Russia Direct presents the fourth in its series of monthly roundups from U.S.-based think tanks focused on Russia and Eurasia.

 A protest against using chemical weapons in Syria in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Reuters

In September, U.S. think tanks focused primarily on two key moments in U.S.-Russia relations: President Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times and the agreement for dismantling and securing the destruction of Syria’s estimated 1,000 tons of chemical munitions by mid-2014. The Syria agreement, they suggest, could augur a new round of U.S.-Russia cooperation.

On Russia’s domestic political front, the Kremlin’s expectations that the G20 Summit, chaired by Russia, would celebrate the nation’s economic dynamism were dimmed by poor economic data and overshadowed by the Syrian crisis. The Moscow mayoral election results also fell short of Kremlin hopes that they would highlight wide voter support for Putinism.

Putin’s New York Times op-ed on U.S. exceptionalism

Leading commentators had different views on President Putin’s New York Times op-ed (“A Plea for Caution from Russia”), depending on their own political and ideological viewpoints.

In “Russia’s Tactical Triumph Does Not Signify a New Cold War,” published in the Financial Times on Sept. 12, Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations, criticized Putin’s op-ed piece, which he called “in part a summary of the Russian case against external armed intervention in Syria.” Haass objected particularly to Putin’s claims that the “Syrian opposition, not the government, used chemical weapons.” Although Haass believes U.S.-Russia cooperation is possible, key impediments include the improbability of Russia agreeing to using military force against Syria should Assad not fully comply with any arms control measures.

In her MSNBC article (“Lesson in Communication from Vladimir Putin”) from Sept. 14, Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Brookings Foreign Policy Program, writes that Putin titled his op-ed “A Plea for Caution from Russia” because he was proud of two skills acquired as a KGB operative: “communicating with people” and “working with information.” Putin has used these skills effectively in addressing different audiences in Russia. A key content of the op-ed was his plan for the next phase of the crisis: “No more spontaneous unilateral U.S. moves, only international diplomacy and a return to highly-orchestrated formats in Geneva and the United Nations.”

In his Brookings blog post (“Syria and Russia: What’s Putin Up To?”) from September 13, Martin Kalb, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, believes that Putin’s latest moves on Syria are rooted in his preoccupation with Russian security. Thus the New York Times op-ed piece reflects a real fear of Islamic fundamentalism spreading over from Syria into southern Russia, thereby stirring up Islamic extremists in Chechnya and Dagestan even more. This could introduce “a fresh wave of Islamist fervour and fanaticism that he, as Russia’s leader, wants no part of,” Kalb notes.

In Brookings Senior Fellow Stefen Pifer’s interview with NPR’s “Here and Now” program on Sept. 12 (“Putin Takes Center Stage in Syria Crisis”), Pifer spoke with host Jeremy Hobson on Putin’s op-ed and his role in the Syrian crisis. To Hobson’s question whether Putin’s unpopularity in the U.S. meant his “message” would be ignored, Pifer said Putin’s move was part of a “bigger effort by the Russians to try to slow down…the U.S. going round the U.N. Security Council and perhaps using force against Syria in conjunction with France and some other countries.”

The U.S.-Russia chemical weapons deal

In the same NPR interview, Pifer said the real question U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would be exploring during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva was whether the proposed deal represented a real effort by Russia to address the chemical weapons problem, or was it simply aimed at buying time for Assad?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at Geneva's news conference on Syria on Sept. 14, 2013. Photo: Reuters

In her article “What Really Scares Vladimir Putin the Most”, published in The New Republic on Sept. 29, Senior Editor Julia Ioffe discusses Putin’s “conservatism” and “bipolar” view of the world as the key to understanding his foreign policy approach to Syria. She cites Fyodor Lukyanov of Russia in Global Affairs: The U.S. propensity for direct intervention in a country to effect change “is more than galling to Putin” who firmly believes that “change is better effected gradually.”“Putin sees himself as the necessary balance to U.S. global power,” Ioffe writes. This role of counterweight came with the U.S.-Russia Syria deal, which therefore reinforced his bipolar view of the world.

In an op-ed published in The Atlantic on Sept. 14 (“The U.S.-Russian Deal on Syria: A Victory for Assad”), Shadi Hamid, The Atlantic correspondent anddirector of research, Brookings Doha Center,  calls the agreement with Russia a narrow one, aimed at “obviating an unwanted war,” in which the key issues – a brutal civil war spilling over into the neighboring region, the fanning of sectarian strife – were pushed aside in the “the near-obsessive focus on chemical-weapons use.” Hamid notes that “chemical weapons were never central to Assad’s military strategy,” the implication being that regime compliance with the inspections will have “little import for the broader civil war” in which Damascus’ use of conventional weapons has led to almost 100,000 deaths.

