Russian presidential elections are taking place in March, on the four-year anniversary of Crimea’s “return back home.” However, it is almost certain that Vladimir Putin will be crowned president for a fourth term until 2024, in the absence of a candidate who can genuinely compete with him, despite the Central Electoral Commission’s assertion that 23 people expressed a desire to run.
Putin came to power in 2000 and remained in the presidency until 2008. Since the Russian constitution prevents candidates from holding office for more than two consecutive terms, Putin took a step backwards, exchanging positions with his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who became president in 2008 and left the premiership to Putin, which helped the latter return to the presidency in 2012. He has since enjoyed a term of six years rather than four thanks to the constitutional amendment carried out by Medvedev in 2008.
The upcoming elections are receiving a lot of media attention in the West, especially after so much talk about under-the-table Russian interventions aiming to influence recent elections in countries such as the United States, Germany and France. Russia has been accused of being behind electronic leaks and the hacking of personal email accounts of candidates in these countries, in order to guide public opinion to elect specific figures. However, certain Western countries are also well-known masters of intervention in election processes and interference in home affairs through the strategies of colored revolutions and regime change.
Russia will face several serious challenges linked to the elections. First of all, the extreme level of Western players meddling in the process through the Russian-speaking media, funded by Western donations, whose activity is already growing. Another challenge is that participation rate is expected to be weak, with only 28 percent of Russians estimated to be willing to vote. People are not interested in voting for several reasons — including that they believe their vote will not change anything; supporters of the president are sure about their favorite’s victory; and a lack of intrigue predetermined by the domestic political situation makes some people feel indifferent.
New sanctions will likely see US-Moscow ties deteriorate to new lows this year, which will have an enormous impact on global stability.
Russian-US ties will likely deteriorate in 2018 and new sanctions will be imposed, including targeted sanctions against certain Russian businessmen. Russia will respond, most likely asymmetrically, following its own logic and vision. Until now, the sanctions have not been harming Russia in the way it was expected by the West, with Russian GDP expected to have grown 1.7 percent in 2017.
But the sanctions game will deteriorate the bilateral ties between Russia and the US, making their relations hit new lows, which will have an enormous impact on global stability.
This deterioration in bilateral ties is threatening the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Both sides appear to be preparing to withdraw from the treaty, and each side is quick to blame the other for violating the agreement, which once helped to ease tensions between the West and the former USSR. However, a constructive solution to the problem could be found, including through the modernization of the treaty itself. But whether or not this chance will be taken by the parties is still a big question.
Following the recent decision of the US to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, the situation there will seriously deteriorate and we may see an escalation in fighting in the Donbas region, which will raise very serious challenges for the Kremlin.
Linked to the US issue, Russia will also face problems with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The fate of this project will test the ability of the EU and Germany to be independent from US pressure.
In 2018, Russia will also face heightened security challenges due to a trio of factors. First, the presidential elections themselves, as there is a high risk of provocations and sabotage masterminded by certain players. Secondly, the football World Cup to be held in Russia this year gives a chance for possible attacks with far-reaching consequences and a high volume of media coverage worldwide, spreading fear and panic. Thirdly, Russia’s security will be affected by the potential rise of extremism in Central Asia.
This year will be very challenging not only for Russia, but for the whole international community. Russia and the rest of the world will go through difficulties, but the big question is in which condition all of us will reach 2019.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub).