Think tank roundup: In March, Russian experts analyzed the reasons behind the Belgian terror attack, the surprise withdrawal of the Russian military contingent from Syria and the potential implications of the unpredictable U.S. presidential campaign for Russia.

An archivist works at a memorial site for the victims of the Brussels attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels on April 1, 2016. Photo: AP

During the month of March, the leading Russian think tanks focused on three primary issues – the threat of radical Islamist terrorism after the latest Belgian attacks, the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Syria, and the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign. 

Terrorist attacks in Brussels

The terrorist attacks in Brussels on Mar. 22 were a real tragedy not only for Belgium, but also for the whole of Europe. This time, the terrorists took aim at the capital of the EU, in the very heart of Europe.

Sergey Veselovsky of MGIMO-University analyzes the reasons that led to this tragedy. The expert explains that, apart from the obvious problems with coordination of anti-terrorism security forces in the European countries, there have been a lot of other failures in both the internal and foreign policies of the EU, which caused the spread of radical Islam across Belgium and into neighboring countries in Europe.

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The failures include foreign policy mistakes related to Syria and Libya, as well as the unthinking encouragement of the interests of the migrants making their way to Europe. If allowed to go too far, this could result in the destruction of the centuries-old European values system, which has always provided Europe with orientation and protection. “It is only a united Europe with unshakeable values and principles that is capable of passing this test for stability and come out a winner from this confrontation,” writes Veselovsky.

Veniamin Popov of MGIMO-University is convinced that the terrorist attacks in Brussels, and more generally, the activation of jihad in Europe, are a logical outcome of the EU’s ill-conceived policy towards the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. According to the expert, the Europeans did the U.S.’s bidding by creating new zones of conflict and a political vacuum in the region of the Middle East and Northern Africa – a political vacuum that was inevitably filled up by radical ideas.

Europe must unite the efforts not only of its member states, but also of the other major players, including Russia. However, even being aware of this necessity, the Europeans are in no hurry to improve their relations with Moscow, with only the most farsighted of the European politicians speaking of the possibility of restoration of constructive dialogue with the Russian Federation during this period of crisis.

The head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), Fyodor Lukyanov, maintains that the Europeans, with their policy of toleration and obsession with preventing a new war in Europe, quite simply are afraid to name aloud their principal enemy as it would lead to undermining the whole of the socio-political construction that has been drawn up with such deliberation since the World War II. This obstacle appears to be practically irremovable, while Europe is turning from a haven of peace into a boiling cauldron whose further development is impossible to predict.

Alexey Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center thinks that all contemporary anti-terrorism efforts face one difficult problem — the inability to conceive of effective ways of fighting the ideological facet of terrorism. Malashenko points out that, obviously, this cannot be achieved by air strikes or even joint military efforts by Russia and the West. This new, complicated phase of history has to be grasped and endured, as humanity has not yet invented any effective methods to deal with it, the expert concludes.

The highly unpredictable U.S. presidential campaign

The ongoing electoral struggle in the U.S. has again been the center of attention for Russian analysts, who are attempting to predict further developments and forecast a potential winner.

Of the two Democratic contenders (Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders), Mikhail Troitsky of MGIMO-University rates high the chances of Hillary Clinton, whose nomination he considers all but certain. According to Troitsky, the other Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, is too much of a radical in the eyes of the Democratic majority, although his campaign has shown that in some demographic segments, there is demand for more “leftist” ideas.

Meanwhile, Troitsky is not quite certain of the nomination chances of the Republican Donald Trump: though currently, he is undoubtedly the most popular candidate, he is not very popular among the party ranks, which will try to minimize the chances of his possible nomination as a Republican candidate. The expert points out that this campaign is not typical of the U.S.: “The distinctive feature of the current campaign is that both potential candidates have high negative ratings, incurring serious criticism and questions and a high disapproval level. In such a situation, the final results can be totally unexpected.”

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The head of the CFDP, Fyodor Lukyanov, believes that the Democrats’ current campaign provides evidence of some decline in the party: while traditionally aiming at young people and the creative class, the party somehow has not found any young, charismatic new leaders, and is putting forward Clinton and Sanders who are not young and, in the case of Clinton, not very appealing to young millennials. Clinton is likely to surpass Sanders, but among the Democratic Party leaders, the current race should lead to a re-think of the party’s image, the expert says.

Things are even bleaker in the Republican Party, where Trump’s opponents look weak and are unable to offer any resistance to the billionaire. The campaign is totally unpredictable, proving again that for the American political system, of huge importance is a politician’s ability to be an entertainer as much as a statesman.

