Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine has shaken the international order. The vicious attack is jarring, even though we have known for years that this day could come. In 2014, Vladimir Putin wrote that “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities.” Days before the attack he issued ominous statements like, “modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia.” He has now sent in troops to bring Ukraine into the Russian empire.
Among the US government agencies tracking Russia and security-related developments worldwide is the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC serves as a bridge between the US intelligence and policy communities, a source of substantive expertise on intelligence issues, and a facilitator of intelligence community collaboration and outreach.
Every four years, the NIC publishes the output of an extensive strategic foresight exercise. In December 2012, it released Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds to stimulate thinking about the future by identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities. The “sweet spot” for foresight studies is exploring plausible scenarios 10 or more years into the future. It has now been about a decade since that NIC report was under preparation.
What did it perceive in Russia’s future?
The report assessed that the country’s role in the world during the next two decades (that is, to the end of 2032) will be shaped by rising domestic challenges and the global environment. It stated that Russia’s budget is heavily dependent on energy revenue, and that efforts to modernise the economy has made little progress. It further noted that the country’s ageing workforce will be a drag on economic growth.
The NIC analysts wrote that Russia’s relations with the West and China are likely to be a critical factor in determining whether Russia moves toward becoming a more stable, constructive global player during the period leading up to the early 2030s. The report outlined three possibilities.
The first is that Russia becomes more of a partner with others, most likely in a marriage of convenience rather than a partnership based on values. The report projects that Russia’s centuries-long ambivalence about its relationship with the West and outside will remain at the heart of the struggle over Russia’s strategic direction.
A second envisioned possibility is that Russia maintains a generally ambivalent relationship with other powers, with this path becoming more a vexing one for international cooperation if Russia rebuilds its military strength and must contend with an increasingly powerful China.
The third possibility advanced by the NIC finds a potentially very troublesome Russia that attempts to use its military advantage over its neighbours to intimidate and dominate. This outcome would be most likely if a Russian leader were facing rising public discontent over declining living standards and economic prospects, and is seeking to marshal nationalist sentiments by becoming more assertive in former constituent republics of the Soviet Union.
So, what’s playing out?
Of these three possibilities, current events point to something closely resembling the third, although it does not appear that public discontent is what has driven Putin to use military force against a peaceful Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s increasingly warm relations with China have all the hallmarks of a marriage of convenience (featured in Possibility #1).
Russia does not appear the least bit ambivalent toward other powers, and has reached some understanding with an authoritarian China, removing Beijing as a short- to medium-term threat. In this light, the second possibility has not emerged as the most likely one for Russia’s future, though that could change.
Does Putin’s decision to forcibly bring Ukraine under his control negate any chance of a more benign and collaborative Russia emerging in another decade or two (when Putin may no longer be around)? Of course not. However, by initiating the most terrifying threat to European peace and security since the end of World War II, Putin has scrambled the calculus of plausible scenarios for the period ahead.
The most recent edition of the NIC Global Trends report, published last year with a timeframe to around 2040, is not optimistic about Russia’s future behaviour. It assesses that Russia will probably remain a disruptive power for much or all of the next two decades, and that it possesses the capacities and resources to play the role of spoiler and power broker in the post-Soviet space (and beyond). The report further concludes that Russia is likely to continue efforts to sow division in the West.
Yet the passage of time is not likely to strengthen Russia’s influence in the world as its population ages and shrinks, Western Europe reduces dependence on Russian gas, and unprecedented sanctions begin to bite. The latest NIC report raises the possibility that Putin’s eventual departure from power could speed Russia’s declining geopolitical position, especially if internal instability ensues.
However, such a distant scenario provides no comfort to a Ukrainian population now under siege and fighting desperately to preserve its independence.
Bart W. Édes
Bart W. Édes is a policy analyst, commentator, and author of Learning From Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption. He is a Professor of Practice at McGill University, and Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Édes focuses on developing Asian economies, international trade and sustainable development, and transformative trends reshaping the world.