Think tank roundup: In July, analysts focused on the rise of Islamic radicalism in Europe, the future of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following a coup attempt and the potential for change in U.S.-Russian relations.
Left-right: German President Joachim Gauck, his partner Daniela Schadt and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a memorial service for the nine victims of the Munich attacks. Photo: AP
There was no summer break from foreign affairs in July. Russian experts discussed the increase in terrorist attacks in Europe carried out by single assailants or small groups, focusing on the reasons for the attacks and what they might mean for European unity.
Analysts also debated the consequences of the failed coup in Turkey, an important geopolitical player with a complicated relationship with Russia. Finally, the future of U.S.-Russia relations again came to the fore as the U.S. presidential campaign moves into high gear, with some Russian pundits expressing cautious optimism.
Terrorism in the heart of Europe
The attack by truck in Nice, France, on Bastille Day, which killed 84 people, dominated the news in the second half of July. It was followed by a series of small attacks in Germany and a hostage-taking and killing of a priest at a church in Rouen, France.
The spate of attacks is proof that Islamic radicals have developed a network in Europe that can act without complex planning and coordination from a center, according to Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Kolesnikov noted that the recent events in Germany and France demonstrated again that “lone-wolf” attacks are no less dangerous than those carried out by organized groups and in many ways are actually more dangerous, since they are harder to identify and prevent.
Kolesnikov added that the attacks threaten traditional European values in another way – by encouraging the growth of xenophobia and, with it, the chance that far-right groups will come to power. Kolesnikov called the current wave of attacks the most severe test of European values and beliefs since World War II.
Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy sees the attacks in Germany as the greatest blow to stability in Europe, even though fewer people were killed in them compared with the attacks in France.
Lukyanov considers the events in Germany more significant because the country has been an island of stability and security and, in recent years, has played a key role in shaping European policy in all spheres, including on migration issues. Should Germany also fall victim to the wave of fear and xenophobia, the country could lead the rejection of a united Europe and the push to return to national sovereignty.
Veniamin Popov, of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), says that the roots of the recent events are not in Europe’s policies towards migrants, but rather in the policies of the West, led by the United States, which have destabilized the Middle East and led to the radicalization of many fundamentalist Islamic movements.
Popov noted that the Western countries have also steadfastly refused to cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorism and instead call Russia the main threat to Europe. Popov also lays some of the blame at the feet of certain European leaders, saying that they consider momentary electoral benefits or “trans-Atlantic friendship” more important than their national interests and the security issues of their own citizens.
Failed coup in Turkey
On the night of July 16, the Turkish military launched an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Russian experts were particularly concerned about these events, given the complicated history of relations between Russia and Turkey and Turkey’s geopolitical importance.
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According to Oleg Barabanov of the Valdai Club, the political system that Erdogan has built, which relies on a precarious balance of interests of both Islamist and secular parties, can only breed instability in the long run. Barabanov also notes that Erdogan has consolidated power and made himself the focal point of Turkish politics, which allowed parties with little in common besides their dislike of the regime to combine their efforts into the failed coup attempt.
Barabanov suggests that this failed coup will not be the last attempt to remove Erdogan. “Finding himself on a path halfway between pro-Western democracy, with its mass culture and secularism and pure Sharia, Erdogan will inevitably upset the supporters of both sides. Therefore, attempts to oust him from office will continue,” Barabanov said.
Ruslan Mamedov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), says that the coup was doomed to fail for three main reasons: The instigators did not have the support of the whole army; they failed to win over the other security services, which consequently resisted them; and they lacked a well-developed strategy to replace the country’s top officials and take over the media.
Mamedov said that the failed coup has only strengthened Erdogan’s position, giving him the confidence to pursue a tough domestic policy and raising the possibility of big changes in Turkish foreign policy. Mamedov also expects a deterioration of relations between Turkey and the U.S. and EU.
Pavel Shlykov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, offers a different assessment from that of Mamedov. “The coup was not just the work of a small group of radical officers, but was well organized,” Shilkov said, adding that a significant part of the Turkish military did supported the failed coup.
Shlykov notes that discord among the elites has always been characteristic of Turkey, and the latest coup attempt is an outgrowth of long-standing conflict between Erdogan, the secular Kemalists and the Islamists led by Gulen. The main consequence of this failed coup will be that Turkey will move away from pro-Westernization polices and instead start a gradual slide towards a repressive political system that suppresses dissent and violates human rights.
The logical outcome of such a policy would be a significant deterioration in relations between the EU and Turkey – and the “sacrifice” of the European dream, Shlykov said.
The future of Russia-U.S. relations
Russia’s relations with U.S. also came to the fore in July, mainly due to the discussion of Russia in the U.S. presidential campaign
Alexey Arbatov from the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy says that Russia-U.S. relations are in a better state now than they were in 2014 and 2015, and there is the possibility to build on cooperation in the Middle East.
Despite his positive outlook, however, Arbatov notes that it’s impossible to talk about any full restoration of dialogue and co-operation in the current political circumstances — both in Russia and the U.S. The Russian elites see confrontation with the West as a way to improve their country’s status in the international arena, and, likewise there is little motivation for American politicians to adjust their thinking away from perceiving Russia as an a priori enemy.
Igor Ivanov from the Russian International Affairs Council and MGIMO says that it would be naive to believe that the interaction between the two countries will depend exclusively on who occupies the White House. He argues that Moscow has a window just after the election to affect its relationship with Washington by making direct and open contacts with the new head of state.
According to Ivanov, U.S. foreign policy always maintains a state of inertia during transitions to new leadership, and Russia should not miss the opportunity to reach out and establish a good relationship with the new president, followed by an increase in mutual cooperation on all levels, including business and expert circles and civil society. He warns, however, that the “negative baggage” in U.S.-Russian relations has reached epic proportions and expectations for improved relations should remain low.