Russia has been in the international spotlight in recent months, with frustration over endemic corruption, lingering anger over December’s manipulated Duma elections and Vladimir Putin’s carefully orchestrated return to the presidency bringing Russian protesters out into the streets in greater numbers than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. But despite its political crisis, Russia retains the ability to impact U.S. interests worldwide: The Kremlin is unafraid to flex its still-considerable muscle abroad, blocking U.S.-led efforts to sanction and topple the bloody government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threatening to upend European and even global security over NATO missile defense plans and continuing to pressure former-Soviet neighbors into economic reintegration in exchange for lower energy prices.

Responding to the challenges and the opportunities posed by Russia will be a clear priority for Washington going forward, and no matter who wins the presidential election in November, the next U.S. president would benefit from a clear understanding of what Russia’s leaders want and how they are likely to behave in the coming years. As it has for every previous administration going back decades, the U.S. intelligence community will seek to provide that understanding as part of a comprehensive strategic forecasting exercise. The latest iteration, dubbed “Global Trends 2030,” should be completed by the end of this year.

Matthew Rojansky
Rojansky, formerly executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, is an expert on U.S. and Russian national security and nuclear-weapon policies.
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But strategic forecasting is a two-way street, and American policymakers would also benefit from understanding the vision of the future that is driving decision-makers in Russia and beyond. Thanks in part to its legacy as a global superpower, Russia’s analytical community has had quite a bit of practice at strategic forecasting. But the discipline has evolved considerably since Soviet times, converging to a surprising degree with the work of Moscow’s former Cold War rivals in the West.

Strategic Forecasting in Russia

Since being freed from the Soviet system’s ideological constraints on objective analysis in the 1990s, Russian analytical institutions have joined the global strategic forecasting trend. Some, such as the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), have published future-oriented strategies designed to provide context and content in support of the Russian government’s prescriptive long-term policy documents, the most recent being the Kremlin’s “Strategy 2020” white paper. The Carnegie Moscow Center, for its part, has brought together a leading group of international experts to forecast alternative scenarios for Russia’s development through 2020, with conclusions that reflect less optimistically on Russia’s current trajectory.

The prestigious and still government-linked Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences has released annual short-term global economic forecasts, along with two major long-term forecasts over the past decade: a study on globalization titled “World of the Millennium” in 2001 and “World Economy 2020” in 2007. IMEMO’s latest long-term forecasting project, “Strategic Global Outlook: 2030,” looks ahead one decade further into the current century. Notably, for the first time it departs from a primarily economics-based analytical framework, adopting a methodology that combines economics with security studies, political science, demography and the study of religions and social movements. The goal of the project, according to IMEMO director Alexander Dynkin, was to “produce a comprehensive view of qualitative global changes in two decades to come.”

While “Outlook” is clearly framed as a tool for assisting Russian policymakers, it is hardly a mere complement to official Kremlin strategy documents. Rather, “Outlook” challenges the Russian leadership to recognize and adapt to what it defines as objectively measurable global trends, even when those run counter to the Kremlin line. Through this, Dynkin maintains, the “consistency” of Russian policy can be improved, which may in turn increase the country’s “constructive influence on global development.” As one scholar involved in the project put it, the authors even sought to “show if Russia is ready or not to participate in new economic, political and security global trends. In this sense our forecast was very sensitive for many governmental officials -- and brave. We did not try to cover the sharp corners for Russia.”

“Outlook: 2030” matters for a U.S. and wider international audience -- it will be released in Chinese, Korean, English and other languages -- for several reasons. First, it offers substantive and useful insights about the Russian perspective on major global political, economic, social and military/security trends. Although there is considerable convergence between IMEMO’s analysis and forecasting work done elsewhere, the introduction of this Russian perspective helps reduce the risk that U.S. analysts may fall prey to a domestic echo chamber, dominated by those arguments that are simply the loudest or most politically convenient. Second, IMEMO is itself a well-regarded and influential institution in Russia, and the report draws on the work of a critical mass of Russian experts who may be said to represent a near-consensus of the Russian expert community. Thus, the report offers an important window on the world as seen from Moscow. This, in turn, can help outsiders understand why Russia does what it does.

Finally, IMEMO’s strategic forecasting exercise can be interpreted as a meta-discourse on the state of the Russian expert community. In particular, to the extent that the conclusions and recommendations of Russian experts diverge from those of the current political leadership, this may indicate a growing rift between the most conservative elements within the government and the intellectual and technical expert class that has traditionally also been a part of the Russian “establishment.”

