CNN)The world seemed to tilt toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2016. Donald Trump was voted in; Britain voted out.
The international community watched ineffectively as the Russian and Syrian air forces cluster-bombed Aleppo, and as international investigators stated that Russia had provided the weapon that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Next year could yet prove even better for the Kremlin. Elections are due in France, Germany and perhaps Italy, with pro-Russia candidates on the rise in all three.
Trans-Atlantic unity on sanctions is under ever-increasing pressure, at least rhetorically.
The ruthless campaign to break Aleppo and restore Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to power appears to be succeeding.
OPEC has even agreed to cut production, boosting the price of the oil on which Russia’s economy depends.
But the Kremlin would be unwise to rejoice just yet. Four factors in particular make the geopolitical shape of 2017 difficult to call.
What will the US actually do?
The first is the United States. Trump is unpredictable; with his election victory, American politics are now even more so. Admittedly, the Republicans hold both the White House and Congress, but, to put it mildly, not every Republican is a Trump supporter. The skepticism is especially marked when it comes to Russia — witness the calls for an investigation into Russian interference in the election.
In short, Trump may well seem like a pliable ally to the Kremlin, but American politics are much bigger and more complicated than Trump. The balance of power in Washington has yet to be decided, and relations with Moscow may prove one of the major fault lines.
NATO still exists
The next factor is the network of military alliances and activities that the United States has built up in Europe, both bilaterally and through NATO.
Just as America is bigger than Trump, NATO is bigger than America. Since the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, the alliance has started to move. A host of exercises are planned across Europe; member states are to deploy four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland as the so-called Enhanced Forward Presence. The Kremlin has repeatedly labeled the moves “aggressive.”
At the same time, the United States is returning tanks to Europe after a three-year absence, and has activated a missile defense base in Romania and begun building one in Poland — much to Moscow’s anger.
These deployments are likely to remain an irritant in the US-Russia relationship, regardless of who is president. Having been agreed, they have a momentum of their own. This is not to say they could not be reversed, but it would come at a political, diplomatic and economic cost that is unlikely to be taken lightly.
Merkel’s time isn’t up yet
Then there’s Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel is Putin’s sternest critic in Europe, and she is running for a fourth term next year. She has already warned of the danger of Russian interference in the election, as has the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service.
While she is under pressure from both the left and the extreme right, especially over her migrant policies, few figures in German politics seem capable of mounting a credible challenge. It would take a bold man to bet against Merkel at this stage, and as long as she remains in the Kanzleramt, problems will remain for Moscow.
It’s the economy, Putin
Finally, there looms the shadow of the Russian economy. The country is to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 2017, and not all the portents are good. The economic recovery is, at best, lame; prices of staples are rising; alcohol problems (and deaths) remain rife. Even the country’s much-vaunted armed forces have had their share of humiliations, as the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier showed when it recently lost two aircraft in three weeks.
The signs of potential recovery are there, in rising oil prices and the hope of sanctions relief, but underlying them is a chronic lack of investment, diversification and flexibility, which means the boom days remain a distant dream. One of the few near-certainties in 2017 is that ordinary Russians will continue to feel the pinch. And Putin has been in charge of Russia since this millennium began: The buck, or ruble, stops with him.
This is not to argue that his good luck will fail in 2017, but there are a number of places where bad luck could deal him significant blows. Now, perhaps more than any new year in recent history, the future is full of unpredictability. 2017 could resemble 2016 in the luck it showers on Putin — or in the surprises it brings.