Putin's New Year menu
The next year has all chances to become the most dangerous year on a global scale since the beginning of the 21st century. Pretty soon, conflicts of varying intensity may erupt in or come back to many of the post-Soviet states, as well as the Middle East and Central Asia. Putin’s Russia is in the center of a new global confrontation. The path of force is the only chance for it to equalize its influence with the West.
So, what dishes has the major war monger from Moscow on his "New Year's menu”?
In the first place, there is a possible continuation of the conflict against Ukraine in Donbas with varying intensity, amid ongoing occupation of Crimea. Putin is not inclined to comply with the Minsk agreements, aware that Western sanctions will not be lifted during the next six months anyway. Meanwhile, the oil and gas prices will continue to drop, zeroing Russian reserves in 2016, with the prospects of facing an economic collapse and social disaster.
Thus, the Russian troops are unlikely to withdraw from Donbas in the coming year, given no force majeure within the Russian Federation occurs. Aggression on their part, as well as the stance of the militants from “DPR” and “LPR” will be sporadic due to the various circumstances within these separatist enclaves and their relations with Russia. Since the Kremlin sharply reduced funding, the militants may try to initiate negotiations with Ukraine to find a model of conflict resolution. In any case, as far as the Kremlin controls the situation within Russia, Putin will not order its troops out of Ukraine.
Another point of a possible conflict in 2016 can become Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow would benefit from pushing Armenia and Azerbaijan toward military confrontation. This can halt the construction of a new TANAP gas pipeline aimed to transport Caspian gas to Europe. Provoking a new war in the Caucasus, Russia may try to resume hostilities against Georgia, in order to stop its European and NATO integration of this state. This may take a shape of a direct invasion, just like in the Ukrainian Donbas and Crimea.
Another potential area of conflict is Transnistria, where the Russian troops stationed in the unrecognized breakaway Republic can be used to destabilize the situation in Moldova and create another hotbed of armed confrontation at the border with the EU. Russia has no offensive forces in Transnistria, but the existing contingent may be sufficient for local operations, sabotage and destruction of local infrastructure. Putin may use Transnistrian escalation to divert Europe’s attention from unfolding warfare in other regions.
In general, the situation in all post-Soviet Central Asia is an open question. Tajikistan is now slowly sinking into a state of civil war between the new central government with the rebel generals and drug lords while the Russian troops are supporting the incumbent president. Having sharply stepped up construction of TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, Turkmenistan could face a "friendly visit" of the Taliban or the Afghan branch of ISIL at the request of their Russian curators. The Ferghana Valley also can be a very likely target of attacks by the Taliban and ISIL. Military escalation in this area could plunge Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan into the abyss of war. It is possible that there may be attempts to involve Kazakhstan in these hostilities, as well. There is a very significant reason for this – the launch of the so-called new Silk Road linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which bypasses Russia.
All of the Kremlin’s potential scenarios mentioned above are based on economic motivation – to prevent the creation of new energy and transport corridors around Russia, which will damage its economy, directly or indirectly. But of course, Putin also has geopolitical motives.
We shouldn’t forget about the possibility of increased provocations against the Baltic and Scandinavian states. While Russia wouldn’t dare to directly attack NATO troops recently deployed in the Baltic bridgehead, it is still quite capable of trying to mark the "red line" in Finland or Sweden. By the way, the Scandinavian countries may not be ready for an Erdogan-style response and may not dare to shoot down a Russian jet or sink a submarine, which would violate their sovereign borders. Moreover, there is a danger of a hybrid war in Latvia, where the lives of thousands of ethnic Russians living in the Baltic States may be thrown in the furnace of a potential conflict.
Perhaps, Syria and the neighboring areas will remain the hottest conflict zone. Despite the triumphant statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on arrangements with Putin on the issue of Assad’s surrender, Russia is likely to sink deeper into the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, the United States still fails to realize that Putin will keep fighting on all fronts until the moment he loses power. The war will stop not when Assad leaves, but when the world coalition (led by the U.S., as it’s the most powerful player in military terms) stops the Kremlin dictator before he starts a global armed conflict.
Iraq may become another potential flashpoint of conflict around Syria. No wonder Moscow has repeatedly stated its intention to help the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIL. In fact, if the Kremlin enters Iraq and sets up military bases, it is most likely to use them to attack the oil fields in the Persian Gulf. Thus, the conflict can reach a new level of escalation if Russia enters Iraq and, suddenly, the militants without insignia start attacking oil platforms in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait. By the way, according to some information, Yemen has been trying to launch a couple of missiles at the Saudi oil fields. The attempt failed, but the Kremlin is unlikely to give up. In the case of a military scenario unfolding in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. will be forced to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia, regardless of the "softness" of the U.S. President’s stance. Once again, this may further complicate the situation.
A separate story is a potential confrontation between Turkish and Russian forces in Syria and around it. This can occur in the air, at sea or on land. All necessary equipment for full-scale battles has already been deployed in the conflict zone. The question now is only the time and the event which may spark the hostilities if the parties don’t slow down the escalation.
Thus, next year can be a time of the big fire and chaos. Only one thing needs to be done, not to let it happen - to eliminate the Kremlin "merchant of war", who is unable to stop. A simple analysis shows that the Kremlin still has a very large field for the potential game of indirect military confrontation with the West, under the cover of its nuclear shield.