Outlook 2030

The difficulty -- some might call it futility -- of trying to predict major world events was evident in the 1970s and 1980s, when experts on both sides of the Iron Curtain overwhelmingly expected Soviet communism to endure into the 21st century. Real world events, of course, turned out differently, and the debate over what and who caused that change still rages among historians in Russia and the West. Yet there is more to be said for the discipline of strategic forecasting when defined not as mere prediction, but instead as an evidence-based effort to understand present global trends, and then to suggest in what broad directions such trends might lead over the coming decades. In keeping with IMEMO’s longstanding orientation toward economic analysis, “Outlook: 2030” draws heavily on hard economic data, including figures for GDP, labor productivity, R&D investment, currency reserves, population growth and other important metrics. As a consequence, the project’s descriptions of current economic, political, social and security trends are robust and data-rich, and its forecasts for the future are both wide-ranging and fundamentally conservative.

According to “Outlook,” global economic growth for the period 2011-2030 is expected to average 4-4.5 percent per year, an increase of roughly 1 percent over the average for the previous two decades due primarily to accelerating world trade and globalization. The study is careful to note, however, that the gains will be unevenly distributed, favoring rapidly developing countries like China, Brazil and Vietnam, and leaving growth rates in developed economies like those of the U.S., Western Europe and Japan basically flat. This, in turn, will shift the traditional dividing lines, so that instead of two camps of global “haves” and “have-nots” represented by developed and developing economies, we may begin to see a new dividing line within the developing world itself between success stories and those that have failed to keep up. Moreover, the measures of success will no longer simply be GDP and GDP per capita, which will give way to measures of efficiency, innovation and quality of life. Still, the overall conclusion of the study is conservative, suggesting that by 2030, China, the most successful developing economy, will at best only begin to approach the United States in terms of most measures of economic power.

Two predictions in the economic sphere are particularly notable. First, “Outlook” argues that rather than the G-8 gradually giving way to the G-20 as the pre-eminent body for managing global economic problems, the G-8 and the G-20 will remain quite distinct. The G-8 will function as a kind of “club of issuers of key world currencies” -- primarily the dollar and the euro, as well as the yen, the pound sterling and, with China’s eventual inclusion, the yuan -- whereas the G-20 will be hampered by the inherent difficulty of finding consensus among actors with dramatically different interests. Second, “Outlook” forecasts that by 2030, the traditional nation-state map of the global economy will be supplemented by a “world corporate map,” depicting areas of activity of transnational banks and corporations. Transnational corporate integration, the study argues, will enhance efficiency of capital investment in developing countries, increase the pace of globalization and interdependence, and thus increase the instances of conflict between the parochial interests of national governments and the global interests of transnational corporations.

At the same time that rising economic growth will reduce the percentage of the world’s poor, “Outlook” predicts greater social stratification, with the rise of a class of transnational super-rich and the relative stagnation of the middle and working classes. Super-rich individuals, like the transnational corporations to which they are linked, will maintain their own policy objectives as a class that may come into conflict with those of the nation-states of which they are citizens. This conflict will be particularly acute in the face of a rising trend of populism, religious extremism and neonationalism that may appeal to a large number of those who have been “left behind” by globalization.

Many of the predictions made by “Outlook” about the impacts of globalization track with what other scholars and analysts in the West have also noted. For example, the study’s authors are certainly not alone in their belief that military strength is becoming an increasingly outdated measure of power. In the 21st century, one prominent Western scholar has claimed, “better measures of power take into account economic productivity, global market share, technological innovation, natural resource endowments and population size as well as intangible factors such as national willpower and diplomatic skill.” IMEMO’s experts, following similar reasoning, maintain that military supremacy will become less relevant as economic might, advanced technology and cultural influence become more significant instruments of foreign policy. “Outlook” even embraces the terms “soft power” and “smart power” coined by Western experts during the past two decades.

Though by any measure of power the United States may not face a rival superpower in the next 20 years, “Outlook” argues that Washington will at the same time find itself less able to act unilaterally or impose its will on other states. Indeed, although the “slow erosion of American leadership” may be in part driven by the rise of alternate power centers, “Outlook” predicts a shift from competition between states and groups of states for geopolitical dominance to “responsible leadership,” whereby countries work together to address security challenges. Yet in seeming contradiction to its descriptions of a decline in the importance of military power and a more harmonious system of global governance due to increasing economic interdependence, “Outlook” hews to some models rooted in 20th-century nation-state rivalry, such as a “hierarchy” of world powers.

