A Ten Year Forecast: Russia’s Decline, Central Europe’s Ascent

By Edward Lucas

In a thought-provoking forecast, CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas anticipates Russia’s palpable decline by 2020, having fallen behind Brazil, India and China. Meanwhile, Central Europe will be on the ascent, with the three Baltic States “overtaking the sluggish, debt-ridden economies of Southern Europe.”

In a thought-provoking forecast, CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas anticipates Russia’s palpable decline by 2020, having fallen behind Brazil, India and China. Meanwhile, Central Europe will be on the ascent, with the three Baltic States “overtaking the sluggish, debt-ridden economies of Southern Europe.”

What will Central Europe look like in 2020? For starters, NATO will be weaker. The war in Afghanistan was a big test for the alliance. If it cannot fight missions in faraway countries, it is not worth the money. NATO’s European members have largely failed that test – a failure much bigger than in Iraq. That war could be blamed on George W. Bush’s recklessness and the incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. Even in America, the Iraq War was divisive.

Afghanistan was a different matter: Toppling the Taliban had wide support in Europe. Indeed, it was leftist Europeans who were loudest in demanding international intervention against violations of basic human rights by the Taliban. Now it is Europe that is failing the test. Too circumscribed by caveats to do much fighting and too culturally distant from Afghanistan to do much training, the Europeans (with some honorable Polish, Baltic and British exceptions) look from an American point of view like a wasted asset.
Europeans return the coolness. Self-indulgently, they want a different, more appreciative America as an ally and different wars too: easy ones, preferably. Nobody is talking yet about breaking up NATO, but benign neglect is just as bad. In 2010, NATO resembles a marriage where the husband and wife have agreed to separate vacations. The next stage will be separate bedrooms and bank accounts. By 2020 they will meet only at breakfast, to haggle over the household bills. If NATO HQ and SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) exist at all in 2020, expect them to be shrunken, cheaper versions of their former selves. That will hurt the real-estate market in some Brussels suburbs and the personal financial planning of some military bureaucrats. But few others will notice. NATO was long past its sell-by date.
The hollowing out of NATO will not end America’s commitment to European security. But it will change it. Europe will try to deal with a lot of security issues by itself. The biggest successes will be in the western Balkans. By 2020 most bits of the former Yugoslavia and Albania will be in the European Union (EU). Even the hardest cases, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be about to join. Thirty years after the first shots were fired in the wars of the Yugoslav succession, European soft power will have triumphed. America may not receive the thanks it deserves, but it will be able to declare “mission accomplished” in the western Balkans. Turkey will have dumped its EU aspirations, but will settle for a Norwegian-style association. The big challenge for the EU in 2020 will be to rekindle euro-enthusiasm in Turkey and Ukraine. Georgia will be pounding on the door too, and with a higher living standard and better government than some EU members, it will be hard to say no.
Among America’s residual European commitments, the High North and Arctic region will remain a top priority, with Norway as the most important security partner (possibly more so than Canada, which, German-style, may decide to snuggle up to Russia). Denmark, thanks to its Greenland connection, will play a significant role too, as will Britain (assuming that defense cuts don’t completely abolish the navy). Agreeing on a regime for mineral exploitation at the top of the world will be the hot topic: Expect plenty of conferences if we are lucky, international lawsuits or even naval standoffs if we are not.
Oil and Israel will ensure that America also retains a presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. That will mean maintaining naval bases in friendly, if apathetic Italy, and perhaps elsewhere. Countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia will be the focus of continued American interest (though the tug-of-war may be with China rather than Russia). But Europe’s energy market will be in good shape. Technological change will make unconventional forms of hydrocarbons cheaper to exploit. Russia’s east-west monopoly of gas export pipelines will be a tiresome historical relic, rather than a threat. The big worry will be not Russia’s clout but its weakness. With central Asian countries exporting directly to the west and to China, Russia will be struggling to meet its export commitments.
Russia’s decline will be palpable by 2020. The military modernization will fail. On the human side, recruiting and training 100,000-plus NCOs (the single most important element in the move to a professional, flexible, deployable, modern army) will prove impossible. The military-industrial complex will continue to fail to deliver the weapons and platforms that Russia needs. Russia will buy some new weapons abroad (the Mistrals being ordered from France are a harbinger). But it will lack the money to buy everything it needs. Its petro rubles will decline too, as the lack of investment in oil and gas exploration and development begins to bite.
Having fallen behind Brazil, India and China, it will struggle to keep up with second-rank emerging economies such as Vietnam and Nigeria. It will be increasingly dependent on its dwindling arsenal of nuclear weapons (both battlefield and strategic) to compensate for the shortcomings of its conventional military. Its ability to project power beyond its borders will be weak to non-existent.
But Russia will remain a lingering threat to its neighbors. America will retain a residual security commitment in the Baltic region: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are the only bits of NATO that actually need defending from Russia. But by 2020 the reassurance will chiefly involve hi-tech drones, robot soldiers, anti-missile defenses, electronic jamming devices and well-resourced human intelligence rather than boots on the ground.
Europe’s security architecture will remain a mess. New plans will get nowhere; old organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will not work. Few voters will care. The big issues in security policy will be counter-terrorism, cyber security and illegal immigration, rather than the deployment of armed forces against military threats. Sooner or later, something will awaken Europe from its post-modern delusions. But I doubt it will come by 2020.
The EU will remain the best place in the world to live in terms of quality of life, health care, education and infrastructure. But its north will be in better shape than its south. The eight “ex-communist” members will, by 2020, have dropped that label. Central European countries and the three Baltic States will have overtaken the sluggish, debt-ridden economies of Portugal, Greece and Spain and will be fast catching up to Italy. These countries will be run by people with only the dimmest childhood memories of communism, or none at all. They will demand, and get, the same quality of public services they see in neighboring countries. All will have adopted the euro (though some of the southern European countries may have dumped it).
Europe will look different in 2020: More diverse and more Muslim in its younger population, still white and secular in its older echelons. But that will be a strength, not a weakness. The polarized ethnic and religious ghettoes of some cities in continental Europe will be fading: The future will look more like London is now and less like Antwerp. The biggest social problem will be in the east, not the west: The fate of the fast-growing Romany (Gypsy) populations in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Even with enlightened policies, Europe will still be wrestling in 2020 with decades of neglect.
Editors Note: Edward Lucas is Senior Editor at The Economist and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.