RD Think Tank Roundup: Russia’s pivot towards China, elections for the EU parliament and the plight of US-Russia relations are in the spotlight of Russia’s leading experts.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting with members of his cabinet at the White House. Photo: Reuters

In May, after what seemed like nonstop debate about the future of Ukraine, Russia’s top experts finally got a chance to reflect on other issues. In publications by Russian analysts, three themes prevailed: Russia’s pivot to China, the consequences and significance of the elections to the European Parliament and the changing dynamics of Russia-U.S. relations in light of recent events in Ukraine.

Russian-American relations on hold until 2016

Experts are pessimistic about the prospects for U.S.-Russian cooperation and ponder whether the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in 2016, which will see the rise to power of a new leader, will save the situation.

In May, analysts were writing extensively about the deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States. Experts are convinced that the current standoff is almost impossible to stop. Lukyanov notes that, “Russian-American relations have actually passed into the confrontation mode. Moscow and Washington again perceive each other as straight-out opponents, and do not hide this fact.”

Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees with him.

“Russia is not regarded as a NATO partner. Russia is seen as a potential enemy,” he writes. Trenin also predicts a further growth in tensions, emphasizing, however, that the main spheres will remain “economic and informational” and not military.

With that, several researchers have started wondering about the future of U.S.-Russian relations after the American elections in 2016. The reason for this was the widely discussed meeting between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in which the current president said that he would support Clinton if she decided to run for president of the United States.

Experts believe that for Russian-American relations, which always greatly depended on the personal touches of the leaders, Clinton’s candidacy would not be the best thing. If she becomes president, Lukyanov thinks, “The rift will only intensify, whether she desires this or not, as she is inextricably linked with the policies of the 1990s, and the roots of the current round of misunderstanding between Russia and the West come exactly from there.”

The rise of Euroscepticism

Russian analysts with special interest observed the elections to the European Parliament, and very early on, predicted a victory for the right and far right parties of EU member states. They were not mistaken, as the elections have demonstrated the triumph of nationalist forces and the Eurosceptics. Most think tank representatives tend to see all this as the European electorate being tired of the European integration project.

Thus, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) writes, “Therefore, we can, with a clear conscience, issue a bulletin about an anti-system protest force sending a clear signal establishment: We’ve had enough! ... When it is not clear what bureaucratic monster is growing in Brussels, people want to take refuge in their native soil. Hence the growth of sentiment in favor of sovereignty with the slogan “Give us back our country.”

An expert on European right and far right parties, Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli of MGIMO, agrees with Lukyanov, emphasizing that such negative attitudes towards integration can be seen in the relatively low voter turnout in these elections.

“This figure says, primarily, that people have a poor association with the European project,” he writes. “The people of Europe do not see any reason to participate in elections to the European Parliament. The European Parliament is something far away, and they do not sufficiently trust the European institutions.”

Elena Ponomareva, expert at the Strategic Culture Foundation, writes even more critically about the fatigue of Europeans:

“The growth of right-wing sentiment in many EU countries indicates a serious turn in the minds of a significant part of Europeans, rejecting Brussels’ ongoing globalist line at the expense of destroying traditional European values ​​based on the Christian religion, family, and the national homeland,” she says.  

The experts agree that significant changes in foreign policy, in particular with regard to Russia, did not lead to the ultra-right’s growing influence.

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage reacts alongside UKIP candidate Diane Jones (right) as they listen to the results of the European Parliament election for the south east region. Photo: Reuters

As Tevdoy-Burmuli notes, “The right-wing parties, as a rule, are opposed to the European integration project, in the form in which it is being implemented. And because European integration institutions have taken a critical stance on Putin’s actions, the far-right parties are professing more pro-Russian, pro-Putin positions. However, here we have some specific twists in domestic politics; that is, they can support Putin, on the basis of the domestic political lay of the land, and not because they are particularly sweet on Putin.”

According the Pyotr Iskanderov, expert at the Strategic Culture Foundation, in general, the European Union, which may be facing increasingly radical forces (from the right and left), even at the national level is not up to cooperation with Russia.

“Can the European Union, penetrated with such sentiments, solve problems such as the normalization of the situation in Ukraine, the restoration of partnership with Russia, and maintaining a coherent policy in the Balkans? This is doubtful,” he says.

What can we expect next from the Russia-China relationship?

The biggest information bombshell of the month, of course, was the signing of a number of agreements between Russia and China during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Shanghai. In this regard, the opinions of experts were divided: Some believe that this is a logical, thoughtful and far-reaching political move, while others tend to see in it only Russia’s desire to show the West its independence.

At first glance, it seems that this is just an attempt by Russia to restructure its foreign policy, changing priorities from Europe to Asia, and thus, exact a measure of “revenge” against its European partners. However, some experts do not think so. 

For example, Lukyanov writes that turning to the East is a very logical and long-awaited move, which has the prospects of allowing Russia and China to advance their positions in the international arena, as these two countries are highly complementary. Beijing has a huge economic potential, while Moscow has experience in promoting truly global projects. In this case, not only does Russia need China, but China also needs Russia, because as Lukyanov emphasizes, “The logic of world development is pushing Moscow and Beijing closer to each other, and this new stage opens up opportunities, for the sake of which it is worth taking defined risks.”

Igor Denisov, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asian and SCO Studies at MGIMO, also stresses that strengthening ties with China is the result of years of work, not a momentary decision of the Russian leadership. 

Photo: Reuters  “Judging by the list of international problems discussed in Shanghai, it is clear that the scope of Russian-Chinese cooperation is much broader than showing support for one specific issue and signing one (albeit very important) commercial contract,” he said. “Relations between Moscow and Beijing are no longer subject to market fluctuations and are developing according to their own internal logic.”

Dmitry Minin, expert at the Strategic Culture Foundation, supports his colleagues.

“Critics have narrowed everything down to the supply of Russian raw materials and Chinese penetration of the Russian market, but the true meaning of this visit is much deeper than that, and the ability to evaluate it properly will be possible probably only for future historians,” he said.

The analyst believes that the joint efforts of China and Russia will be able to lay the foundations for a new system of international relations, an alternative to the Western model.

Yet, we also have a long list of experts who negatively assess the deal made between Russia and China. These include, in particular, Vladimir Milov, an expert at CFDP, expressing the general opinion of most skeptics.

“The Chinese gas contract has finally been signed, and therefore, Russia (primarily for the sake of geopolitics) is ready to make whopping concessions,” he said.

In other words, a number of analysts believe that Russia, in order to achieve the short-term political ambitions of its leaders, has entered into an asymmetric and disadvantageous contract with China possibly to the detriment of long-term economic growth.