluctance, which was evident in voter turnout in the Russian House of Representatives (Duma) elections, which dropped from 60 % in 2011 to 48% in September 2016, where the United Russia Party, led by Putin, won these elections, with 54% of the votes.

The greatest challenge is to increase voter turnout in the upcoming presidential elections. Putin is likely to take advantage of his overwhelming popularity, his achievements at the external level and his nationalist rhetoric, which aims at regaining Russia’s global standing, to motivate voters to cast their votes and thus turn the elections into a popular referendum on the legitimacy of the Russian regime, led by Putin.

Confronting external threats 

Tracking the geopolitical fallout of Russian policies at the foreign level during President Putin’s tenure demonstrates the invalidity of the prevailing assessments in Western academies, as Western sources have described Putin’s policies in earlier stages, as emotional, reckless, short-sighted and lacking clear strategy.

Putin’s policy during the Ukrainian and Russian crises proved that Russia was able to impose its visions and to counter Western hegemony attempts, as well as implement long-term strategies to serve Russian interests and respond pragmatically to international and regional changes. Russian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo a fundamental change in 2018 and will likely focus on the following:

1- Stick to Primakov approach: Russia will continue to pursue active engagement policies in various regions of the world as a superpower capable of influencing international interactions. Putin’s policy has been able to take into consideration both Russia’s growing interests abroad and threats to such interests and the interests of other countries, as well as avoiding an uncalculated escalation that may trigger a direct military confrontation. This is due to a pragmatic cognizance of the limits of the Russian power, knowing that Russian Federation does not currently possess the same power tools that were available to the former Soviet Union.

Russia maintains its historic right to be strong, as Putin pointed out in his address to the Russian House of Representatives on October 5, 2016, highlighting “Yevgeny Primakov approach”, whose ideas on a multipolar world served as a general framework for Russian foreign policy and his policy represented on the “Moscow, Delhi and Beijing axis” was the basis for Moscow’s move towards creating regional blocs, notably BRIC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

2- Promote Eurasian integration: Preservation of the Russian power requires a stable regional environment, which will push the Russian leadership to keep reinforcing its presence and  influence in the former Soviet republics, under the “Near Abroad” doctrine developed by Andrey Kozyrev, which calls for the promotion of the integration project in Eurasia, through improving Moscow’s relations with its neighbours in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Baltic, and coaxing the rest of these regions to join the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia) as an institutional framework aimed at creating political and economic bonds between the former Soviet republics, by lifting the physical, political and economic barriers in the post-Soviet era.

3- Contain the U.S. pressures: Contrary to the opinion of many analysts, Donald Trump poses a major challenge for the Russian leadership, as there are many risks associated with dealing with a populist personality that has entered the American political arena from outside its traditional norms and boundaries.

Despite that Trump has repeatedly expressed, during his election campaign and after assuming,  power, his intention to improve relations with Russia, hinting at the possibility of lifting the economic sanctions, the biggest challenge for Putin is how to reach understandings with the new U.S. president, who views any agreement with Moscow as a “deal” that requires comprehensive negotiation, in which key issues (Western relations with Russia, Ukraine and NATO) are linked to the secondary ones (relations with China, Iran and Syria).

In this regard, Trump ties improving relations with Moscow and abandoning the Ukrainian issue, with Putin’s support for the U.S. stance on Chinese policies and reviewing the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which is unlikely to happen given the strategic ties that bring Russia, China and Iran together, as well as the growing coordination between these countries within Moscow, Tehran and Beijing axis.

Putin is expected to respond to NATO’s missile shield and the Ukrainian crisis by implementing the Russian defense strategy on NATO through buttressing Russia’s defensive capabilities to deter NATO from penetrating its vital sphere and pursuing hybrid warfare tactics in managing the Ukrainian crisis by supporting the fighters in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Moreover, Putin will try to take advantage of the erosion of the U.S. power, which no longer has the economic ability to withstand the consequences of its unilateral intervention in all crises, which obliges the Trump administration to set priorities according to the current U.S. capabilities. In return, Russia will seek to reach a minimum degree of compromise with Washington, making concessions to Trump, away from the NATO dossier and the Ukrainian crisis. This was evident in Moscow’s acceptance of Washington’s demand for the establishment of safe areas in Syria.

4- Confronting external interference: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed on August 23, 2017 that there were U.S. attempts to interfere in the Russian presidential election to influence the results. These remarks come against the backdrop of previous U.S. interference in the Russian elections. In 2012, the U.S. Secretary of State-then-Hillary Clinton labelled the Russian legislative elections in December 2011 as misleading and unfair. In the wake of her remarks, mass demonstrations erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg squares, and opposition campaigns were launched to rally public opinion against Putin, trying to exploit the momentum of the Arab revolutions to overthrow him.

The potential influence of U.S. policies in the Russian presidential election will focus on creating and promoting a negative political image of Putin and his political regime, supporting anti-Putin demonstrations, securing media coverage for the Russian opposition, tightening the economic sanctions against Russia and trying to drag it into an arms race, which will have repercussions on the Russian economy.

U.S. liberal think tanks are producing pressing recommendations on Russia, such as blocking Moscow-backed news channels, launching Russian-speaking channels to influence Russian public opinion and rival the pro-Kremlin media platforms.

Putin has pursued several measures to counter the U.S. interference, notably delaying the announcement of his official candidacy for the presidential election, to postpone the shocks of anti-regime demonstrations following the announcement of his candidacy. This has also disrupted the campaigns of his opponents, because they focused on criticizing him without offering alternatives, in addition to demonstrating the popular support for Putin’s candidature.

Managing unexpected shifts

Russia faces a major dilemma in 2018 in managing unexpected internal and external shifts amid the “disorder” of the world order in a “unipolar” era, the distribution of power among many international actors, the rise of non-state actors and the growing cross-border threats, such as terrorism, extremism, arms smuggling, illegal migration and cybersecurity threats.

This obliges the Russian state to gear up for addressing the unpredictable threats and risks. Fro example, who could have expected that the Turkish air defence forces shoot down a Russian Sukhoi-24 fighter near the border with Syria in November 2015, or the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in 19 December 2016.

Based on these data, Putin will work out plans and approaches to deal with two types of threats, linked to the nature and future of the Russian political system and the U.S.- Atlantic threats. The unexpected scenarios are as follows:

1- Overthrow the regime: The gravest threat, among the unexpected ones, is a major surprise in the presidential election that topples President Putin’s regime, a scenario that falls within the unthinkable and unlikely ones, known as Black Swan. There is no real contender against Putin in the elections and Putin’s popularity ensures that he can win the race without campaigning, however this does not mean that Putin will not tread cautiously in dealing with the unexpected possibilities by addressing Western influence over Russia. 

2- War with the NATO: The second unexpected threat is the growing tensions with the NATO and U.S., and a direct military confrontation that might be triggered by NATO’s expansionist policies and deployment of missile shield in the Baltic countries and Poland. Such threats prompt Russia to reinforce its defense strategy by taking precautionary measures to safeguard its nuclear strategic deterrence, bolster its technical and technological capabilities that would allow it to control maritime and air navigation in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, reducing the effectiveness of the U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe, by relying on electronic warfare systems with their tactical offensive and defensive ballistic missiles.

To sum up, Russia is likely to focus on fortifying the home front and maintain the stability and cohesion of the Russian Federation by improving the Russian economy and addressing security threats, especially extremism and terrorism, in tandem with policies to regain its global standing by cementing alliances with the rising powers, direct engagement in regional flashpoints and protecting Russia strategic depth from Western infiltration.


1- Mark Schneider, “Air War: What If America's Lethal F-35 Battled Russia's Stealth PAK-FA or Su-35?”, National Interest, May 12, 2017, accessible at: 

2- Emmet Livigstone, “Russian electoral body: Navalny can’t run for president in 2018”, Politico, June 24, 2017, accessible at: 

3- "Presidential Elections", Levada Center, May 2017, accessible at: 

4- Tarja Långström, Transformation in Russia and International Law, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003, p.123

5- Alexander Vilf, “No doubt’ US will try to meddle in 2018 Russian presidential election”, Russia Today, August, 23, 2017, accessible at: 

6- “Clinton cites 'serious concerns' about Russian election”, CNN, December 6, 2017, accessible at:

7-Basma Eletreby, “Unconventional methods of media wars between Moscow and Washington”, Trending Events, issue 22, July-August 2017, pp.50 -53.

8- David A. Shlapak, Michael Johnson, “Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics”, Rand Foundation, 2016, pp. 1 – 16.

9-Sami al-Salami, “Russian -Atlantic rivalry in Eastern Europe and the Baltic”, Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine, issue 210, October 2017.

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