Russian think tank roundup: From Cuba to Ukraine and the Middle East, unprecedented and completely unexpected events in 2014 have many experts speculating about further changes to the world order in the year ahead.

Environmental activists in a mock boat perform wearing puppet heads representing leaders, from left, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott, President Barak Obama, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo: AP

Russian experts note that 2014 saw a level of international tension not witnessed for a long time. The main outcome, in the opinion of most experts, is the unprecedented deterioration in ties between Russia and the West, particularly U.S.-Russian relations. This changing relationship, they say, could lead to a paradigm shift for the post-Cold War order.

With that in mind, Russian analysts in December contemplated the consequences for Russia of renewed ties between Washington and Havana, as well as the ever-present threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or IS).

Signs of a changing world order

This new geopolitical reality, according to Russian analysts, is giving rise to a global shift. “A new Cold War” was perhaps the most popular refrain of the year. At the same time, a whole host of experts stressed that the crisis in relations with the West is causing Russia to pivot eastwards.

For instance, Ivan Safranchuk of MGIMO writes that, “The talk today is of revising the world order.” His MGIMO colleague Maria Dubovikova agrees and points out that another salient event of the year was the unexpected and frightening rise of ISIS.

“This year, the international community has borne witness to the complete failure of the old mechanisms of global governance,” she said. “A worrying trend this year has been the rise of ISIS, which marks a leap in the evolution of extremism. It’s no longer about simple subversive and terrorist activities.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), agrees that the world is witnessing a paradigm shift.

“The long accumulated antagonisms finally erupted, and the ease with which the old system of interrelationships began to crumble demonstrated that it was not built on solid foundations,” he writes.

Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin notes that, “2014 was a turning point in Russian foreign policy. Russia not only declared its national interests, but also moved to take decisive action to protect them, shattering the post-Cold War order in the process.”

And, writes Trenin, this could lead to a new dynamic balance in international relations:

“On Ukraine, the Kremlin openly defied the U.S. and its allies, bringing to an end the cycle of rapprochement with the West and Russia’s periodic unsuccessful attempts to integrate into it, which began a quarter century ago and were clearly on the wane these last three years. A period of fierce confrontation with the West and closer ties with non-Western countries, especially China, is beginning. In the swelling competition for supremacy between the challenger China and the dominant global power, the United States, Moscow is most certainly on the side of Beijing.”

In its final report, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) noted that, “2014 was a turning point in the history of relations between modern Russia, the European Union and the United States. The sanctions war, which broke out in the summer of 2014 over Ukraine and Crimea, is ongoing.”

Against this backdrop of a changing world order, Russian experts sought to answer two critical questions: “What does the new U.S.-Cuban relationship mean for Russia?” and “What should Russia be doing to check the rise of ISIS?

What does the new US-Cuban relationship mean for Russia?

Russia is accustomed to calling Cuba a partner and a friend, which is why the abrupt warming of relations between Havana and Washington caused a stir among Russian think tanks, most of which posit that Washington is trying to kill two birds with one stone: consolidate its position in Latin America and check Russian influence in the region. At the same time, analysts note that the Cubans should be very cautious about America’s sudden charm offensive.

In particular, Dubovikova of MGIMO suggests that a clenched fist for the nation’s leadership may follow Obama’s outstretched hand to Cuban society.

“Obama did not address Cuba’s political leaders,” she argues. “Obama appealed to the Cubans, appealed to their apparent fatigue. He appealed to the feelings of Cubans living in exile in the U.S., away from their homeland and families.”

At the same time, Dubovikova points out that Obama talked about democracy, civil rights — “the values that have been sustainably promoted by the U.S. wherever it could.” The expert views this stance with suspicion while calling on Cuba to be “on guard.”

“The turbulence of unexpected love from the U.S. could turn the page of the current history of Cuba, but could end the governance of the Castro brothers and the socialist order of the country,” she assumes.

“Furthermore, the declaration on the failure of the U.S. embargo still does not mean its revocation and it is unclear when it will be revoked.”

Alexei Arbatov, member of the Scientific Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center and chairman of the Problems of Non-Proliferation program, believes that America’s objective is clear.

“Cuba will become less dependent on Russia. I think that is one of the motives behind Washington’s diplomatic veer. If it works, Cuba will become less dependent on Russia, and Russia’s influence in Cuba and other Latin American countries will decline.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), described America’s about-turn towards Cuba as “historic,” noting that Russia could actually gain from it.

“The scale of the shift cannot be overestimated,” noted the expert. “For the U.S. establishment, Cuba is an idée fixe, a thorn in its side, the embodiment of setbacks ever since the late fifties.”

Lukyanov believes that Obama is striving for an historic breakthrough, since “the absurdity of the embargo imposed in 1960 has been plain to see for a long time.”

“It weakens the position of the United States across the whole of Latin America,” asserts Lukyanov. “We should be glad for our long-time partner and ally… Now that the country is emerging from isolation, Russia can look forward to fruitful cooperation.”

What should Russia be doing to check the rise of ISIS?

The growing influence of Islamic State gave Russian experts no respite, not even in the run-up to New Year’s. Think tanks generally concurred on one point: the challenge is unprecedented and requires joint efforts on the part of the international community, and Russia can — and to a certain extent should — join in.

Alexei Malashenko, expert on religious extremism at the Carnegie Moscow Center (who also writes for CFDP), gave a detailed analysis of modern extremism in general and its particular manifestation in the form of ISIS.

He notes that any military victory over Islamic State would be temporary. It will provide nothing more than a pause — and not necessarily a long one at that — before further clashes break out, both inside the Muslim world and between Islamism and the non-Muslim world (the West, Russia, China, India and some African countries). It is bringing the “clash of civilizations” to the world’s doorstep. Malashenko also notes that Russia may even try to use Islamism as a trump card in its bargaining with the West, but advises against it.

Dubovikova of MGIMO believes that ISIS’s uniqueness lies in its structure, and that is what is causing the greatest concern.

“ISIS is not just orchestrating guerrilla warfare, but total regular war as well,” she warns. “ISIS is not just a vague organization with the pointless goal of exterminating ‘infidels,’ it has a clear goal to establish a so-called Islamic State. Within the conquered territories, they set their rules, laws and regulate daily life. They are building a state. This is a new form of extremism we have never faced before.”

Fellow MGIMO expert Akhmet Yarlykapov also touched upon the structure and capabilities of ISIS.

“The movement appeals to many,” he notes. “IS militants took control of whole swathes of territory and funded their operations through the sale of oil. They managed to build a state apparatus by recruiting former officers of Saddam Hussein, who are Sunnis. The alliance between Hussein’s officers and IS proved mutually beneficial. After all, IS needs their experience. That’s why Islamic State is not just another group of bandits. It has become a real political structure and needs to be taken very seriously.”