Russia has seen ups and downs in its foreign policy in 2015. It seems to have regained the status of one of the key global players, but at a very high price, which it will keep paying in 2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, attends a meeting of the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the Palace of Nations in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Left: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Background right: The Kremlin's Spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia’s foreign policy has consistently been in the spotlight of foreign experts and media since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in early 2014. Most pundits agree that the Kremlin relies more on improvisation than on strategy in taking decisions, which makes its foreign policy even more unpredictable.

The Kremlin’s foreign policy: 2014 vs. 2015

Despite the improvisational nature of Moscow’s foreign policy, it seems to be very consistent in bringing more surprises for the West. In 2014, it was the incorporation of Crimea, followed by active involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, Moscow started its military campaign in the Middle East against the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).       

However, while 2014 saw more failures (economic and financial sanctions by the West, isolation and schism with its European and American partners), 2015 seems to have been a bit more successful and returned Russia to the global arena as one of the key actors whose view is not ignored, but taken into account.

The G20 summits in 2014 and 2015 are indicative in this regard. Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin experienced a very cold reception from Western leaders and was largely ignored. In contrast, this year the Kremlin seems to have actively promoted its diplomacy and Putin met with a number of Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.      

Most experts agree that this is one of the achievements of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015: mitigating the negative implications of its 2014 foreign policy gamble. Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, argues the Kremlin seems to have managed “to mitigate some of the worst impacts of the post-Ukrainian adventure” and prove “that to a certain extent it is a regional and global player.”

“Because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to play his weak hand very well, because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to be a spoiler, he has, at least, made a case that you cannot ignore Moscow,” he told Russia Direct in an interview.

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, agrees that Russia insured that it is “an important player” which “is not forgotten” and “needs to be respected and consulted.” However, Moscow achieved that kind of success at a very heavy cost, he added.

The cost of Russia’s foreign policy improvisation

The Kremlin’s aspirations to regain its status as a key geopolitical player didn’t remain without response and came at a very high price: prolonged sanctions, a controversial reputation, and harsh criticism from the West. On the top of that, the potential for increased terror threats came shortly after Moscow started its direct military campaign in Syria, as indicated by the terrorist attack on the Russian charter plane in Egypt.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s Middle East overtures spoiled relations with a former ally, Turkey, which downed Russia’s jet in Syria in late November. In fact, this incident showed the real price of Russia’s foreign policy improvisation in 2015.  Moscow’s Syrian campaign “is not a cost-free operation for Russia,” says Johns Hopkins University’s visiting professor Dr. Robert Freedman.

“While Russian President Vladimir Putin may have hoped he could use the situation in Syria to support Syrian President Bashar Assad and demonstrate Russian influence in the Middle East, so far the Russian operation in Syria has cost Russia a passenger plane with 244 lives, a fighter-bomber, and a helicopter, with more losses likely to come,” he told Russia Direct in an interview.

Given that Russia relied on Turkey previously, when its relations with the West was not in the best shape, the implications of the Russian-Turkish tensions on Russia and its foreign policy in 2016 might be unfavorable, given that the Kremlin imposed immediate economic sanctions against Ankara.

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“By breaking its ties with Turkey, Russia risks moving further down the slippery slope of letting political and status consideration undermine the economic rationale of relations with the outside world,” warns Mikhail Troitskiy, a Moscow-based political and international affairs analyst.

“Russian retail markets will see tangible price increases as a result of bans on imports of products from Turkey. If pushed too far, such logic could inflict major irreversible damage on the Russian economy and the well-being of Russian citizens,” he said.

Meanwhile, Braun warns that the Russian-Turkish schism may put at stake “a tripling of trade and the possible construction of a huge pipeline to carry energy from Russia to Turkey and Europe” in 2016.

Given the Kremlin has threatened additional economic and possible political measures and NATO’s support has emboldened Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remain intransigent with Moscow, relations between the two are likely to worsen 2016 and “this in turn will likely damage the interests of both countries,” Braun said.

Negative scenarios for the year ahead

If the Kremlin falls out with Turkey, will Moscow be able to find new partners, taking into account its relationship with the West is far from ideal? Will it initiate new coalitions and what alliances might emerge amidst the Russian-Turkish schism in 2016?

