In the last of a three-part series looking at what 2015 holds in store, Matthew Day considers some of the big international issues and how they might develop in the months ahead
Much like the last year, 2015 could be dominated by events in Eastern Europe.
In eastern Ukraine, the war between government forces and Moscow-backed rebels has been silenced by a fragile truce, which has brought some respite to those involved in the fighting and those caught in the crossfire, but has not been underscored by any moves of political consequence.
This uneasy ceasefire could rumble on, as it may suit a Kremlin the Ukrainian government has accused of instigating and orchestrating the war. The continuing state of war places a huge strain on Kiev’s meagre financial resources and so increases the possibility Ukraine will seek some form of resolution to the conflict on terms favourable for Moscow.
Keeping the country on a war footing also undermines the Ukrainian government’s plans to reform the economy and crack down on the scourge of corruption.
It also scuppers the possibility of Ukraine becoming a shining example of what reform can achieve which, in turn, could inspire Russians into demanding reforms from their own corrupt elite: something else the Kremlin wants to avoid. Without any serious fighting taking place in eastern Ukraine, Russia may also be spared further economic sanctions that have already started to gnaw away at the heart of its economy.
Russia and how it reacts to its economic woes could also be a dominant story in 2015. Falling oil prices that inflicted serious financial pain on Russia in 2014 are predicted to keep tumbling as supply continues to outstrip demand. With interest rates already hiked to 17 per cent to protect the rouble, Russians are bracing themselves for a hard economic freeze that is probably going to last well into 2015, if not beyond.
There are fears that Russia’s crashing economic fortunes might make Vladimir Putin embark on another adventure against a Russian border state in order to divert domestic attention from the Kremlin’s financial failings and his suspect promises to deliver prosperity in return for tolerance of his hard-line policies. If this happens, then there could be serious consequences for not only the EU and Nato’s eastern flank, but for Europe as a whole.
But whatever happens, there is now a fault-line running a meandering, and sometimes vague, path through Eastern Europe with Nato and the EU on one side and Russia on the other. In 2015 that line will broaden and harden.
The tragedy engulfing large parts of Syria and Iraq will continue in 2015, and could well worsen.
Islamic State, which in 2014 shocked the world with its military success and bloodthirsty depravity, will still wage brutal war against all those who oppose it, but it might also seek to entrench its power in conquered territories by establishing some form of government as it shifts from expansion to consolidation.
So 2015 could see Islamic State trying to create sophisticated structures of government not only to help maintain its control over occupied land but to also, possibly, provide a voice to talk with just in case any international body has a need, or the willingness, to talk with it.
But more sophistication will not lead to less brutality. Violence and repression will remain central components of Islamic State’s ideology and tactics, so more people will be massacred, and mercy and humanity will remain scant.
The consolidation Islamic State may strive for could result from the military effort now being waged against it limiting its expansive goals.
This year the US has pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, and if North America and its allies want to achieve this, then they will have to dedicate significant military resources.
The resources employed are likely to remain confined to air power, and just how effective the aerial bombardment is remains to be seen. There is long history of politicians and military leaders over-estimating or exaggerating the effectiveness of air bombing, so some success could be overplayed, but it is fair to say that air power will diminish Islamic State’s capabilities and aspirations.
It could also undermine the group’s morale, leading to more defections and weakening both its appeal and political capital.
In 2015 Pope Francis and the Catholic Church faces some their biggest and most significant internal challenges since the early 1960s.
The popular Argentinean pontiff is pushing for reform of the Church’s hard line stance on divorce, re-marriage and sexual morality. He wants a softening on policies in order to make the Church a more welcoming and understanding institution, and also to make it reflective of more liberal and changing Western standards and morals.
One move countenanced is an easing on the ban of divorced Catholics receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, but this, along with other suggestions from the reformist camp, has riled conservatives, especially those from the developing world where traditional values are more entrenched.
Matters will come to a head in October when bishops from around the world will converge on the Vatican for a general “synod on the family”. It is there that the Pope’s aspirations for the Church and how it regards the modern family will be discussed, considered and either accepted or rejected.
Francis has also set himself on reforming the bureaucracy of the Church from top to bottom. Last month, he called it an “ailing body” and accused it of careerism and gossip in a withering attack on the Vatican machine. This year he will push and fight to reform an organisation that many believe has become corpulent and complacent over the years.
The virus that has cast a deadly shadow over west Africa will continue to make the news in 2015, although it is unclear for what reason as the course of the disease remains unpredictable.
On the optimistic side, Ebola may hit the headlines because scientists come up with a vaccine. It is possible one might be ready by the middle of 2015 and while it may not be 100 per cent effective, it would be a major step in defeating the outbreak.
On the pessimistic side, US experts have predicted that by 20 January the number of Ebola infections could soar to 1.4 million as unreported cases are taken into account. This figure has been disputed by some, who argue it fails to take into account recent increased efforts to combat and limit the spread of the virus. If this “surge” is effective in 2015, then it could break the back of the epidemic.
Along with a human toll, the disease will continue to inflict pain on the economies of the countries it blights.
The World Bank has said Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will fall into recession this year as the disease attacks all forms of economic life from top to bottom: bringing an end to number of good years. This could result in up to one million people being at risk from hunger by March alone, unless international food supplies are increased.
SET against a back drop of economic gloom and political conflict with Russia, general elections will take place in a no less than eight EU states this year. The peoples of the UK, Spain, Greece, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, Finland and Estonia all go to the polls in a series of elections that could have profound consequences for Europe.
A mixture of EU antipathy and anti-austerity sentiment courses through a number of these countries, and the mix also has the added spice of growing disillusionment with the established parties that have ruled the European political roost for decades.
In Spain, for example, the Podemos party, founded only last year, heads the polls in a brazen challenge to the country’s political establishment. Sometimes branded as “populist” Podemos wants to re-shape politics by freeing Spaniards from the political elite many blame for their problems, and by giving voice to those feeling marginalised by creating a bottom-up party structure. It has set up hundreds of local assemblies across the country where anybody can say what they think and what they want.
Battered and bloodied by an economic maelstrom, Greece goes to the polls for a snap election later this month with hard-left party Syriza the overwhelming favourites to win. Promising to reverse the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece, the party may have to tone down some of its rhetoric in order to form a coalition, but a victory could set the cat amongst the pigeons.
Antonis Samaras, the current Greek prime minister, has claimed a Syriza win would result in Greece being booted out of the euro-zone: an act that could shake the single-currency project to its core.
Risk and danger never really left the eurozone after the 2012 crisis — they just stood in the wings biding their time — and this year they could return to centre stage.
The spluttering economic growth recorded across the continent last year will continue into 2015 with demand weak and the threats of stagnation and deflation high.
With prices stagnant or falling, there are dangers companies will delay spending and investment, thus worsening the economic situation and making it even harder for European leaders to deliver on promises to tackle the problem of chronic unemployment now savaging countries such as Spain and
The eurozone’s leaders have only one real weapon in their arsenal to fight this latest economic malaise, and that is quantitative easing.
Last year the European Central Bank – bowing to German pressure – was loath to resort to this, but the prospect of a year-long economic storm may make it think otherwise.