Russia Direct presents the latest in its series of monthly roundups from U.S.-based think tanks focused on Russia and Eurasia.

Maidan Self-Defense units fighting off Yanukovych supporters who tried to remove the barricades from Khreshchatyk Street. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin

In recent weeks Ukraine been marked by turbulent events. Months of anti-government protests show no sign of ending. The political and economic turmoil that began when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a far-reaching accord with the EU in favor of stronger ties with Russia continues.

As regards the Sochi Olympics, the recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd shows that the Islamist terrorist threat in the North Caucasus hovers over the Sochi Games, notwithstanding the deployment of massive security.

Euromaidan: Splitting  Ukraine in half?

In “A Tottering Ukraine – Putin’s Nightmare as the Sochi Games Begin,” published on Feb. 6, Martin Kalb, Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy, comments on the economic and political collapse looming over Ukraine and the narrowing of Putin’s geo-strategic choices in both Ukraine and in the North Caucasus, from where a constant Islamic threat is threatening the southern regions of Russia.

In Ukraine, Putin’s crackdown has fallen short of military intervention because, Kalb writes, Putin does not want to take such actions against Ukraine during the Sochi Olympics in which “Russia has invested so much.”

The Sochi Games were supposed to showcase Russia’s return as a major power but “looking southwest, you see an angry Ukraine, the former breadbasket of the Russian Empire, now engaged in a popular insurrection, which, if successful, could lead to the end of Russian domination over that country,” Kalb writes.

In “Tensions Grow Between Moscow and West, as the Situation in Kyiv Deteriorates,” published Jan. 23 at Pavel Felgenhauer, Eurasia Daily Monitor (EDM) analyst, writes of Moscow’s conviction that the West has organized and financed the violent clashes in Kiev between special police forces and protesters.

The situation in Kiev drastically deteriorated after the Ukrainian parliament approved a set of draconian laws severely curtailing democracy and civil rights. But Felgenhauer says:  “Moscow is much more deeply involved in the Ukrainian crisis than the Russian authorities would like to publicly admit.”

The Kremlin, according to the author, believes that if the current confrontation is not resolved, the impasse could be resolved by splitting Ukraine in half. Russia would take the Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, while the western part would look to the EU and the U.S.

Much is at stake in Moscow’s eyes. If the West can successfully destabilize Ukraine via a so-called “color revolution,” according to the Kremlin’s thinking, the same may transpire in Russia or in other CIS countries, which Moscow views as client states.

According to General Nikolay Bordyuzha, Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military pact of several CIS states, “color revolutions” are the main “non-traditional external threat facing the CSTO.”

Felgenhauer concludes that in defending Kiev “against a perceived Western-sponsored takeover, Russia’s leaders believe they are fighting to secure their own political survival.”

In “Tension in Ukraine Likely to Turn Into Civil Conflict”, Maksym Bugriy, Ukraine analyst, writes at that the intensification of demonstrations in Hrushevskoho Street and European Square in Kyiv on Jan. 22 resulted in the reported deaths of two protesters from rifle bullet, wounds which could have been perpetrated by civilians: either provocateurs or even individuals hired to work for the government. Bugriy notes that the young “underclass” of sportsmen, also known as “titoushki,” are being recruited for street activities. The opposition also reported their mass arrival in Kiev on Jan. 22.

Bugriy also notes that the local authorities in the southern, eastern and western Ukraine are taking opposing stances in the current confrontation. While the Crimean parliament issued a resolution on Jan. 22 supporting the national authorities, the mayor of Lviv in western Ukraine, Andriy Sadoviy, has been supporting the Maidan demonstrations and provides treatment for wounded activists in Lviv hospitals.

In “A Practical Approach to EU-Russian Relations,” Dmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Centre, writes that the EU’s focus on its own internal crisis in the past five years resulted in its failure to notice that Russia fundamentally transformed its foreign policy and in that process became a more important player internationally. This involved a “rebalanced foreign policy which placed more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, particularly on post-Soviet Eurasia,” Trenin writes.

As a result the geopolitical competition between the EU and Russia has only increased in recent years, evident, for example in Brussels’ Eastern neighborhood policy. Trenin notes that Moscow policy circles are becoming increasingly concerned about Western Europe’s “push to the East.”

“For the first time since World War II, Western Europeans are being portrayed in Russia as trespassers in a territory beyond their natural habitat,” he writes.

Another concern in Moscow are the two proposed free-trade agreements, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is led by the United States and includes a number of Asian countries.

These huge trade zones flank Russia to the west and the east, creating a sense of encirclement in Moscow. This is leading the Kremlin to intensify its efforts to create a, a full-fledged Eurasian Economic Union which is “set to emerge as an open platform for integrating former Soviet states.”

Trenin sees the changes in EU leadership that will occur at the end of 2014 – with new presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament and the EU’s choice of a new foreign policy High Representative, - as an opportunity for strategic leadership to emerge in the EU, one that will preserve the EU-Russian partnership.

Trenin concludes that the partnership “is mutually beneficial in a wide range of areas.” But events in Ukraine have underscored the “pitfalls the EU faces east of its borders.”

Sochi:  Target-rich environment for terrorists?

In “Preventing Terrorism during the Olympics,” published on Feb. 6, Aleksey Malashenko, co-chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, believes the terrorist threats to Sochi are of four types. There are “lone wolf terrorists,” who are driven by religious fanaticism.

There are ethnic Russian converts to Islam. There are  “black widows” — the former wives of killed terrorists thirsting for revenge — and “ghost” suicide bombers, who appear out of nowhere and are trained by unknown individuals in undisclosed locations. And fourthly, there are Russian Islamic militants who have fought alongside the Syrian opposition.  Some returned home, not only to the North Caucasus, but also to the predominantly Muslim part of the Volga Region.

Several analysts discussed the security of the Olympic Games at a press conference held by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Jan. 21, entitled “Sochi 2014.” The event was moderated by H. Andrew Schwartz, Senior Vice President for External Relations for the CSIS.

The panel included Andrew Kuchins, Senior Fellow and Director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program, and Juan Zarate, Former U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for Combating Terrorism and Senior Adviser for the CSIS. Kuchins noted that the Sochi Games provide a target-rich environment for terrorists who have “demonstrated the ability to organize different types of attacks based on the opportunities available to them.”

Zarate pointed out that “the Caucasus Emirates and their various groups and operatives have demonstrated multiple modalities in terms of attack vectors,” namely, they can “use a variety of means to attack, not just a variety of targets to focus on.”

In “Sochi: A Missed Opportunity,” dated Feb. 5, Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment, points out that if Mikheil Saakashvili had won the 2012 election, Georgia would probably have boycotted Sochi. However, the new government did not and quietly dropped its politicization of the Circassian issue. Unfortunately, under the Russian-Georgian dialogue established in 2012 only trade relations have been resolved.

The most important issue — the protracted insurgency in the North Caucasus, and what the Georgians can do about it — was never discussed by the two countries. “Instead, the Russian government's approach to securing the games has been ‘Don't talk to the neighbors,’”  writes de Waal. He notes that Moscow actually tightened the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the past year, amounting to a “missed opportunity” for improving relations.