According to Braun, Russia will keep enhancing its cooperation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and with Iran.  However, he argues, such cooperation will be problematic in the longer term “because the Assad regime is really not viable and Iran’s long-term interests, both in pursuing Islamism and ultimately in its desire to become a nuclear power, are incompatible with Russia’s best national interests.”

Ironically, Russia’s confrontation with Turkey is pushing the EU and NATO closer to the regime of the Turkish president – the same one, which the EU has heavily criticized in the past for its gross abuse of human rights, Braun added. At the same time, Russia may well see its relations with the West damaged in part as a consequence of the Russian-Turkish confrontation.

“Russia’s anger at Turkey, even if justified, is having deleterious effects not just on its economic relationship with Ankara but also over the long term, most importantly with the relationship with the U.S. and EU, both of which are in a sense being forced into Turkey’s arms,” Braun said.

And this is not a positive sign, given that “Russia’s true national interests lie with Europe and the West rather than with rogue leaderships like those of Iran, Syria, and earlier with the increasingly repressive Erdogan,” Braun argues.

According to him, repairing relations with the EU and U.S. should be top priority for Russia in 2016, but it “does require a reorientation of Russian policy” and “its willingness to compromise on a number of issues ranging from Ukraine to the Middle East.”

Troitskiy is very skeptical about the possibility of compromise between Russia and the West. “Cooperation with other major nations will prove difficult for Russia in 2016 because almost any of those nations has set forth preconditions for such cooperation,” he said.

The U.S. and the EU “insist on Moscow helping to re-establish full control by Kiev over the separatist entities in Donbas and forcing the departure of Assad,” Troitskiy explains. “Painful sanctions against Russia are likely to remain in place until Donbass is returned to Ukraine, while a full-fledged coalition to combat the Islamic State will not materialize until there is agreement on the shape of a post-war political settlement in Syria.”

In the most general terms, Troitskiy continues, the West will keep pointing to the lack of trust with Russia as the main obstacle to extended cooperation, and Russia will continue to point fingers to the West for the existing mistrust. At the same time, in 2016 NATO will be delivering on its promises of an upgrade of its military infrastructure in Eastern Europe as a purported response to Russia's actions.

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A negative scenario, as seen by Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, includes Russia’s continued internal stagnation, growing problems in Ukraine and Central Asia’s increased radicalization following Middle Eastern destabilization.

“The chances of Ukraine acting on the European Union’s pressures are not very good given Kiev’s apparent inability to reform the economy and a strengthened dependence on anti-Russian nationalism for regime survival,” he explains. “For the U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria to be averted and a greater progress on the broad coalition to take place, a critical intervention from the White House is required not only to compromise with the Kremlin on Assad, but also discipline Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The potential for that intervention is nowhere to be found.”

Tsygankov believes that the process of changing international rules in 2016 will be very much shaped by how things will turn in Syria.

“2016 therefore is likely to be a borderline year that can go either way in terms of shaping a future world – toward building some foundations for formulating new globally acceptable rules or toward an even greater instability,” he warns.

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According to Tsygankov, the main drivers of Russian foreign policy in 2016 will remain the Middle East, Ukraine, Central Asia/Afghanistan, oil prices, and the state of the Russian economy.

A positive scenario for 2016 is less likely

Most pundits seem to be pessimistic about Russia’s foreign policy in 2016, because a favorable outcome requires a great deal of political will among global stakeholders, but given their divergent geopolitical interests, such a scenario is almost unrealistic.  Nevertheless, Tsygankov sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He argues that might be the improvement of relations between Russia and the West amidst common threats like ISIS and the possible de-escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. 

“If there is progress in Russia’s engagement with the West in counter-terrorism in Syria, that there is no major escalation in Ukraine, a modest economic recovery begins, and all others (East Asia in particular) being equal, Russia’s vision of world order may be vindicated,” he assumes, outlining the positive scenario of how international events will develop in 2016. “That vision is based on respect for sovereignty, spheres of influence, and multilateralism.”