Russia’s think tanks take a look back at 2013, devoting particular attention to Russia’s image in the world and the state of US-Russian relations.

Russia's Foreign Minsiter Sergey Lavrov. Photo: AP

It is surprising how unified Russian experts are in their opinions on the outcomes of Russia’s foreign policy in 2013. The overwhelming majority of analysts think that the past year was a successful one for Russia.

Taking stock of Russia’s diplomatic successes in 2013

A case in point is Igor Ivanov, president of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who writes in his article: “When it comes to Russia’s foreign policy, there is general recognition that the year’s overall outcome can be seen as positive. We were again convinced of Russia’s great potential to achieve an active and productive foreign policy.”

Ivanov’s sentiments are echoed by Fyodor Lukyanov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), who writes that “people no longer speak ironically about Putin and Russia; rather, they recognize that from the series of upheavals [Syria, Iran, Ukraine], if someone emerged victorious, it was the Kremlin, which played a key role in all the issues.”

Lukyanov also notes that Russia’s “following of a particular system and methodology” distinguishes it in a positive way from the other actors on the contemporary world stage; in other words, it holds a precise notion of its international political role, a notion that is viewed especially favorably against a backdrop of the United States’ shifting between sides and the perception that EU’s notorious double standards.

Experts from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) assess Russia’s diplomatic successes with more restraint, but they stress definite achievements: “Foreign policy results in 2013 are substantial enough, but conflicting… It can be said that in a number of cases Russia managed to impose its agenda on the world community, and to achieve the solutions it needed. On the other hand, in some ways this success aggravated relations with other players.” (Alexander Tevdoi-Burmuli, MGIMO).

It should be noted that these same experts are quick to discount some of the positive commentary about Russia’s diplomatic triumphs. Sergei Karaganov (SNOP) believes that a serious obstacle to reinforcing the successes of 2013 will be the complex domestic political situation in Russia, and the nation’s economic and social problems: “Due to the lack of an active and purposeful development policy, Russia is simply not particularly interesting for many partners… The outside world slightly senses a development dead end and pessimism, and these factors undermine [foreign policy] positions.”

In addition, some experts consider last year’s successes to be tactical rather than strategic. For example, Alexander Tevdoi-Burmuli (MGIMO), responding to a question about Russia’s diplomatic successes in 2013, speaks doubtfully about them: “I confess that personally, I don’t see any strategic victory anywhere. Rather, the events of 2013 revealed a strengthening of Russia’s role as an intermediary (Syria, Iran), and as an actor that is able to hinder other actors from expanding into its area of influence (Ukraine). Under these guises, indeed, Russia has shown its potential. But I wouldn’t say that this amounts to strategic victory.”

In other words, Russian think tanks are not quick to cheer Russia’s diplomatic victories of 2013, but rather are striving to understand in what way Russia can bolster its positions, and what it needs to stress in foreign and — particularly importantly — domestic policy.

Muted optimism about U.S.-Russia relations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came up with a deal on Syria's chemical weapons. Photo: AFP / East News

Numerous articles came out in December addressing the issue of Russian-American relations, as well as U.S. foreign and domestic policy. It appears that the Russian expert community is sending signals to the political establishment about the need to again look toward Russia’s long-time partner in international relations – the United States.

A portion of the analytical materials, such as Fyodor Lukyanov’s (CFDP) “The Far East Is Becoming Closer”; Viktoria Zhuravleva’s (RIAC) “Domestic Political Logic in US Foreign Policy”; or the expert commentaries of Mikhail Troitsky (MGIMO) and Ivan Timofeev (MGIMO, RIAC), examine domestic policy, which, according to the researchers, must be understood in order to grasp the logic behind how the United States operates on the world stage.

In her article, Zhuravleva analyzes in detail the American model of government and political structure, noting that partners of the United States often see little point in directing themselves toward one or another agreement with the U.S. president insofar as the process for reaching agreements depends too much on the domestic policy agenda and the president’s relations with the leading forces internally. Timofeev (MGIMO, RIAC) confirms this idea, stating that “the domestic policy agenda is always more important for the American voter than foreign policy issues.”

Other experts concentrate directly on Russian-American relations, for which 2013, according to the general consensus, was complex. In early 2013, ideas about forming a new model of relations between Moscow and Washington were expressed, and this model seemed promising. Toward the end of the year it became apparent that these hopes had not been realized and that relations, having weathered some highs and lows, remained tense.

In an article titled “Dealing with the New Normal in U.S.-Russian Relations,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, analyze the results of 2013 and suggest possible ways to develop relations between the United States and Russia in 2014.

They write: “The reset between the White House and the Kremlin has been succeeded by purely transactional relations against the background of deep mutual mistrust. And this may be the ‘new normal’ in U.S.-Russian relations… For there to be any significant improvement, the two countries will have to focus on expanding cooperation where their interests meet and reducing lingering animosity where they disagree.”

Following the logic of this basic idea, the authors examine “areas of cooperation, competition, and potential conflict” between the two countries. The experts include in areas of cooperation the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the situations in Iran and Afghanistan, and such global issues as finance, cybersecurity and the war on terror. According to Trenin and Weiss, one of the key areas of competition is the Arctic, which has come to be seen more frequently as a region of the greatest conflict between the major powers. Trenin and Weiss believe that there is also potential for conflict in the situation surrounding Ukraine.

The analysts believe that “overall, U.S.-Russian relations are unlikely to head toward a serious crisis in 2014, but they are also unlikely to improve much… Yet there is no fundamental antagonism between the former Cold War adversaries. In 2014, a dedicated effort can be made to gradually transform the ‘new normal’ in U.S.-Russian relations — one of targeted cooperation in an atmosphere of general adversity—into at least a ‘normal-plus’ in which cooperation is carefully expanded to new areas while the atmosphere is progressively sanitized.”

For Russia, 2013 was a year of major foreign policy victories. However, as representatives of Russian think tanks note, it is still early to speak of Russia’s emerging role as a leading power in today’s world. In order to assume that position, Russia must resolve numerous domestic policy problems and find a new model of cooperation with other major players on the world stage. Going forward, 2014 is a chance to accomplish these goals.