The future of Ukraine, the impact of Geneva-2 conference and U.S.-Russia relations were the focus of the Moscow-based think tanks in January. Russia Direct presents their monthly round-up.

Ukraine at the dead end. Photo: RIA Novosti

Despite the long January holidays, Russian political analysts continued to monitor and comment on major international events in the first month of 2014. Judging by publications of the RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council), CFDP (Council of Foreign and Defense Policy), Carnegie Center and MGIMO (Moscow State University of Foreign Affairs), the main trends in January were the following: pessimism regarding Ukraine, cautious optimism regarding the Geneva-2, and pragmatism regarding cooperation with the United States.

Ukraine in blind alley

In previous months, political observers have often spoken about Russia finding “victory” or “success” in Ukraine. There was less such talk in January. The Russian expert community appears to be strongly pessimistic about the prospects for settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. Experts seem to be no less tired of the conflict than the participants of clashes on Grushevskogo Street, and do not see possibilities for a positive outcome of these events.

“It seems that the situation in Ukraine will develop in the most negative scenario... the scenario being – the total delegitimization of the state…. that is becoming most likely,” says Aleksey Kuzmin, an expert in RIAC.

“The future is hidden in mist. The victory of either of the parties in the present confrontation will do nothing good,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, Head of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP).

“Ukraine is entering a new chapter in its history, where tranquility, alas, is unlikely for now,” says Liliya Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Analysts assign a special place to the consequences for Russia in their gloomy forecasts for Ukraine. Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli, Assistant Professor of European Integration Department of MGIMO, believes that Russia’s support of President Victor Yanunokovich primarily affects EU-Russia relations.

“The Ukrainian crisis of autumn 2013 has become the first head-on geopolitical clash between Moscow and Brussels since the debate on the EU enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe – and this time it is much more acute,” he writes. “The political climate of relations has certainly deteriorated.”

Lukyanov also calls into question the very competition for Ukraine between Russia and the West: “Russia and the EU can continue their tug-of-war, but this is a purely sports passion, no one is going to take on such an unmanageable burden as the current Ukrainian state.”

Hoping for the best at Geneva-2

Against the background of very controversial events and divisions over the future of Syria, analysts are demonstrating relative optimism regarding the Geneva-2 conference. The conference, which began in late January, brings together the two warring sides of the Syrian conflict in hopes of finding a resolution.

Yet although the conference is being called a breakthrough and certainly a positive development, experts have kept expectations of finding an end to the conflict firmly in check.

Nobody expects that the Geneva-2 will end in signing full agreements or a final settlement of the Syrian crisis.

Political analysts believe that the role of the Geneva-2 is rather to become a “point of official contacts”, according to Dmitry Trenin, Director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. He believes that the Geneva-2 is “good in any case, even despite the fact that UN withdrew its invitation to Iran, and despite a lot of issues that must be discussed. ... there will be a Geneva-3, Geneva-4, maybe Geneva-5, and so on, but the locomotive of the Syrian issue settlement is slowly setting out on its path.”

Yuri Zinin, an expert from MGIMO, speaks even more cautiously, however, without denying the importance of the conference: “Yet, the path from almost three-years of bloodshed to a political settlement is similar to movement on the thin ice of negotiations. Any unwary steps or provocations are fraught with danger for the meetings that have been started.”

Analysts make a pointed reference to the already mentioned withdrawal of the invitation for Iran. They unanimously believe this decision to be a poor one. “It is quite impossible to solve any problems without one of these parties [the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia]. The fact that Iran was not invited to Geneva is very bad,” says Alexey Malashenko from the Moscow Center.

Lukyanov expresses this idea pretty succinctly, pointing out that “the idea that the country, having the maximum impact on the situation in Syria, should not be present at the talks, is absurd in itself.”

2014: New round in U.S.-Russia relations?

Numerous productive contacts between Russia and the U.S. in January prompted the Russian expert community to speculate about a possible improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Of course, it is too early to talk about what 2014 may bring in terms of bilateral relations. Nevertheless, many analysts expressed their vision of the U.S.-Russia dialogue in the near future.

Russian think tanks write more and more often not about the broad problems in the U.S.-Russian relations, but about the specific areas where fruitful cooperation should be possible.

“The cooperation on Syria between the Russian Federation and the United States has demonstrated that Moscow and Washington can cooperate productively even when they are heavily quarrelling,” says Trenin. “This is not a strategic turn or a discharge... and we should not expect a “global warming” in Russian-American relations. Instead, we need to find points of common interests and to cooperate, without paying attention to the poisoned general political atmosphere of bilateral relations.”

Lukyanov of the CFDP shares this position.

“Russia and the U.S. have different views on a number of international and domestic problems,” he writes. “And we are not talking about adjusting these views or eliminating these contradictions through a rapprochement of positions. We are talking about finding forms of interaction on some issues in the presence of these contradictions.”

At the same time, some experts believe that in 2014, the main task of the sides is to preserve the emerging positive trend.

In particular, Andrey Kortunov, General Director of RIAC, believes that “it would be an achievement if the relations were preserved at the current level.”

The development of the situation around Syria will be important for political dialogue because “this will be the main mechanism for testing new approaches to the development of bilateral relations,” he writes.

Viktor Mizin, an expert in MGIMO, says that achieved agreements on Syria and Iran may improve relations between the Russian Federation and the U.S.

“Paraphrasing Pushkin, we can say that now “we are looking ahead without fear” after the well-known Russian initiative on Syria. “It was definitely a breakthrough, and has defused the whole situation around that country,” he writes.

The year 2014 began with a series of complicated events that cannot yet be assessed clearly. Meanwhile, we can observe the “tiredness” of the expert community caused by the Ukrainian issue. Seemingly, this “tiredness” could also be caused by Russian-American relations or the crisis in Syria. Yet, it is the situation in the neighboring country that causes the maximum amount of negativity and pessimism among Russian analysts. Perhaps, it is just an indicator of the fact the Russians care more about the events happening in Ukraine, and about the futility of resolving problems with the division of power in this country, than about the distant United States or “fraternal” but no less distant Syria.