During November, Russian think tanks were first and foremost focused on how to analyze the outcome of the political situation in Ukraine.


Protests in Kiev’s central Independence Square started after the Ukrainian government said it would not sign a trade association agreement with the EU. Source: Reuters

In November, Russia’s leading think tanks — the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the PIR Center, and the Carnegie Moscow Center — focused on two key issues: Ukraine’s break-up with Europe and the possibility of military conflict between Russia and the U.S.

Ukraine’s rejection of Europe

Russia’s think tanks spent much of November focused on the Ukrainian conundrum. Then, on Nov. 21, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that Kiev had decided not to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union.

While Russian experts were quick to note that the statement did not ring the death knell for Ukraine's European future, it still created a furor. According to analysts, the decision represents not so much a historical choice by Kiev, but "the latest refusal to make one." (Fyodor Lukyanov, CFDP, "Ukraine's Vanity Fair")

Russia’s think tanks are unanimous that Ukraine's refusal to sign an AA with the EU is a dubious victory for Russia. Of course, it is a positive outcome for Moscow in the "great game" of politics on the European stage. However, in no way does it signify that Ukraine intends to make an about-face back into the arms of the Customs Union and the proposed Eurasian Union, thereby transforming Ukraine back into Russia's faithful partner.

"Ukraine will not join the Customs Union, but will try by fair means or foul to profit once more from its position between two giant neighbors." (Lukyanov, CFDP, “Ukraine’s Vanity Fair”)

"But I'm in no hurry to talk about rapprochement... Ukraine will try to wrangle more concessions from the EU, after which it will return to the issue of European integration in a few months... In any case, membership of the Customs Union is not on the table at present..." (Alexander Gushchin, RIAC, "RIAC experts comment on Kiev's decision to freeze European integration")

"Any expectations that Ukraine, even having received all possible assistance from Russia, will stop looking for the exit door are illusory." (Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, "Kiev's decision gives the EU more time and sets a trap for Russia")

Second, and probably more salient for Russia, it represents a Pyrrhic victory in the extreme. According to analysts, Russia will have to "pay" Ukraine for its decision to suspend European integration. Both figuratively and literally: "Moscow has already opened its wallet... by granting Ukraine a discount on gas. The next step is for more injections of Russian cash... And all this comes at a time when Russia itself is experiencing economic stagnation and fiscal hardship." (Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, "Kiev's decision gives the EU more time and sets a trap for Russia")

"For Russia, it is likely to be very costly, because now it has to deliver on its promises to Ukraine. In terms of economics, energy prices, new markets, and huge loans, Russia will be out of pocket." (Alexei Arbatov, CFDP, "Direct Speech" column)

"It remains to be seen what Ukraine's rejection of EU association will cost Russia... Especially at a time when the economic future of Russia itself is, to put it mildly, unclear..." (Alexander Goltz, CFDP, "What will Putin's diplomatic victory cost Russia?")

In other words, a gloomy atmosphere has surrounded Ukraine's rejection of EU association, only partially offset by a sense of schadenfreude at the EU's failure. Whereas in October experts were discussing the best options available for Ukraine to solve its many economic and political problems, in November came the realization that the winner of this diplomatic game between the EU and Russia may actually end up being the loser.

The U.S. and Russia: Partners or rivals?

Valery Alexeyev's article "Is war with America possible?" — discussed in the October think tank survey — attracted the attention of Russian experts keen to challenge the findings of their colleague. Alexeyev warned of a possible conflict between Russia and the U.S. in the capacity of intermediaries in a regional dispute.

The RIAC published two articles that challenged Alexeyev's propositions: "Why war with the U.S. is unlikely" by Prokhor Tebin, and "Is partnership with America possible?" by Gevorg Mirzayan.

Prokhor Tebin, an independent military expert, stresses that a genuine conflict between the U.S. and Russia is very unlikely in today's climate. First of all, there are no "real political motivations for such a conflict," and secondly, "the Arctic, Russo-Japanese, and other more hypothetical territorial disputes ... come at the end of the list of priorities for both powers, who are more concerned about matters of domestic economy and political stability."

Tebin also notes that the U.S. is in fact more afraid of China, especially its expansion across the Asia-Pacific region (APR), which makes Russia and the U.S. natural allies.

The author also underscores that, in general, the two countries have more to gain from cooperation than competition, especially in areas such as regional security, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that the time has come to "do away with hostile rhetoric, abandon ideological confrontation and... get down to pragmatic collaboration..." Concluding his analysis, Tebin adds, "Yes, war is theoretically possible, but the probability is negligible."

Gevor Mirzayan, a renowned political analyst, uses his article to talk about the prospects of partnership with the U.S. He asserts that Alexeyev's suppositions are "essentially outdated," because modern international relations and Washington's revised global outlook promote — rather than hinder — partnership between the two countries.

Mirzayan notes that America's foreign policy doctrine has shifted towards minimizing activity in most regions of the world, installing local "sheriffs," and focusing instead on the APR, which looms large in U.S. thinking.

In the light of all these changes, Moscow is viewed as a partner and one such local sheriff, whose interests need to be recognized and with whom a constructive relationship must be maintained for the sake of regional stability. Although many experts have long buried the idea of a "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations, Mirzayan insists that it served its purpose of overturning the negative legacy left by the previous Bush administration.

Because of this, and thanks to the fruitful dialogue in settling the Syrian crisis, a ray of light has appeared amid the mutual mistrust. He asserts that only through joint efforts and bilateral discussion can faith be restored and a constructive strategic partnership established.

An opportunity for such a mode of interaction has already presented itself: Iran's nuclear program. A joint resolution of this thorny issue would give new impetus to the development of dialogue between Moscow and Washington.