Geopolitical forecasting is an imperfect art. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets confidently asserted to the end that the forces of socialism would prevail over the decadent and corrupt capitalist model. The “correlation of forces” always seemed to be turning their way, until it wasn’t. For their part, American leaders were certain that if Vietnam became communist it might spell the end for the spread of democracy in the region and around the world. Even when there is uncommon clarity about the forces shaping geopolitics, the right conclusion is elusive. In the late 1890s, a Polish banker named Jan Bloch famously forecast the horrifying character of a future war in Europe. He then asserted that such a war was too destructive and illogical to contemplate—only for World War I to break out and look as terrible as he predicted.
Despite the complexities, states create forecasts to strategize for their national security. The U.S. Department of Defense tries to predict how the geopolitical situation might evolve so that it can make decisions on acquisitions, operational concepts, and force structure. Russia has a similar approach that is mandated by a law concerning strategic planning. But what is useful about such state forecasts is not their accuracy. They may well miss the mark. Rather, forecasts reveal what a country envisions as a desirable or undesirable future. And that says a good deal about how it might behave to shape the outcomes it wants.
In 2019-2020, I led a study focused on Russian military forecasting. What we found is that Russia sees the world moving in one of two primary directions. The first is one in which the United States continues to dominate the international system in ways that threaten Russian interests (e.g., the imposition of sanctions denying Russia access to capital and technology). The second is a world with reduced U.S. global influence in which Russia is less inhibited to build up military power and affect the regional and geopolitical outcomes it seeks. Like their Soviet predecessors, Russian analysts tend to see the latter as an outgrowth of natural forces working against the United States. Still, persistent nudging in that direction is also required. The war in Ukraine is exhibit A. Ukraine was moving toward the West politically, militarily, economically, and culturally, and Russia decided that it was not going to realize its regional vision short of military conflict.
I believe that Russia probably has the contours of the competition right, that the United States and its allies will be tested in maintaining a system that most suits their national interests as defined by key decisionmakers. The future will ultimately be determined by the sustainability of the governance and economic models of the defenders of the status quo and the challengers to it, such as Russia and China. These models will come under ideological and practical assault, both externally and from domestic actors who want to move their respective countries in a different direction. Responsible Western leadership—both public and private—will be paramount in ensuring the viability of a system that presently feels precarious.
How Russia Builds its “VPO” Forecast
Russian forecasts begin with an analysis of the global situation: What forces will shape it? What trajectories might the international system take? How will those affect the power dynamics among leading countries, the character of great power competition, technological development, and future war?
Russia cares about such things because they influence how and whether Russia can improve its military potential over the long-term relative to its opponents. For example, if the United States is the dominant player with strong and like-minded allies, it could limit Russia’s ability to fully exploit its economic advantages, access foreign capital, or obtain the most advanced technology. Reduced U.S. influence, by contrast, would make it easier for Russia to increase its military power and keep up with competitors. From the Russian perspective, this would lead to a more equitable distribution of global power and thus a reduced threat level to Russia.
To this global situation analysis, Russian forecasters add military-specific projections, such as global weapons development and force development and posture. That all comes together as the “VPO”—a Russian term of art for the global military-political situation. The VPO describes the probability, character, and theater of a future great power war after considering Russia’s strategic deterrence capability.
The red flag for Russia would be a situation in which its military strength wouldn’t deter invasion by an adversary with superior military potential. The most common Russian example is a future scenario, perhaps in the 2040s, in which the United States and its allies have built up a massive arsenal of long-range conventional precision strike assets and deployed a robust missile defense architecture throughout the globe to negate a credible retaliatory Russian nuclear strike. Figure 1 shows how the above factors fit together in a forecasting framework.
Figure 1: Russian Military Forecasting Framework
Reach, et al., Russian Military Forecasting and Analysis: The Military-Political Situation and Military Potential in Strategic Planning, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RRA 198-4, 2022, p. xiii.
Globalization as the Core Issue
Russian analysts consistently argue that the most important variable over the next twenty years is the nature of globalization. Russian forecasts define “intense globalization” as having a “hegemonic character” where the United States dominates the international system and is able to “impose its will on all international relations actors without exception.”
This is, not surprisingly, the worst possible outcome for Russia. According to a 2018 forecast, the growth of Russian technological development would be weakest under conditions of “intense globalization” because of Western sanctions’ effect on foreign and Russian investment activity, among other factors. This analysis found that U.S. military potential—comprised of both military and non-military indicators—would be 60 percent greater than Russia’s by 2040. And that did not include American allies with high military potential such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan.
The upshot? In wartime, Russia would be challenged to defeat an alliance that possessed such a preponderance of latent military power—particularly in light of the fact that great power wars often last much longer than expected, giving the advantage to the stronger side in protracted conflict. But even in peacetime, “intense globalization” increases the military threat to Russia through the gradual buildup of superior military force throughout Europe and parts of Asia and the denial of military technology Russia relies on to modernize its own forces. This also creates challenges for Russia, which lacks what Russian forecasters call “network power,” or soft power, to broaden its influence and pursue its national interests.
The counter-trend that would, in Russia’s estimation, create the most favorable geopolitical environment is “Bipolarity 2.0.” Bipolarity 2.0 represents the dispersal of power to a non-Western bloc of countries such as China, Russia, and India who “are not willing to put up with U.S. demands for global hegemony.” In this scenario, by 2040, China surpasses the United States in military potential and the gap between Russia and the U.S. drops to 20 percent, according to the aforementioned 2018 forecast. The effect on American allies under this scenario is negligible. Russian analysts point to BRICS (an organization that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as the foundations of such a “non-Western” coalition. In theory, this bloc will have a different vision of the global order that is more tolerant of autocratic regimes; it will be more powerful and globally influential over time, and therefore be better equipped to resist U.S. attempts to shape the international system to its own liking. This would make the power dynamics more favorable to Russia and thus reduce the military threat.
The Bipolarity 2.0 geopolitical scenario implies a more divided Europe, which could come about if majorities in certain countries manage to roll back the integrative institutions that have been built over the past several decades. That, Russia believes, would lead to less opposition to its policies and, by extension, fewer restrictions on its economic activity and access to technology and capital. These are all favorable outcomes for Russia, so it follows that Russia will use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure the Bipolarity 2.0 prophecy comes to pass. One of the most prominent Russian tools is the narrative, which did not originate in Russia, that “liberal elites” embrace socio-cultural norms that neither correspond to the beliefs of everyday citizens nor result in the society these citizens desire. Leaning into this narrative, Russia has promoted itself as a protector of so-called traditional values which are under threat from leading Western political parties. The idea is that Russia could align itself with like-minded political parties, such as Fidesz in Hungary or National Rally in France, on the basis of protecting “traditional values” and in return gain a more friendly foreign policy from European countries. At the very least, Russia could support political leaders in Europe who may not be friendly toward Russia but are hostile toward a European Union perceived by some as a threat to national heritage and long-standing cultural norms.