Russian think tank review: Experts are increasingly concerned by what they see as Russia’s growing isolation in the world. And, given slumping oil prices, Russia now needs as many friends as possible.


Russian President Vladimir Putin walks on stage to deliver a speech at the 2014 APEC Summit. Photo: AP

In November, Russian think tank experts focused on three main themes: the meetings of world leaders at the APEC and G20 summits, the negative impact of the declining price of oil on the ruble, and European pressure on Serbia to join the sanctions against Russia.

Tallying up the results of the APEC and G20 Summits

Russian experts were divided over the results of November’s APEC and G20 summits, as they attempted to figure out whether or not Russia was internationally isolated. At the same time, most think tanks believe that Russia should not get carried away with the “Chinese vector” of foreign policy. Instead, Russia should give preference to a multilateral framework.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and an expert for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), believes that Russia should give priority to the G20. Lukyanov is convinced that only by interacting with a variety of players can Russia avoid the isolation that its Western partners are trying to force upon it.

“Russia should give the G20 its full attention, since it is a format in which Moscow will never stand alone,” he writes. “These days Russia has little to gain from the usual Western-oriented configurations. One can argue about the whys and wherefores of what has happened, but the fact is that Russia cannot count on the West for support. Officially, the G8 is no more due to Crimea, but the real reason is that Russia’s involvement was long viewed as an intrusion… That could never happen under the G20.”

Georgy Bovt of CFDP posits that the unbroken dialogue between Russia and the West is proof that Russia is not in isolation. However, this dialogue is unproductive and burdened by the personal animosity between the leaders of Russia and the United States.

“The body language and gestures, replete with finger-pointing and shoulder patting, suggest a certain lack of chemistry between Putin and Obama,” says Bovt. “I personally feel that Putin struggles to conceal his irritation.”

Bovt also believes that it would be “unwise to overestimate China’s friendly disposition” towards Russia.

Some analysts, including Andrei Sushentsov of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), consider the “cold shouldering” of Vladimir Putin in Australia and Russia’s creeping isolation to be greatly exaggerated.

“For the entire two days in Brisbane, world leaders held amicable talks with the Russian president, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had promised to ‘shirtfront’ Putin, was a picture of kindness and benevolence.”

Sushentsov blames Western and Russian media for fanning the flames of “Putin’s isolation.”

“International relations are a good deal simpler and more boring than depicted in the media,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why they tend to shift the focus of attention from what’s really going on to something with more bite, albeit fanciful.”

RIAC expert Victoria Panova expresses the same idea. She believes that the G20 summit was “in no way a trial of Russia” and that the West should not “count on isolating Russia in the G20.”

Against this backdrop, Valery Solovey of MGIMO cautions against active involvement in the Asian region.

“Russia is not so much pivoting eastwards as turning its back on the West — like a child in a huff,” he said. “And it will only lose out as a result, for China is artfully exploiting Russia’s predicament to reap maximum economic and strategic benefit for itself. In terms of culture, world view, and values, Russians are a European nation and Russia is a European country.”

He remarks that any imbalance towards the East is “quite simply harmful” for Moscow. Moreover, China’s main trade and economic partner remains the United States. Whereas Russia believes that it is playing the “China card,” in actual fact, China is playing the “Russia card” in relations with the United States, warns the expert.

The need to diversify the Asian line of Russian foreign policy was highlighted by Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“To maintain the balance in relations with China, Russia needs to diversify its policy in the Asia-Pacific Region by developing relations with India, South Korea, and Vietnam,” he suggests. “Of particular importance here is the full normalization of relations with Japan.”

The OPEC meeting and the fall in global oil prices

For Russian experts, the oil market has always held special significance, since Russia depends directly on energy exports and prices. Whereas analysts were inclined to view high oil prices as a barrier to Russia’s economic development, low oil prices are seen as something akin to a harbinger of economic collapse. But analysts advise against drawing hasty conclusions on the alleged collusion between the United States and Saudi Arabia in order to weaken Russia. Nothing is ever that simple in the world oil markets.

Economist Konstantin Sonin of CFDP stresses the complex economic situation that Russia finds itself in as a result of the turbulence in the oil market.

“The depreciation of the ruble this year has been huge,” he writes. “It is partly due to external shocks, partly falling oil prices, and partly political choice and the strategy on Ukraine.”

Sonin’s colleague Georgy Bovt of CFDP explains the nonlinear relations between the market players.

“The rapid growth of shale oil production in the United States made a mark,” he writes. “The U.S. is already the third largest oil producer — after Saudi Arabia and Russia. The Saudis are rumored to be dumping to maintain market share, and possibly to put the brakes on shale oil, which is unprofitable at cheap prices.”

Elena Suponina of RIAC believes that OPEC is losing clout and turning into an “oil pensioner.” Therefore, Russia’s only ally is itself, which means nationwide belt-tightening.

“OPEC, which was established in 1960, is becoming increasingly inefficient, more like a consultancy,” she claims. “It is not the powerful cartel it was once. And the oil weapon no longer terrifies consumers.”

Suponina predicts that nervousness and fluctuations in the oil exchanges will continue under any scenario, and that the volatility will be reflected in the currency markets. Speculators will also be lining up.

“Maybe one should advise diversifying the economy, but that is not very realistic,” she writes. “So Russians should tighten their belts and get ready for hardships.”

Will Serbia join the anti-Russian sanctions?

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, center, along with his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic, 2nd right, and his wife Dragica, right, watch the Serbian air force display during a military parade in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, October 16, 2014. Photo: AP

In November Russian pundits debated how long Serbia would hold out against EU pressure, as well as what the prospects were of the Balkan country eventually falling into line with pan-European sanctions against Russia.

Elena Ponomareva of MGIMO explains that Serbia is under tremendous pressure: “Brussels is twisting Belgrade’s arm,” which could affect some major joint projects between Russia and Serbia, for example, the reconstruction of railways. Ponomareva proposes taking a look at the consequences that anti-Russian sanctions would have on the domestic political situation in Serbia.

“Whereas for Russia the mothballing of joint projects would be merely unpleasant, for Serbia it would be catastrophic,” she believes. “Even now Serbia is in a precarious position, and could face complete economic collapse. People will be out in the streets. In addition, a moratorium on joint projects would damage Belgrade’s image.”

Alexander Levchenkov of RIAC believes that the consequences of failing to impose sanctions would be even graver: if the EU continues to bind Serbia’s accession to anti-Russian sanctions, Belgrade’s deviation from the path of European integration will be fraught with risks, both domestic and global.

“The indignation of supporters of Serbia’s pro-European parties and movements... will almost certainly be harnessed by ‘external forces’ (Washington and Brussels),” he writes. “The price of Belgrade’s pro-Moscow policy could ultimately be political isolation (provided, of course, that the West itself remains united).”

Fyodor Lukyanov of CFDP openly states that the West’s leaning on Serbia is a crude attempt to put more pressure on Russia by depriving it of support in the Balkans.

“It is highly doubtful that the coming years will see further enlargement of the EU, since it is clearly overloaded with countries and not burning with desire to add any more, especially in the problem-laden Balkans,” he writes. “The pressure on Serbia is a primitive measure against the country, but mostly it is an attempt to squeeze Russia even more.”