Think tank review: In August, Russian experts discussed Russian-Turkish rapprochement, the U.S. presidential race, and the emergence of a “new Cold War” with NATO.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, at the NATO summit in Warsaw, July 8, 2016. Photo: AP

In August, experts at Russia’s premier think tanks discussed the improvement of relations between Russia and Turkey and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. In addition, they analyzed how the rhetoric emanating from the recent Warsaw NATO Summit has raised serious concerns about the future of Russia’s cooperation with the West.

Restoration of Russia-Turkey dialogue

On Aug. 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. The main purpose of their meeting was to restore contacts and confidence, previously undermined in the autumn of 2015, when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 that was carrying out a combat mission in Syria. Although the two leaders, after their meeting, expressed hope for a speedy improvement of relations, Russian experts remain skeptical.

Andrei Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), says that tensions between the two powers had begun long before the plane was shot down. The views of Moscow and Ankara on a number of international issues are diametrically opposed. Even before the incident with the Russian plane, they presented obstacles to dialogue.

Therefore, the two countries will find it extremely difficult to overcome the many differences that now hang over their bilateral relations. Meanwhile, both Russia and Turkey have in common an uneasy relationship with their Western partners, causing great irritation in both capitals. Kortunov noted: “This meeting was also aimed at sending a signal to the EU and the U.S. – that both Russia and Turkey no longer consider the Western direction as the most important, and are willing to undertake a path of serious diversification.”

MGIMO University expert Maria Dubovikova emphasized the importance of pragmatism, which she says pushed both sides to restore dialogue. For many months, the “cooling” had a negative impact on Turkey, which lost enormous revenues from Russian tourists, and also on Russia, which needs Erdogan’s regime as an ally in regional affairs, including Syria.

At the same time, Russia is playing a cautious game with Turkey, in which the promises given to Ankara will be fulfilled only upon the Turks making certain concessions. “Russia will use its promises as carrots to force Turkey to comply, giving the Turks a taste every once in a while, but always holding the carrot just out of Turkey’s grasp,” summarizes Dubovikova.

“Russian-Turkish relations are too complex to be restored simply through compassionate communications between the two leaders. A handshake of the presidents – this is only a necessary pre-condition, but not a guarantee of success,” emphasizes Pavel Shlykov, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The normalization of relations that both leaders declared is hardly possible, at least on the scale they specified.

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Even the economic projects, which could be revived in the near future, cannot be considered as mutually beneficial. Russia could find itself spending a huge amount of resources on these, but with uncertain benefits and consequences. For Russia, these have always been a kind of “political investment” for the establishment of allied and strategic relations with Turkey, but the experience of recent years shows that this logic has stopped working, and the two countries need to look for a new framework for productive interaction.

The U.S. presidential campaign

Russian experts continue to discuss the course of the presidential race in the United States. During August, they mainly discussed the subject of which candidate in the White House would be more amenable to a dialogue with Moscow.

Pavel Demidov of MGIMO University believes that for the Kremlin, paradoxical as it might sound, it would be more productive to have Clinton on the opposite side. Although Trump speaks positively about Vladimir Putin, there is no guarantee that when it comes down to real politics, he will build a working dialogue with Russia. Trump is a “windy and irascible populist” and only a naïve observer could see a constructive partner in him, says Demidov.

In any dialogue, even one that has degraded to the level of confrontation, predictability is important. Therefore, for the Kremlin, Hillary Clinton presents by far the more favorable scenario: “Not only does she have great experience, but also she has worked in the international arena even before Vladimir Putin came to power; and therefore she, better than any of the current world leaders, understands the context and dynamics of global development. This makes her a progressive and serious negotiator. With the right approach, a successful dialogue can be achieved,” emphasizes Demidov.

Dmitry Suslov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) does not agree with his colleague when it comes to the American presidential candidates. Russia really does know what to expect from Clinton, but there is nothing good in this knowledge. Her deep ideological paradigm is that of a “hawk” and a convinced liberal. Should Clinton win, it would make no sense to expect any breakthroughs in relations – foreign policy does not give her any room for maneuver, because it is in this sphere that her ideas are the most fixed.

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Trump seems to be a more favorable candidate for Moscow, because, being inexperienced in politics, he is often guided by business interests and pure pragmatism, which would be beneficial for Moscow. He may try to reset relations with Russia, if he thinks this would benefit the U.S.

However, one way or another, both candidates will likely be forced to change the paradigm of U.S. global foreign policy, since it no longer corresponds to the new structure developing in the world.

“U.S. foreign policy, in any case, will enter into an era of change... The reason behind this is the disparity between the American foreign policy consensus, and the current (and likely future) trends in world development,” says Suslov.

NATO’s relationship with Russia                                           

In August, the focus of analysts shifted to the North Atlantic Alliance and its logic of expansion and development. Current trends are alarming, according to several Russian think tanks.

The head of the CFDP, Fyodor Lukyanov, explains that the spirit of a new “Cold War” has seized Europe, which is leading to a significantly greater role for NATO in the international agenda. The main member and guarantor of NATO – the United States – by inertia, is continuing the strategy of infinite expansion of the Alliance, without attaching importance to the fact that, in reality, it cannot fulfill its promises of protecting members against external threats.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the problem of a potential need to actually defend Poland or the Baltic States from Russia was not an issue to anyone, because Russia was in a deep crisis, and could not pose a threat. In the United States, they continue to argue in this spirit of a threat coming from Russia, although the situation has radically changed, and such an approach can lead to the destabilization of the entire system of international relations.

“NATO expansion looks like a trap for all participants, and not a path to peace and stability,” sums up Lukyanov.

RIAC expert Dmitry Danilov also writes about the spirit of a “new Cold War.” Indicative of this is the recent outcome of the Warsaw NATO Summit, which Russian analysts consider to be a turning point. The West has decided to consider Russia as its main enemy and strategic rival, a fact that has moved relations between Russia and NATO back by several decades.

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In the statements made after the summit, there were no half-tones, and the dialogue with Russia is considered as possible only within the framework of a confrontation with it – in order to prevent the outright escalation of events. In response, Russia has returned the criticism, claiming that NATO was posing a threat, and so the rhetoric is becoming more heated.

The worst thing in this situation is that these two threats are imaginary, without any foundation. Nevertheless, these imaginary threats only add fuel to the fire, by diverting both Russia and NATO member states from the issues that really require collaborative solutions, in particular, the fight against terrorism.

“Now the West and Russia cannot come together for the sake of repelling this threat. Interfering in this is mistrust and fear, which are generated by the unpredictability and deceptions of past years. The common language in the dialogue has been lost,” emphasizes Alexey Arbatov, expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the CFDP.

No common threats can lead to reconciliation between Russia and NATO, even if they had participated in successful joint actions in the past. The real threats are terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but neither Russia nor the West wish to admit this, while continuing to talk in the rhetoric of the old Cold War.

Under such circumstances, escalation is particularly dangerous. Even though the spirit of a “new Cold War” has long been hovering overhead, the new generation of politicians lacks the real awareness of the threat posed by nuclear weapons, and hence this makes the deterrent potential of nuclear weapons much lower.