Although Washington retains the top spot on the “polycentric world hierarchy” proposed by “Outlook,” the authors do not expect the U.S./Western model of liberal democracy to remain dominant. Instead, like no small number of Western scholars, they suggest that China’s rise will prove to other growing economies and societies around the world that the so-called Washington Consensus is not a “universally applicable growth model.” Alternatives to liberal democracy may include some features of the Chinese system (though not a single coherent ideology), moderate forms of socialism and social democracy, socialist-reformist globalism emphasizing sustainable development, anti-globalization and fringe movements such as fascism and radical nationalism.

Over the next two decades, “Outlook” envisions a shift from U.S.-Russian mutual nuclear deterrence to mutual nuclear security, as the already low likelihood of armed conflict between major nuclear powers decreases further. At the same time, economic and political conflicts remain possible, and limited uses of force in counterterrorism and peacekeeping missions as well as regional interstate conflicts are likely. “Outlook” also predicts the growth of sophisticated transnational terrorism, cyberterrorism, narcotics trafficking, new biological weapons, and environmental and technological disasters, which threaten to destabilize whole regions as countries become increasingly interdependent.

The study suggests that the United States and Russia will agree on further reductions to their nuclear arsenals -- indeed, de facto reductions may even be undertaken unilaterally. However, the authors’ assertion that “there will be an opportunity for development of common ballistic missile defense systems” would represent a major reversal of the current trend of acute conflict over U.S./NATO missile defense plans in Europe. Similarly, the optimism expressed regarding NATO-Russia security cooperation and a new “trans-Pacific security” structure linking the United States, Russia, China and Japan is difficult to reconcile with current trends. Indeed, the report does include several plausible “negative scenarios” that could derail attempts at greater international cooperation, such as Chinese militarization and regional nuclear confrontation, for example between India and Pakistan.

How Russia Sees the World

As the title suggests, "Outlook" is not just about what is happening in the world, but how Russians perceive those developments and how the country can address them. In this respect, IMEMO has answered the call of Russia’s leading political figure, President-elect Vladimir Putin, who recently wrote, “We should learn to look ‘past the horizon,’ and estimate threats 30 or even 50 years away. This is a serious objective and requires mobilizing the resources of civilian and military science and reliable standards for long-term forecasting.” With “Outlook,” Putin may have gotten more than he bargained for, including a look at some of the most serious challenges Russia faces at home as well as in the world.

“Outlook” identifies Russia’s core social problem as the need to find a functional national consensus on identity and values. The authors note that the rise of extreme nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia in Russia coincides with a resurgence of rhetoric about Russian exceptionalism. Such trends threaten Russia’s social harmony -- since it is and has long been a multiethnic society with extensive regional and global ties -- and could also deny Russia many benefits of globalization. “Outlook” suggests somewhat blandly that Russians can avoid going down this path by embracing the idea of Russia as an Atlantic and a Pacific power that upholds “European values,” such as human rights and the rule of law, while developing partnerships with other states.

As “Outlook” correctly notes, Russia’s reliance on the export of oil and natural gas and lack of integration into regional and global markets inhibit economic growth. Although Russia’s World Trade Organization accession this year will open the Russian economy to greater foreign trade and investment, there is not yet an effective strategy for economic development. The authors recommend a “twin-vector economic strategy” that simultaneously orients Russia’s economy toward the East and West, so that it can benefit from advanced technology and investment from both.
The most obvious constraint on Russia’s ability to pursue such a strategy is its poor climate for business and investment, in particular the pervasive corruption that crops up at every level of state and society. In addition, the country’s underdeveloped public health system, relatively anemic middle class, continuing “brain drain” emigration and aging workforce will hinder Russia’s competitiveness and attractiveness for investment. Though “Outlook” avoids the “third rail” of Russian politics -- addressing official corruption at the top levels of government -- it recommends the Kremlin adopt policies to foster the growth of small business, eliminate excessive bureaucracy and even offer greater freedom and support for civil society. Putin has shown little enthusiasm in practice for such reforms, but the recent public protests may force his hand, and if his own published articles are to be believed, he recognizes the correlation among corruption, technological backwardness and slow economic growth.

