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Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The past year was a difficult one for Russian foreign policy. 2016 was marked both by diplomatic victories and new challenges that remain unresolved. While in certain areas, such as the Asia-Pacific region, Russia made major positive advances, the situation in other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, remained complex and controversial. Some foreign policy initiatives, including those related to Europe, NATO and Ukraine, unfortunately, saw no breakthroughs over the course of 2016.

What dangers and risks did Russia navigate successfully? The first thing that comes to mind is the de-escalation of tensions with Turkey following the flare-up in tensions of November 2015, as well as the prevention of large-scale intensification of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after the so-called “Four-Day War” of April 2016.

Russia’s achievements also included its ability to abstain from full-fledged involvement in the Syrian civil war and the decision not to launch massive ground operations even though throughout the year the temptation to be dragged further into the conflict in Syria was omnipresent.

Europe, NATO and post-Soviet space 

As the year comes to a close, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine persists as the top unresolved issue in the post-Soviet space. All parties to the Minsk Process admitted that the past twelve months brought no significant progress in the implementation of the peace accord. Moreover, over the course of 2016, there were several spikes in military activity along the demarcation line, and the OSCE was unable to boost its role as the peacekeeper and monitor in the conflict zone. Finally, the information war between Moscow and Kiev continued, adding new difficulties to the political dialogue.

At the end of the year, the European Union yet again prolonged its sanctions against Russia, and all talk of increasing the flexibility of the sanctions mechanism turned out to be futile. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held in June, President Vladimir Putin suggested partial restoration of Russia’s cooperation with the European Union to the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.

However, there has yet to be a response to this offer. The European Union did present its five-part platform for further cooperation with Russia (dubbed the “Five Principles of Federica Mogherini”), which was received rather skeptically in Moscow.

Resolutions approved at the July NATO Summit in Warsaw de facto documented the reinstatement of the Russia containment strategy from the Cold War era, and the deployment of additional NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic countries caused Russia to respond by introducing counter-measures. Moreover, further deployment of anti-ballistic missile units in Poland and Romania predictably served as an additional point of contention. These actions effectively jeopardized the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, one of the few remaining seminal instruments for international control over non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Russia’s attempts at renewing in-depth dialogue with NATO, at least over specific technical matters, such as aircraft transponders, did not yield any results. Russia and NATO could not even agree on Moscow or Brussels as the location of initial consultations. Even though the Russia-NATO Council officially resumed its operations, so far it has not played any significant role in the improvement of bilateral relations. Security in Europe has been continuously deteriorating. Analysts started talking about a new round of the arms race between Russia and European NATO members.

The Middle East and Syria

Military involvement in Syria was among Russia’s most prominent foreign policy moves of the past year. It is still too early to make a ruling on its success, but Moscow certainly demonstrated the ability to organize a large-scale military operation far from its borders and sustain it over an extended period of time while avoiding further domestic escalation. Russia’ decision to interfere in Syria definitely tipped the balance in the Syrian civil war in favor of the Syrian leadership in Damascus.

A major setback was the inability to follow through with the agreement reached by Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry in September, when they resolved to uphold a ceasefire in Syria and ensure the beginning of political dialogue between rival groups. Naturally, Moscow puts the blame on Barack Obama’s administration, especially Pentagon officials, for having sabotaged the diplomatic efforts of the State Department.

In any case, Donald Trump’s administration will likely reconsider the U.S. approach to the Syrian conflict. That should take several months, which means that Washington’s influence in the region will diminish – at least in the near future.

Towards the end of the year, Russian diplomats stepped up their interactions with major players in the Syrian conflict, including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The heightened activity was facilitated by the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, as well as regional players’ misgivings regarding the possible withdrawal of the U.S. from the region under Trump’s leadership. 

Russia appears to have played a part in the establishment of dialogue on energy matters between Riyadh and Tehran and the ensuing renewal of multilateral negotiations on capping oil production. Moscow also recorded a major diplomatic achievement by arranging and holding a productive trilateral meeting between Russian, Turkish and Iranian ministers of foreign affairs, who agreed on a number of important issues pertaining to the future of Syria.

Russian foreign policy will continue to focus on brokering a compromise between major regional players and renewing the dialogue on political transition options in Syria in 2017. Since the Syrian army and its allies captured Aleppo in December 2016, Damascus and Moscow will have a strong starting position in future negotiations. At the same time, it is possible that in spring 2017 the U.S. and Russia will renew bilateral consultations on Syria, especially over matters pertaining to the fight against international terrorism.

Read the full article in the Russia Direct Report "The Year in Review"

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