Think tank roundup: Russia’s top experts weigh in on the U.S. presidential campaign, analyze a Dutch vote against Ukraine joining the EU, and give their views on the recent Russia-NATO Summit

A demonstrator wears Democratic presidential candidate's Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Hillary Clinton buttons during a rally to condemn Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's remarks about women and abortion. Photo: AP

In April, experts at Russia’s top think tanks discussed the ongoing results of the U.S. presidential campaign, analyzed the implications of the Russia-NATO Summit, and speculated about the potential foreign policy effects of the Dutch referendum on the ratification of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine.

Presidential primaries in the United States

Russian experts continue to follow the presidential campaign in the United States, with a focus on assessing the future prospects of the two frontrunners: Donald Trump, the billionaire candidate of the Republican Party, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate.

Andrey Sushentsov, associate professor at MGIMO University, commented on Trump. According to Sushentsov, despite the apparent resistance of the Republican establishment, Trump actually has good chances of becoming chosen as the presidential candidate of the Republican Party. This is due to the wide popularity he enjoys among the voters, and the weak positions of his main competitors, who are finding it difficult to challenge the billionaire in this contest, even by combining their efforts.

Recommended: "Would the Kremlin prefer Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?"

In such a scenario, Trump may well become a real headache for Democratic Party candidate Clinton, who, despite all her respectability and experience, could appear relatively unappealing next to Trump as a well-known candidate from the political establishment.

In addition, Sushentsov predicts that Trump may turn out to be a political chameleon. Having played the role of a politically incorrect provocateur during the preliminary stages, Trump is quite capable of transforming himself into a respectable and serious candidate as the finish line approaches.

Alexander Gorbachev, an author for Carnegie Moscow Center's website, considers that the current campaign is the most interesting and paradoxical in many years. It is characterized by a high degree of protest voting on the part of the electorate, and deep public distrust of the traditional institutions and the political process in the United States.

Gorbachev notes that perhaps the main paradox is Trump himself, who keeps being criticized for his political incorrectness, lying, lack of concrete plans, and the constant change of positions. However, most Trump observers are missing one important detail – the billionaire often voices and preaches a much more moderate and centrist paradigm than his rivals in these primaries, or even potential competitors from the Democratic Party.

As one example, Gorbachev points to foreign policy, social policy issues, and anti-immigration measures. “They should stop underestimating Trump. He has gone too far to be stopped now, and at every stage, he has shown that all expectations and forecasts of his critics were wrong,” he concludes.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), analyzes what could happen to Russian-American relations after the arrival of a new president in the White House. By and large, for Russia, it does not make much difference as to who will come to power – a Republican or Democrat – and in fact, in either case, there is no reason to expect to see a speedy recovery of dialogue between Moscow and Washington.

In Russia, most people assume that relations with pragmatic Republicans will be much easier than with the more “ideological” Democrats. However, Lukyanov does not share this point of view. In order to establish cooperation between Russia and the U.S., only one option remains – a certain amount of pragmatism from the new American leader when it comes to foreign policy.

The new U.S. president, whether Democrat or Republican, says Lukyanov, should already have realized that the role of the U.S. in the world is changing; for this new role, the Americans will need partners and supporters in different parts of the world – including Russia.

Russia-NATO Summit

On Apr. 20, the first Russia-NATO Summit since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis was held in Brussels. Even before the summit took place, many Russian analysts expressed pessimism about the upcoming event.

Thus, CFDP expert Alexander Golts said that the present confrontation between Russia and NATO has brought the world back to the Cold War era. He noted that the geopolitical adventurism of the Russian leadership has raised the stakes, making the game more dangerous than ever before.

Russia’s actions are unpredictable for both Russians and for their partners, and the country’s leadership is not too eager to establish productive dialogue. For them, this is a matter of prestige and visibility on the international arena, and such a position goes counter to the prospects of achieving full cooperation within the Russia-NATO Council.

Also read: "Reasons to be hopeful after the Russia-NATO Summit"

Dmitry Danilov of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) raised the issue of equality in relations between Russia and NATO. Thus, the way the dialogue is developing between Russia and the Alliance in the NATO-Russia Council format clearly shows the absence of equal rights and opportunities to influence the relationship for Russia.

The Council is “skewed” towards the powers and unilateral actions of the Alliance, which became vividly apparent after the Ukraine crisis erupted on the world stage. At that time, for all intents and purposes, NATO unilaterally ceased cooperation with Russia, even though the Russian side did not undertake any such initiatives. In this light, even the restoration of dialogue between the parties is unlikely to lead to further de-escalation.

The referendum in the Netherlands on Ukraine

In 2013, controversy surrounding the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU triggered major protests in Ukraine. These ended in the Euromaidan, a change of government, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, and an armed conflict with breakaway republics in the Donbas region.

Nearly three years later, there is still no unanimity in the EU as to the fate of Ukraine as part of a united Europe. On Apr. 6, a referendum was held in the Netherlands regarding the ratification of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, with 61.5 percent of the population voting against ratification.

Although this referendum is advisory in nature, and the Dutch government has already stated that it will continue the process of ratification, Russian experts say that this is not a very good sign for Ukraine.

Alexander Gushchin of RIAC believes that the Dutch “No” vote to the Association Agreement is largely the result of inefficient work of Ukrainian diplomacy and the country’s political leadership. Ukraine, at the government level, has not done anything substantial to improve its image in the eyes of ordinary Europeans.

Of course, Gushchin noted that Dutch Euroscepticism played a role. The Dutch, he says, were looking to express their disapproval of Brussels through this referendum on Ukraine. However, it is not the only factor, as Gushchin also points to the “serious shortcomings of Ukrainian diplomacy.”

Alexander Baunov from the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that the vote in the Netherlands was the result of the confluence of various circumstances. There were several reasons for this. It is not just Euroscepticism, but also the desire to preserve the values of “Old Europe” and the Dutch doubts about Ukraine itself. In this sense, the Association Agreement should not be considered as the first step towards Ukraine’s accession to the EU. This can only be achieved through reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia, which would open the way to a peaceful and constructive dialogue between Russia and the West.

Recommended: "Is the Dutch referendum on Ukraine really a game-changer?"

Leonid Gusev, an analyst at MGIMO University, believes that the only reason why the Dutch people voted against the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine is their disapproval of the policies of Brussels. The expert believes that the referendum had no direct relation to the issue of Ukraine.

“The forces that initiated this referendum were the opposition parties that are represented in parliament – and they use every opportunity to ‘snub their noses’ at Brussels. Thus, in this case, they were acting not primarily against Ukraine (many do not even know, generally speaking, where this country is located), but namely to ‘annoy’ Brussels,” says Gusev.