When it comes to Russian foreign policy, “Outlook” seeks to reverse Russia’s traditional perceptions of other major world powers as “potential antagonists.” Nonetheless, in the face of current trends -- such as conflict over missile defense and NATO expansion as well as competition over spheres of influence -- mutual suspicion between Moscow and Washington are likely to continue. Likewise, though Russia will continue to be an “important partner” for the European Union in terms of energy and international security, the authors see a “clash of interests” in the post-Soviet space, such as over EU enlargement in Eastern Europe, as a source of potential conflict. They recommend that Moscow and Brussels create a unified energy system for Europe and a security architecture capable of responding to crises and preventing conflict throughout the region, neither of which appears possible today without U.S. involvement.

It is evident from reading “Outlook” that Russian elites fear that the West has already lost the respect for Russia’s great power status that has traditionally given Moscow some influence over world events. The authors argue that on both sides of the U.S.-Russia reset, constituencies “are unprepared or unwilling to improve significantly bilateral relations.” While “Outlook” recommends sensible investments in building a stronger foundation for the relationship over the long term, such as enhancing technological cooperation and instituting a dialogue about basic values, it is very possible that in the decades ahead Russia will take the “low road,” acting counter to U.S. interests simply to show that it is powerful enough to do so. Not surprisingly, Russia also fears exclusion from security and economic initiatives in Europe, East Asia and beyond. Thus, “Outlook” recommends a Russian diplomatic initiative on all fronts, advancing bilateral and multilateral engagement, and seeking common interests and reduced rivalry with every major power on its periphery.

Russian Experts and the State

“Outlook” departs from the usual output of Russia’s government-connected expert community, in large part because it is so blunt about the problems that Russia faces in keeping up with global trends and challenges. Despite coming from the heart of Russia’s elite policy analytical community, the authors appear to hew more to their own consistent methodology and to widely shared international viewpoints than to the political program of the current Russian government. This may reflect the increasingly insular and isolated character of strategic thinking and policymaking under Putin’s “power vertical,” or it may indicate that IMEMO, notwithstanding its Soviet legacy and formal status within the Academy of Sciences, has evolved into something rather different today.

Still, there is considerable overlap between the conclusions and recommendations in “Outlook” and the publicly stated positions of the Russian government, and indeed of Putin himself. For practically every one of the report’s recommendations, one can find a corresponding argument in Putin’s own recent set of lengthy “platform” articles, which ran in Russian newspapers during the three months leading up to the March 4 presidential election. For example, where “Outlook” calls for greater emphasis on innovation in economic policy, Putin promises new investments in nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, information technology and aerospace, as well as a program to enhance the competitiveness of Russian research universities. Where “Outlook” advises an engagement strategy embracing both Asian and European vectors, Putin touts both closer economic integration with China and visa-free travel with the European Union. In fact, he aspires to develop a “common economic space that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

Conventional wisdom has it that, as in 1991, the Moscow and St. Petersburg intelligentsia have been at the center of Russia’s recent protest movement, even if the crowds that have clogged city streets and squares included many ordinary laborers, office workers, pensioners and assorted others. And while the protests themselves are relatively new, the frustrations of Russia’s beleaguered intellectuals certainly are not. So it is curious that, though the expert authors of IMEMO’s “Strategic Global Outlook: 2030” are clearly leading members of the Russian intelligentsia, there is little hint in the publication of the type of disdain for Putin and Putinism seen nowadays in many blogs and newspaper articles, and even heard on television and radio. Though “Outlook” is about long-term future forecasting, not today’s domestic politics, in any credible forecasting exercise, the prospect of another 12 years of Putin’s presidency must be taken into account. At the same time, avoiding pointless provocation of the authorities, with possibly catastrophic career consequences, may have been reason enough for the authors to steer clear of commenting on the degree to which Russia’s leadership darkens the country’s future prospects.

All in all, the striking degree of overlap between the main recommendations of “Outlook” and the rhetoric -- if not always the behavior -- of Russia’s current leadership suggests one of two possibilities. It could be that Putin and those around him are sincere when they talk about the importance of strategic forecasting, and they have adopted the conclusions and recommendations of this report as their own because they believe that it is the right way to deliver on their stated commitment to prosperity and success for Russia. If that is so, then the gap between Kremlin rhetoric and reality in implementation must stem from a shortage of resources rather than lack of will. On the other hand, it could be that the current leadership is smart enough to appreciate the analyses of global trends collected in “Outlook” and clever enough to borrow some of the authors’ language and ideas, but perhaps not quite sharp enough -- or just unwilling -- to put them into practice. In either case, “Outlook” is important for Western policymakers and analysts as a substantive, high quality analytical work in its own right, and as a guide to official and unofficial strategic thinking in Russia.

This article originally appeared in World Politics Review.