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

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, right, meets with his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Azarov who visited Moscow in December 2013. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ekaterina Shtukina

The Euromaidan protests in Kiev continue to receive the greatest attention fromU.S.-based think tanks, which see them as a sign of Russia’s inability to present Ukraine with a clear alternative to the EU and as a possible setback in Russia’s overall modernization strategy. Other key issues of discussion include Russia’s political system, and the need for Germany, as the EU’s leading country, to reformulate a new policy towards Russia for the twenty-first century.

The growing crisis in Ukraine

In “As Yanukovych Digs In, European Vision Still Dominates in Ukraine,” published in World Politics Review on Dec. 11, Steven Pifer, a Senior Fellow at Brookings and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, points out that many people in Kiev and Brussels expected the Association Agreement with the EU to be signed in Vilnius at the end of November.

The mass protests against the President’s turnabout in signing the agreement have underscored Ukrainians’ strong EU aspirations. Some 100,000 people turned out on Nov. 24, and by early December, the figures had grown to 200,000-300,000 on par with the turnout numbers of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Pifer writes that the EU is a magnet for Ukrainians by dint of its higher living standards, rule of law, and institutions that protect citizens from arbitrary government decisions. For the oligarchs and small- and medium-sized business leaders, the EU also “offers rules, freedom from the fear of capricious property seizure and a market six times the size of that of the Customs Union.”

Russia offers nothing to compete with that, Pifer notes. The authoritarian Putin model allows no meaningful political debate; it offers more crony corruption that so many Ukrainians want to escape, according to him. Yanukovych has no alternative narrative to counter the pro-EU aspirations of the demonstrators. As Pifer notes, “No one is demonstrating to bring Ukraine into the Customs Union or for a new strategic relationship with Russia.”

In “Putin’s Ukrainian Triumph is a Major Setback for Russia”, published in Eurasia Daily Monitor of Nov. 25, Pavel K. Baev examines the repercussions of the Ukrainian government’s decision to postpone the process of finalizing the Association Agreement with the EU. Announced on Nov. 21, a week  before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, this move “could be interpreted as Russia’s victory in sabotaging Kiev’s European choice,” Baev writes.  But he warns, “In reality, this forced turn in Ukraine’s maneuvering between the EU and Russia could signify a major setback for Russia’s own needs to re-energize the country’s modernization.”

Another problem is that under Putin’s newest term as president, Moscow has resolutely moved from a partnership to outright hostility in relations with the EU. Economic or gas-related political issues did not cause the tensions. The clash between European values and Putin’s authoritarian way of ruling Russia caused the rift. As the author warns, “Putin’s iron grip on Yanukovych’s policy choices is certain to mobilize millions of Ukrainians who see no alternative to the European choice, but Russia will discover that its own hard climb to Europe from the quagmire of Putinism has just become yet another degree steeper.”

Supporters of Ukraine's European integration hold a "Popular Assembly" on Independence Square in central Kiev. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ilya Pytalev

In “Ukraine’s Choice is a Test for the West,” published in The American Interest on Nov. 1 by Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the author writes that Ukraine needs to forge its own national identity, and cease identifying with Russia. Shevtsova points out: “If [Ukraine] wants to move toward modernity, then its only viable reference point is Europe.” The Kremlin’s rejection of Europe and its claim to being a “unique civilization” is now forcing Kiev to make its own choice: Russia or Europe?

The fact is that Ukraine can only become a European country by becoming a democracy, Shevtsova points out. Of course, losing Ukraine would strike a heavy blow against Putin’s new model, which “places Russia at the center of a new galaxy called the Eurasian Union. Without the ‘younger brother’ the Eurasian Union would clearly be a defective family.” This fact alone will compel the Kremlin to continue looking for different ways to keep Ukraine in its grip long after the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, concludes Shevtsova.

The need to modernize Russia’s political system

In his talk entitled “Russia: An End and a New Beginning,” delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Nov. 7, Dr. Leonid Gozman, Director of the Perspective Fund in Moscow,  presented an analysis of the underlying psychological causes of the political crisis in Russia today. The event was moderated by Dr. Andrew C. Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow, CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.

In Dr. Gozman’s view, the old political system remains unsustainable and cannot be fully restored in principle. He questioned the Russian state’s ability to enforce its authority, citing Sochi’s multibillion construction sites as an example where only “12-15 percent of investments have been fulfilled."

Gozman claims that the present-day status quo is untenable for a variety of economic, political, and psychological reasons. How will Russia’s political system develop moving forward? Today, in contrast to 2007, Putin has lost the pulse of country and the opportunity for top-down modernization reforms has passed, Gozman argues.

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Vostock-Photo

In “The Populist Threat to Putin's Power,” Fiona Hill, Brookings Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE), and Hannah Thoburn, research assistant at CUSE, Brookings, examine if Forbes naming Putin as the "Most Powerful Person in the World" is justified.

Hill and Thoburn think the situation in Russia might “spiral out of control,” notwithstanding Kremlin efforts at channeling “political sentiments toward approved channels.” For them, an important factor remains declining oil prices; contrast this to the 2000s, when rising oil prices fuelled economic growth. Slow growth means jobs could disappear, which would further fuel Russian animosity towards immigrants.

Furthermore, Russia’s small towns and villages are crumbling. The authors cite an October 2013 Levada Center poll in which 43 percent of Russians believe their country is on the wrong track, a negative trend Putin believes he can deal with, the authors write. However, they conclude “the trend line is moving in the wrong direction.”

Germany re-thinks its relationship with Russia

In “Germany’s Russia Policy: Bolder Towards Moscow?”, published on Oct. 22, Stefan Meister, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations, underscores Germany’s urgent need to formulate a new policy towards Russia. Although Germany played an important role in the EU’s eastward enlargement, and has always been a driver of Europe’s Russia policies, critics maintain Berlin is no longer living up to this leadership role and that a new policy is urgently needed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, laugh as they open Hanover Fair, in Hannover, central Germany, on Monday, April 8, 2013. Source: AP

Meister notes that the reason for the diminished success of Germany’s Russia policies in recent years can be found in the limitations of the concept of “partnership for modernization.” This is especially true,  given how differently Berlin and Moscow define the partnership.

While Germany wants a Russian political and social transition towards democracy and the rule of law alongside economic cooperation, the Russian and post-Soviet elites have no interest in democratization or socio-political modernization of their country. They are “only interested in technological exchange and regulated economic modernization…which makes corruption systemic rather than exceptional,” Meister proffers.

Meister, however, is optimistic that Germany and the EU, bolstered by their more diversified economies, can develop a more nuanced approach towards Russia. “Obliging compromises and backroom diplomacy are not the way to deal with authoritarian regimes. Instead, clear value- and interest-driven policies are required that include constructive criticism, transparency, and equitable dialogues with elites and society on the whole,” he concludes.