Imagine, for a moment, that the future of global political power is a zero-sum contest, one in which you—the wealthy, self-elected head of a heavily armed petroleum state—are competing against the United States. Every place Washington loses clout, you gain. Now imagine that your competitor appears to be relenting as it looks to shrink its global military footprint and loses interest in maintaining the alliances that hold you in check. As 2019 dawns, where do you invest your resources, your time, your military assets to secure the greatest gains? A zero-sum game may not be the best way to understand global affairs, but it is how Russian President Vladimir Putin understands it. The West’s loss is his gain, or at least, something to show the Russian people in order to discredit democracy.
Several experts who closely track Russian military and diplomatic maneuverings have offered their view of what Putin may try to pull in 2019. They predict that the situation between Russia and Ukraine will worsen. Some expect an imminent attack against Ukraine after a prolonged military tank buildup on the border. Others were more conservative in the estimates of when and how large new hostilities would flare.
One expert expects Putin to cement a new role as primary powerbroker in the Middle East as the U.S. retreats. At home, they say, the Russian leader will work to field more drones and marshal the country’s resources toward a leading position in artificial intelligence. Let’s take a look:
Both Russian and Ukrainian officials have been forecasting an increase in hostility in 2019, each preemptively blaming the other. On Dec. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia believes Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was preparing some sort of “provocation” near the end of the month.
Lavrov’s statement, and similar ones from other Russian officials, “could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow preparing the information space, i.e. setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks,” Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA Corp, wrote in a recent blog post. “Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce (clashes likely to resume after the orthodox new year on January 14th), and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January.” Yet he also said that a major Russian assault on Ukraine, one designed to seize and hold large areas of territory, is “improbable.”
A more dire view can be found in a recent analysis from Catherine Harris, Mason Clark, and Nicole Geis with the Institute of the Study of War. They conclude that Moscow will likely “escalate militarily against Ukraine imminently. Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine.”
They note in particular recent Russian statements about the possibility of Ukrainian use of chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, has said that the Russian military poses its greatest threat to Ukraine since 2014. At a recent press conference, Muzhenko pointed to satellite imagery of a new military base near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, close to the Ukrainian border. The photos show hundreds of T-64 and T-62 tanks, plus trucks and artillery.
ISW concludes that the tank build-up heralds an increased likelihood of an offensive. Kofman is unconvinced since neither the Russian military, nor the irregular “separatist” forces that they support, use T-62 and T-64 tanks. The forces fighting in Ukraine are trained on more modern T-64BV and T-72B1 tanks and there is little overlap, he says. “The T-62 is a completely different design, using different caliber ammunition, sights, fire control, and so on – so it is not possible for someone trained on a T-72 to just jump into this tank and ‘invade Ukraine,’” he writes.
Experts also pointed to the possibility that Russian forces could launch a land grab operation from the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula. The Black Sea Fleet has its headquarters there and the Russians recently deployed the S-400 anti-aircraft radar and missile battery to the peninsula as well.
But the most important factor in the future of Crimea is the acute shortage of water, a situation that’s going to get much worse by 2040.
Crimea derives 86 percent of its water from the Dnieper-Crimea canal in Ukraine. In 2014, the government of Ukraine cut off water to the annexed peninsula, exacerbating the shortage. While Russia has been building infrastructure to connect Crimea to Russia, such as a large bridge, there is no easy or cheap replacement for the water coming from Ukraine.
“A military operation to secure water supply for Crimea, currently a low-probability but high-impact scenario, would require Russian invasion into the Kherson region of Ukraine, potentially under a hybrid scenario under the pretence of assisting the oppressed Russian speakers in the region, reminiscent of the Donbass conflict’s scenario in 2014,” Jane’s Intelligence Weekly noted in July.
Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant defense secretary with responsibility for Russia and Ukraine, says that the Dnieper Crimea canal could be Putin’s prime target in Ukraine in 2019.
“One of the military options on the table that is most likely to be executed is a limited incursion north from Crimea into [the] Kherson oblast to seize the canal that carries fresh water from the Dnieper river to Crimea. Without this water, Crimea’s agriculture sector can’t survive,” wrote Carpenter, who is now senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
But a military offensive to take the canal wouldn’t be a quiet one, notes Kofman. “In scope, this is about a 65-70 km push, which is equivalent to the depth of territory seized in the Donbas region. Kherson may be relatively easy to cut off, but it would require a substantial number of forces to effect this kind of operation and earn Russia an entire new host of problems.”
