Russia Direct's October think tank roundup: Russia’s top experts examine the implications of military operations in Syria, with some suggesting they could help ease Russia’s global isolation and others fearing they might undermine internal security.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speake during a press conference after a meeting in Vienna, on Oct 30, 2015. Photo: AP

In October, Russian think tank analysts scrutinized Russia’s operations in Syria, analyzed recent parliamentary elections in Poland, and examined the worsening relations between Russia and the West, which even the common threat of international terrorism is not easing.

Russian military operations in Syria

Starting from the end of September, the Russian military campaign in Syria has kept Russian experts busy, debating not only about the actual goals the Kremlin is pursuing in this conflict and the possible negative consequences for the country, but also about who might eventually join the operation in support of Russia.

Vasily Kuznetsov, expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), focused attention on the possible risks and threats posed by Russia’s participation in the Syrian operation. He argues that this military operation will not so much make its main impact on the positions of the Syrian rebels, but on Russia’s image in the eyes of the Muslim countries, which are highly ambivalent about the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Also read: "The Kremlin's Syria gamble is risky, but could have a big payoff"

“For some, Russia will be viewed as a country, which as usual is defending a dictator and bombing moderate opposition groups and the civilian population, for others it will become a new enemy of the Sunnis,” the analyst argues.

Another serious threat to Russia may become the “export of jihad,” by which Kuznetsov means the intensification of terrorist activities in Russia. The author believes that the population will not be able to forgive the regime if it undermines internal security, and especially against the background of a deteriorating economic environment.

Alexander Golts of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) also focused on the negative aspects of the operations in Syria, noting that, in essence, the goal was solely populist – to make themselves felt on the world stage, and finally to force the West to start talking with Russia. Golts considers this operation not only inefficient, but also rather absurd, which has no good prospects, or even feasible goals.

“It would have been best not to launch this operation. The entire reasoning behind it was to force the Americans, and the West in general, to negotiate with us. Russia is very determined to come out of its international isolation that resulted from its successes in Crimea and the Donbas,” says the analyst.

Political analyst Arkady Dubnov at the Carnegie Moscow Center draws attention to the absence of any support for this operation from Russia’s immediate neighbors: the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). At the last CIS Summit in October, there was not a single word of approval for the activities of Russia in its fight against terrorism in Syria.

At first glance, this lack of approval seems very strange, because many of the CIS countries, especially those located in Central and Middle Asia, know firsthand what terrorism means. Nevertheless, the silence of CIS leaders is understandable – many of them see this fight against terrorism as a threat to their own internal security, particularly when it comes to the use of the Caspian Sea as a launch site for Russian missiles.

The militarization of the Caspian Sea has long been an issue that concerns many CIS countries, and it became particularly aggravated after Russia launched its cruise missiles exactly from this body of water.

Not all Russian experts are so critical of the Kremlin’s operation in Syria. Thus, Andrey Kazantsev of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) considers that the international community underestimates the real motives of the Russian leadership, for which this is not so much about supporting Assad’s regime, but about actually fighting against international terrorism, which does pose a real threat to Russia.

In this sense, the expert concludes, we cannot say that an intensification of terrorism will be the consequence of the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, the flurry of recent activity shown by Islamist groups in Russia and its neighboring countries is already a reality, and it is to actually fight against this threat that the operation in Syria was launched.

Polish elections

On Oct. 25, Poland held its parliamentary elections, which to the surprise of many ended with a landslide victory of the opposition Law and Justice Party, known for its Euroscepticism and deep hostility towards Russia. One of the founding fathers of this party – Jaroslaw Kaczynski – did not run this time, and handed the reins over to his successor, Beata Szydlo, who just a year ago was little known among the voters. Analysts at Russian think tanks reflected on what impact this victory of conservatives and traditionalists may have on Russia.

An expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Maxim Samorukov, believes that the victory of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party cannot hurt Russia, but Brussels should be worried about the destructive behavior of the new Polish leaders. He said: “Over the past couple of years, all room to maneuver, when it comes to relations with Russia, has completely disappeared. Any attempts at further aggravation of relations are fraught with extremely dangerous consequences. To harshly criticize Russia – this is now commonplace. No one in Poland today is soft in their criticism of Russia.”

