Think Tank Review: If there’s one thing that U.S. think tanks agree on, it’s that U.S. policy towards Russia and Eurasia must change in response to the tragedy of the downed Malaysian Boeing 777.

A man writes messages for the victims of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, prior to a prayer service for them, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Photo: AP

For months now, Russia watchers have analyzed a series of increasingly unlikely events that started with Kiev’s Maidan and the annexation of Crimea. They watched as Russia began to intervene in Eastern Ukraine and as President Vladimir Putin appeared to shift his geopolitical focus from Europe to Asia, as evidenced by Russia’s recent $400 billion gas deal with China.

In one stroke, however, events went from unpredictable to tragic. In the aftermath of the tragedy of the downed Malaysian Boeing 777, U.S. experts are now talking about an overhaul of Washington’s policies toward Russia and Eurasia, and trying to find insights into Moscow’s potential moves and countermoves.

From unlikely to tragic

Just when U.S. experts suspected the Ukrainian crisis might be “unwinding,” a Malaysian airliner tumbled from the sky to “fuel the fire” in Ukraine and bring the looming specter of Russian-Western conflict to a global audience.

In response, top U.S. think tanks now are calling for international players to “wake up.” Pundits are redoubling efforts to find a solution to the crisis at all costs and ensure that this international tragedy does not end with another muted, if not passive, response. But that is where a unified U.S. reaction ends.

On one hand, experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Carnegie Endowment for International Piece (CEIP) recommend “avoid rushing to judgment” and avoid “pre-judg[ing]” the verdict of the investigation. CSIS provides an alternative to sanctions-heavy U.S. policy in calling for “urgent diplomacy” with Russia to de-escalate tensions, and CEIP underscores the need for a “ceasefire” before moving forward. But both organizations take a cautious approach to the situation.

On the other hand, U.S. experts from Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) are saying that, although it was a mistake, Ukrainian separatists “screwed up” and “likely shot down” flight MH17. Both think tanks square up to the situation and prefer to take a bolder stance than CSIS and CEIP.

RAND Corporation – the outlier – suggests that it all “could remain a mystery,” and contends that Malaysian flight MH17 could end up like the Malaysian flight 370 that disappeared into the skies of south Asia (i.e. with no final verdict). It is a reluctant conclusion but uses current fact and historical precedent as bases for its argument.

Despite their lack of solidarity, U.S. think tanks do agree that Washington’s policies moving forward should be much more nuanced, which in turn, could spur efforts to rethink U.S. policy toward Russia and Eurasia.

Overhauling Washington’s Russia policy

The top U.S. think tanks express the same idea differently: “zero-sum thinking,” “new paradigm,” “more nuanced reality,” “center of gravity has shifted from West,” “new rebalancing,” and the like. But the message is the same: U.S. policy toward Russia and Eurasia needs to change.

The first argument in favor of such thinking is that U.S. experts see China and Russia as fostering closer ties. An expert at CEIP thinks Russia is “visibly turning [to the] East” by signing an unprecedented $400 billion gas deal, participating in “joint naval exercises,” and boosting trade with China.

Another at CSIS considers that recent events in Russia and China are “like distorted reflections of one another in a carnival mirror.” And scholars at Brookings chalk up recent trends to a shift in the “locus of global energy demand” to Asia. Based on these findings alone, the U.S. should rethink its policies toward Russia and Eurasia.

But the primary rationale behind the need to rethink Washington’s Russia and Eurasia policy is the push to strengthen a beleaguered Ukraine while simultaneously taking a sober look at the region – especially in the wake of downed Malaysian jet MH17. The Ukrainian crisis continues to tilt Russia and the West toward conflict and so it requires a “rebalancing” in the eyes of U.S. experts.

A portrait of this rationale can be shown in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777. The event has sparked the most recent Western-Russian clash of interests and has provided a glimpse of the new U.S. perspective of avoiding “zero sum thinking.”

Since the crash, evidence suggests that U.S. experts are unwilling to come to snap judgments, if only to give due diligence to an incident that took nearly 300 lives. Many are urging the separatists in Eastern Ukraine to resolve the crash under the auspices of the OSCE, and many more are urging the international community to finally resolve the conflict under the auspices of peace.

This avoidance of “zero-sum thinking” appears to be the newest U.S. approach with which to see the broader Ukrainian crisis, too. And though it is highly unlikely the U.S. will be sympathetic to Russia (or vice versa), U.S. experts are sympathetic to the plight of Ukraine, and are thus taking a pragmatic stance toward the situation.

Along with a sober look at domestic policy, U.S. think tanks are beginning to take a harder look at Moscow’s strategy and the unpredictable nature of Russian foreign policy.

Moves and countermoves far from Ukraine

When one zooms out from the conflict in Ukraine, one realizes that U.S. think tanks have cautioned of a Putin “grand strategy” even before the current crisis. And like a strategic chess match, U.S. experts believe Moscow’s moves and countermoves have been pre-meditated and intentional, with some experts warning not to react “like Putin expects.”

Now, U.S. experts have begun to consider that Russia may be revising its foreign policy in another part of the world: Latin America. In February 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publicized Russian plans to build naval bases in Latin America – specifically Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. But very few U.S. experts took the threats seriously at the time and focused elsewhere.

In March 2014, however, a U.S. expert from CSIS warned of the importance of a potential Russian transition to Latin America – whether as a strategic power play or ploy. This would be among the first, serious looks by U.S. think tanks recently into the threat of Russian influence in the region.

Then, in mid-July, Putin concluded a six-day tour to Latin America that included forgiving Cuba of 90 percent of its $32 billion Soviet-era debt. Putin also signed an agreement to place a Russian GLONASS-monitoring system in Cuba and other territories, and proposed the construction of nuclear power plants in Argentina.

Should the U.S. be concerned by Russia's presence in its backyard?” The answer is yes for some and no for others. CEIP has joined CSIS in cautioning against the potential dangers of “Putin in Latin America,” while an expert at Brookings rebuffs this concern.

What can’t be ignored is that U.S. experts are on crisis watch after events turned from unlikely to tragic in Eastern Ukraine. And it is with understandable consternation that those same experts are tracking Moscow’s next moves and countermoves. Events that once seemed unlikely, if not impossible, suddenly must be taken into account in their policy calculations.