In his article, “A Win-Win-Win for Everyone (Except the Syrians),” Fred Kaplan, author and Slate’s "War Stories" columnist, notes that the deal was a “win-win” for both Moscow and Washington. Firstly, Russia was intent on “getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons so quickly” to prevent ensuing chaos and instability if their use continued. Secondly, Assad remained in power. Thirdly, Russia re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics.

President Obama can also claim victory. Firstly, by citing his threat to use force as the reason Putin took action, Obama can claim “at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law.” Secondly, the deal meant Congress would not vote on whether to authorize the use of force—a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose. Only the Syrians were losers in this diplomatic venture: Assad remains in power and the civil war rages on. 

In “An Uneasy Russo-American Accord on Syria’s Chemical Weapons” of Sept. 19, Jamestown analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes that the Geneva accord resembles a “Cold War style compromise.” He sees Moscow’s primary concern being to secure the future of the Assad regime and help it defeat the opposition through military and diplomatic means. In contrast, the Obama administration appears to lack “any clear-cut strategy in Syria,” Felgenhauer writes.

In a lengthy analysis, the author gives details of U.S.-Russia differences. In the wake of the Geneva Accord the U.S. wanted a UN Security Council resolution threatening punitive measures against Assad if he failed to dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal. In Moscow’s information war in support of Assad, Moscow continued to assert that “overwhelming evidence” exists showing that the sarin attack “was a provocation by the opposition forces” which directly contravened  the UN experts’ report released on September 16 that the sarin gas attack on a rebel-held Damascus-suburb “involved the firing of missiles, apparently from government forces held territory.”

As Felgenhauer points, out to actually begin disarming Syria, both sides will have to work together. Felgenhauer, citing Kommersant Daily, reports the Russian defense ministry believes some 10,000 foreign military personnel, including U.S. and NATO contingents, must be deployed to safely guard and process the Syrian chemical arsenal.

G20 and Moscow’s mayoral elections

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit. Photo: AP

In his article “Neither the G-20 Summit, Nor the Moscow Elections Went According to Putin’s Script” of Sept. 9, Pavel K. Baev, Eurasia Daily Monitor regular columnist and Senior Nonresident Brookings Fellow, writes that neither the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg nor the Moscow mayoral elections went according to the Kremlin’s plan: the first was to demonstrate Russia’s “economic dynamism,” the second  that “Putinism as a political system can mobilize a broad support base.”

Putin’s master plan for the G20 Summit was to focus on growth: Russia would thereby rally the dynamic “emerging economies” and establish as fact the profound geographic shift in global economic forces. Baev writes that Russia’s disappearing growth derailed this plan as did the BRIC’s slackening growth.

Instead, the escalating Syrian civil war dominated the G20 agenda.

Regarding the Moscow mayoral elections between the incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, with a 32 percent turnout rate and a 51.3 to 27.2 percent margin of victory, the results were less comfortable than the Kremlin expected and showed a “bureaucracy unable to maintain its monopoly on power even if limited competition is allowed.”

China’s growing presence in Central Asia

In “China’s Unmatched Influence in Central Asia,” written on September 18, Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program and Co-director, al-Farabi Carnegie Program on Central Asia, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, writes about China as “the big winner in Central Asia” displacing the U.S. and Russia as the “great power with the most influence” in the region. This was in full evidence during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the G20, his presence at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and his visits to the Central Asian states where strategic partnership agreements were signed.

Although neither Russia nor the U.S. have been fully displaced, Beijing is increasingly a more attractive foreign partner because of its strategy of developing investment projects “genuinely beneficial” to both sides.

Regarding energy, despite the European Union goal of energy diversification through plans for “multiple pipelines to move Central Asian gas to the European market,” it is China that is making the Central Asian states’ own market diversification goal “a reality.”

China has signed multi-billion-dollar energy investment projects in Central Asia. Tellingly, Turkmenistan now exports more gas to China than it sells to Russian energy giant Gazprom. These deals have left Russia “out on a limb” in its efforts to get a good price for its East Siberian gas, still under negotiation since 2006. If no agreement is reached soon, it risks being “shut out of China by its Central Asian neighbours,” writes Olcott.

On the trade front, China has also become the main trading partner of Central Asian states, mostly at the expense of Russia, and to a lesser extent, the EU. Thus, Russia is “pressing ahead” for the Central Asian states to join its Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.