The criticism of Brussels is another matter, for its ambiguous policies of recent years, especially with regard to refugees. It is in this direction that the new leadership of Poland will see its biggest opportunity for political action, including the possible voicing of populist declarations.

Also read: "Elections in Poland don't augur well for Russia"

One of the most influential Russian experts – head of CFDP Fyodor Lukyanov – also believes that Russia should have no worries about the coming to power of Kaczynski’s conservatives as “any further worsening of Polish-Russian relations, which were wrecked during the Ukrainian crisis, is almost impossible now.”

Supporting his colleague from the Carnegie Institute, Mr. Lukyanov feels confident that the new party in power will pose a lot more problems for Brussels and Germany, than for Russia.

Poland “will take over the leadership of the disaffected group of countries that today lack the ability to lead. Then there will be the tough approach to Germany,” explains the analyst. In particular, in the near future we can expect to see a review of Poland’s position on the refugee quota, which the outgoing government had agreed to.

The possible deterioration in relations between Warsaw and Brussels has also been noted by Vadim Trukhachev at RIAC. He recalled that the previous government that was led by the Law and Justice Party (2000s) was characterized by numerous disputes between Poland and the EU, as well as constant reminders about Germany’s past transgressions.

At the same time, Trukhachev believes that Moscow should also expect a tough Polish stance in relations with Russia, due to the Ukrainian issue. According to the expert, “The already difficult relations with Russia may yet get worse.”

Once again, fears of a “Cold War”

Against the background of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, the Russian expert community has started talking about a possible reconciliation between Russia and the West. The two sides now have an obvious common enemy – international terrorism.

However, optimism faded rather quickly: almost immediately after the start of operations in Syria, it became clear that the West does not intend to support Russia’s initiative. Representatives of various Russian think tanks discussed this very topic in October.

The head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, believes that relations between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, remain in “a stable confrontational condition,” which has been established in the last few years. The expert believes that this confrontation cannot be broken by any common current problems, including that of terrorism.

It is possible, emphasizes the analyst, “that there will be some periods of attenuation or stabilization of tensions. However, this is – the stabilization of hostility. That is, if we look at the issue of Syria today. We are not talking about two large friendly powers, the United States and Russia, working together in resolving a crisis, but rather about ensuring that during the intervention by both countries in this conflict, where there exists a common enemy, these two do not accidently bomb or kill each other.”

Trenin says that problems in relations are too serious – there is deep mutual mistrust, and hence to eliminate it will take time and effort.

Ivan Timofeev, program director at RIAC, also believes that the relations between Russia and the West have reached a kind of critical point – all the surprises and unpredictability are behind us now, and ahead lies clear and routine confrontation. The expert stresses that after such unexpected actions by Russia in Ukraine and then in Syria, the Kremlin has returned to a predictable foreign policy agenda.

Timofeev highlights several key features in Russia’s future foreign policy. These include the continuation of confrontation with the West, a sharp reaction to any attempts by the West to interfere in the affairs of countries in the post-Soviet space, emphasis on the development of alternative international institutions (including the BRICS), and maintaining a dialogue with the United States on the most pressing issues.

Georgy Bovt of CFDP argues that the Russia’s operations in Syrian have not become a new starting point in the dialogue between Russia and the West, which the Russian establishment had been hoping to see. On the contrary, the attacks on ISIS positions have become a new source of anger and discontent for Russia’s Western partners. The expert believes that there is a real threat that the war in Syria will escalate into a “proxy war” between Russia and the United States.

Read debates: "Is there a way to reconcile interests of the US, Russia in Syria?"

“Moscow’s actions were perceived as a challenge to the U.S. policy in the region”, stressed Mr. Bovt, which can seriously degrade the already disastrously poor relations between Russia and the United States, as well as Russia and the West in general.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and an author for the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that the confrontation between Russia and the West is a logical result of the new Russian policy of revisionism, which Russia has recently announced. Revisionism, says Mr. Pavlovsky, for the Kremlin is a kind of containment strategy against the West, as well as any other forces that Moscow considers as posing a threat to Russia.

In this sense, we should not expect any thaw in relations with the West, because the revisionist ideology is too ingrained in the minds of not only the establishment, but also in the minds of the Russian people.