If Russia feels threatened, its reaction could be ‘unpredictable, swift and massive’

  • The world is 'less stable and predictable than during the Cold War,' EIU experts warn.
  • Moscow's increasing assertiveness and provocative military actions in recent years have alarmed its neighbors in Europe and the wider West.
  • Russia is accused of interfering in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election. Last week, 13 Russian individuals and several business entities were charged, although Moscow has denied involvement.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Alexey Nikolsky | AFP | Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

International relations between Russia and the rest of the world are now less stable and predictable than they were during the Cold War, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

"The country may be one of the biggest 'black swans' of political risk in 2018," Agathe Demarais, lead analyst for Russia and regional manager for Europe at the EIU, said in a report published Wednesday.

"The international situation is now less stable and predictable than during the Cold War."

Under Vladimir Putin's strongman leadership since 1999, Russia has asserted itself as a resurgent global superpower with political and economic influence. It is being closely watched by Europe, China and the U.S. for clues on where its foreign policy is headed.

Moscow's increasing assertiveness and provocative military actions in recent years have alarmed its neighbors in Europe and the wider West. In particular, Russia's annexation of Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014 and role in a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine around the same time prompted an international outcry with economic sanctions imposed on the country that are still in place.

Russia is now in the spotlight for alleged meddling in the U.S. political system, accused of interfering in the run-up to the 2016 election. Last week, 13 Russian individuals and several business entities were charged, although the Russian state has denied involvement.

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation on November 11, 2017.
Jorge Silva | AFP | Getty Images
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation on November 11, 2017.

An increasingly confident Russia is far more unpredictable now, the EIU's Demarais told CNBC.

"Should Russia feel aggressed or believe that its national interests are threatened, for instance, if a revolution similar to the one which happened in Ukraine in 2013/14 was to take place, Russia's reaction could prove unpredictable, swift and massive," Demarais said.

"In addition, Russia could increase its use of hybrid warfare tactics, such as cyberattacks or propaganda operations, to disrupt processes that it would see as a direct risk to its interests."

She said Russia's foreign policy actions seem to be guided by two imperatives, both "preventing any country that it sees in its direct sphere of influence (i.e. former Soviet Union nations) from joining Western institutions (such as the European Union or NATO) and asserting and cementing its position on the international scene."

Return to the Cold War?

The Cold War era following World War II was characterized by geopolitical and ideological tensions and hostilities between Western powers, collected under the NATO alliance, and the U.S.S.R and its Communist allies, including Cuba.

The term "Cold War" is used as there was never open warfare between the two sides, although the situation threatened to get "hot" a number of times, notably during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when the U.S. and Soviet governments strategically placed ballistic missiles near each other's territories.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Russia and the West have never been warm and in recent years relations have deteriorated, leading experts to predict a return to a Cold War-era of tensions. Some believe that the Cold War never really ended.

Maximilien Lambertson, Russia analyst at the EIU, told CNBC on Thursday that Russia's international activities over the past decade have been hard to predict and analysts have often struggled to decipher the Kremlin's motivations.

"Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatist rebels in the Donbas all came as a surprise," he said. "Russia's methods in Ukraine, using 'little green men' (soldiers with no insignia or rank) to annex Crimea, were also unconventional.

"However, aggression against NATO members remains a red line, the same as it was during the Cold War, and the world is now quite familiar with Russia's hybrid warfare tactics."