Ukraine will hold presidential elections at the end of March. Experts were split on whether that represented ideal timing for such an assault (Carpenter) or terrible timing (Kofman) since an assault could provide the beleaguered Poroshenko government in Kyiv a justification for postponing the elections.
Elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East
Putin may seek to exacerbate simmering tensions in Azerbaijan, Carpenter said — specifically in a small disputed territory within the country known as Nagorno-Karabakh, governed independently by an ethnically-Armenian government and supported by “hardline” Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan. Says Carpenter, “A military flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh is a real possibility if Pashinyan doesn’t submit to Putin’s diktat.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda has been pushing U.S. President Donald Trump for a U.S. military base in Poland. Carpenter predicts that if Trump submits to that wish, Putin will push hard for a countering base in Belarus, an ally of Russia. It’s something that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko “has skillfully resisted until now,” says Carpenter. “Tensions could flare if there isn’t a meeting of minds between Moscow and Minsk, and Moscow almost certainly has an Anschluss plan in reserve if they feel Lukashenko is not bending,” he says, referring the German annexation of nearby Austria in 1938.
In Yugoslavia, “If Kosovo and Serbia reach a deal on a land-swap and mutual diplomatic recognition, I expect Russia will back Republika Srpska‘s secession from Bosnia, which could lead to renewed conflict in the Balkans,” he says.
Across the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, the U.S. withdrawal will make Moscow “even more of a regional powerbroker, but it will also saddle the Kremlin with the cost of propping up the Assad regime (they will never pay for reconstruction, but survival will still extract a cost),” Carpenter says.
But Putin will expand his influence with players Russia has been wary of in the past. Whereas Russia and Saudi Arabia have historically found themselves on opposite sides of the table, particularly in terms oil market regulation, that’s recently begun to change. Carpenter predicts that Russian-Saudi relations will get much closer in 2019 “leading to coordinated supply cuts in the oil market. The Khashoggi killing is a gift to Putin (hence the high fives in Buenos Aires), and he’ll continue to try to step into Saudi the same way Russia is displacing the US in Egypt.”
The Russians could also initiate a limited military operation in Libya to lend a hand to Moscow’s favorite Gaddafi wanna-be, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has taken over a large part of the country and who visits Moscow frequently.
Meanwhile, Putin is poised to gain from the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan as well, Carpenter predicts. “Russia will seek to cut a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and displace NATO [international Security Assistance Force] as the region’s chief powerbroker. The Taliban will almost certainly gain in strength after the U.S. drawdown,” he says.
Military Exercises and Science and Technology
On the science and technology front, Russia will look to field new long-range missiles that would have been prohibited under the crumbling INF treaty, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said recently. He also projected that Russia would conduct no fewer than 4,000 exercises in 2019.
The number of exercises Russia partakes in has been going up every year since 2008, according to Aki Heikkinen, curator of the site Russiamilitarywatch.com. The largest will be September’s “Center” exercise. Heikkinen says be on the lookout for at least one involving the Strategic Missile Corps and one in the Southern Military District, the nearest one to Crimea and the Black Sea.
The District’s commander, Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, is “very capable and has rapidly upped combat capabilities with innovative training and giving officers much more operational freedom to execute tasks,” he says.
In terms of weapons, Russia will also look to its experiences in Syria to rapidly field new armed drones, such as the Uran-6, according to Samuel Bendett, a researcher at the CNA Corporation and a fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Russia’s Syrian experience taught its military [about] the absolutely key importance of strike drones, so the [Ministry of Defense] is keen on finally fast-tracking specific designs and let the military start testing them out,” he said.
Russia will continue to invest and rapidly upgrade electronic and cyber weapons, with many new systems coming online, he says. Commanders will emphasize new electronic warfare and counter electronic warfare training across the branches.
In terms of artificial intelligence, where Putin has lofty ambitions but lacks the discretionary budget of China nor the tech sector of the U.S., “there is a stark realization in Russia that it has to invest in developing advanced digital technologies or risk losing out in the technology race. In fact, President Putin actually stated that if Russia does not make a concerted effort in that field, the country “won’t even be able to jump on the last car of the fast-moving technological progress train,” said Bendett.
In March, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Academy of Science announced that they would begin working on an AI development roadmap to guide the future of AI in conflict and military affairs. “Then-Deputy Defense Minister [Yury] Borisov also stated … that developing domestic AI capabilities will help Russia to effectively counter in the information space and win in cyber wars,” said Bendett.
How quickly Vladimir Putin will be able to achieve any of his aims will depend—and not exclusively—on the West’s willingness to exact economic and other penalties on Russia for his behavior.
That remains very difficult to predict.