Vladislav Inozemtsev of CFDP voices an unconventional view of Trump as a candidate and potential president. Quite possibly, the media-manufactured image of a fiery politician known for his political incorrectness and populism is nothing but an image used by Trump to conduct a winning campaign.

It may turn out in the future, that the billionaire can act in a more pragmatic and rational way than any other candidate from the Republican Party or Democratic Party. In addition, the analyst points out, the nomination of Trump and his coming to power would be a real test of the American political system for being stable and democratic, which may teach the U.S. some historical lessons and induce reforming of the system’s weak spots.  

Withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria

On Mar. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of the main part of the Russian military contingent from Syria. The official reason for the withdrawal is that, over the past half year, most of the objectives that were set have been attained. Russian experts are wondering what made the President withdraw the troops at this exact time, while assessing the results of this overseas campaign, Russia’s largest in many years.

Gevorg Mirzayan, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), assigned high ratings to the results of Russia’s military campaign in Syria. The operation helped Russia win several objectives at once: to depart from the burdensome Ukrainian agenda in its relations with the West, gain leverage in the Middle East processes, and make a global show of its ability to solve complicated, large-scale, military-political issues.

Meanwhile, Mirzayan explains, the reasons for the withdrawal are hardly linked to accomplishment of the goals proclaimed by the Kremlin; more probably, the Turkish and Iranian factors have been at play here, as well as possible agreements on mutual concessions between Moscow and Washington (for example, a swap of the Syrian settlement for the Ukrainian one). “The Kremlin continues its victories in Syria, now with much lower expenses and much larger political opportunities than before,” the analyst sums up.

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 “Putin likes to surprise,” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrey Kolesnikov remarks. Russia’s unexpected withdrawal from Syria could very well be the result of the Kremlin’s hurt feelings about the belittling of its role in and contribution to the fight against terrorism in the Middle East on the part of the West. Obama had said recently that Putin was “no player.”

The withdrawal from Syria jumbled all the pieces on the board and showed what would happen to Syria if Russia packed up and left. Besides, the Kremlin did not want to get trapped in a long-term conflict, since such adventures bring much more problems than profits, especially under the current economic crisis in Russia. 

CFDP analyst Dmitri Oreshkin suggests that there were multiple reasons for the rush withdrawal of the Russian troops. Conspicuous among them were the dwindling of the military and financial resources required for conducting a large operation; the degradation, against the background of the campaign, of relations with Turkey, which may create problems for Russia’s oil transport through the Black Sea straits; the lack of approval from Israel, with which Russia has complicated but not adversarial relations; as well as the relations with Iran which really benefited from Russia’s aid but did not initiate any friendly actions in return.

At the same time, Oreshkin rates negatively the results of the campaign in Syria, pointing out that as a result, Russia has fallen out even worse with the West, spent huge resources and incurred the Islamists’ wrath.

Russia-West relations

This time, the subject of relations between Russia and the West, traditional for Russian analysts, is analyzed against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis. Is the ceasefire agreement on Syria and the withdrawal of the Russian troops capable of reconciling the powers?

Former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov gives a definite answer: it is not yet time to speak of a stabilization of the relations between Russia and the West, especially Russia and the U.S. The joint effort in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and progress in the Syrian settlement do not mean that relations between Russia and the U.S. have risen to the pre-crisis level of cooperation.

Moreover, there is still a risk of the political conflict escalating into a military-political one because of the extremely high level of distrust between the parties. “Overcoming the current crisis in Russian-American relations is not a prospect for the near future,” Ivanov concludes

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Nadezhda Arbatova of CFDP draws attention to the fact that the relations between Russia and the EU are at an extremely low level although traditionally, Russia’s interaction with Europe have been more productive than that with the U.S. The expert points out that in mid-March, the Europeans published “five principles in relations with Russia” from which it is apparent that Ukraine remains the central problem at the heart of any dialogue.

Even the joint constructive work on the most important contemporary problems including terrorism and the nuclear problems of Iran and North Korea do not clear the agenda of the Ukrainian conflict, which still poisons the dialogue between Moscow and Brussels.

Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Alexey Arbatov voices cautious optimism regarding the Russian-American dialogue against the background of the Syrian settlement. “I think that at this point, you can hardly say that we have become friends. But I believe that both Moscow and Washington have come to realize that we can no longer walk the path of escalation, as it can lead to a catastrophe. Besides, some mutual interests have become apparent,” Arbatov explains.

The expert points out that even mutual aspiration for improving the relations on the part of the leaders of the countries cannot guarantee a “detente” as, firstly, the accumulated baggage of contradictions is too heavy and, secondly, Russia and the U.S. are experiencing an unprecedented surge of anti-American and anti-Russian public sentiments, respectively. In view of that, the process of restoring the dialogue may take a long time,” emphasizes Arbatov.