The leading U.S think tanks on Russia and Eurasia have shifted their focus from Crimea to three recurring themes: Putin’s “new Russia,” the massive Russia-China energy deal, and the May 25 elections in Ukraine.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin before meeting with Xi Jinping in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters

Immediately following Russia’s intervention in Crimea, top U.S. think tanks attempted to explain the motivations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. The most likely explanation, they said, was that Putin had adopted a new doctrine that compelled Russia to act in a certain way.

Most notably, Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that Crimea was taken in accordance with the “Putin doctrine”  a credo that perceives Russia as the “civilizational pillar,” the “galactic center around which orbit satellite-statelets,” and the perpetuator of Russian uniqueness to “contain” the West. Others concluded that it was part of Russia’s “responsibility to protect” Russian speakers, Russian minorities, and “compatriots” in Crimea.

Lately, however, Brookings, CSIS, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have all huddled around a seemingly all-encompassing motif with very pertinent future implications: “Novorossiya.”

 From Crimea to “Novorossiya”

“Novorossiya” is a word in the Russian language that means “new Russia.” It is also a conceptual territory in Russian history denoting a piece of land in modern-day Eastern Ukraine that includes Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Luhansk, and Odessa.

After Tsarist Russia dissolved in the 1917 revolution, “Novorossiya” became an unofficial region in limbo. However, since its incorporation into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, it has remained a part of Ukraine (even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991).

It therefore came as a shock to U.S. think tanks when Putin evoked “Novorossiya” during a question and answer session with the Russian public in mid-April. Overnight, it seemed, U.S. think tanks refocused their lenses. Think tanks began to see Putin’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine within the context of a “Novorossiya” in Ukraine – Putin’s “new Russia.”

For example, Brookings cited the Moldovan Ambassador to the U.S., Igor Munteanu, who thinks Putin aims to “carve out pieces from a state that is a friendly neighbor” because of “an imaginary Tsarist ‘Novorossiya.’”

Elsewhere, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations believes Russia has been vying for an “entire swath” of Ukrainian soil because of “Novorossiya,” Brookings President Strobe Talbott thinks Putin wants Ukraine as a “vassal state of the Russian state,” and CSIS believes “post-Soviet states in eastern Europe and Eurasia are not fully sovereign” in the eyes of Putin and the Russian elite.

Experts at Carnegie are in step as well. It seems that all the top U.S. think tanks, with the exception of RAND Corporation, are talking about “Novorossiya” and its effect on the Russian perspective.

It seems “Novorossiya” also fits within a larger framework of geopolitics. In last month’s roundup, U.S. think tanks indicated Russia’s actions upended the global status quo and attempted to create a new world order. The transfer of Crimea to Russia, it seemed, was only a stepping-stone toward a rapidly expanding Russian periphery.

With Ukraine’s importance to a projected Eurasian Union and an increased Russian troop presence on the Ukrainian border, U.S. think tanks forecasted a likely disquiet on the Eastern European front. Putin’s power play in Crimea was “the era of U.S. global dominance … coming to an end.”

However, a couple of articles depart from the conventional wisdom. Experts from the Council on Foreign Relations and CSIS speak of the illusion of Russian geopolitical prowess and the apparent reality of a state in decline. G. John Ikenberry’s article, for example, demystifies the prevailing U.S. sentiment (i.e. that Russia is an “increasingly dangerous geopolitical foe”) by indicating it is “based on a colossal misreading of modern power realities.”

According to the author, “as worrisome as [Putin’s] moves in Crimea have been, they reflect Russia’s geopolitical vulnerability, not its strength. Russia is not on the rise; to the contrary, it is experiencing one of the greatest geopolitical contractions of any major power in the modern era.”

The massive Russia-China energy deal

As for increased Russian cooperation with China, could it give rise to a geopolitical “axis of convenience?” No, Ikenberry says, Russia and China are only “part-time spoilers at best.”  Certainly, agrees Ali Wyne of CSIS, Russian-Chinese ties remain more “superficial than strategic.” But what do other US think tanks have to say about the massive, brand new, 30-year, $400 billion dollar Russia-China energy dealCould it actually mean the “start of a new world order?”

U.S. think tanks have only been able to ponder the historic Russia-China energy deal for a limited amount of time, but many are already taking different angles.

Based on a 2013 analysis of Russia and the CIS, Andrew Kuchins of CSIS thinks the deal is all part of a Russian “Asia Pivot” that began at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok in September 2012. “The summit marked a major step forward in Moscow’s engagement with multilateral organizations in Asia,” and set the stage for further Russian integration into Asia.

For Kuchins, the deal is likely the culmination of a nexus of similar Russia-China interests. Similarly, Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin views the deal as the “consolidation of Russia’s Asia pivot.”

Brookings experts suggest the deal may be beneficial not only to Russia and China, but to “all of us!” The deal is a “net new addition to world natural gas supplies made possible by the investment in infrastructure to deliver from geographically isolated fields.” In plain English, there will now be more (and cheaper) natural gas for the world as a result of tapping into new sources. More natural gas = global energy security.

Yet another strain of thought comes from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that, while unlikely, is interesting nonetheless. Akio Kawato suggests that if Russia “loses” Ukraine to the West, then the projected Eurasian Union “will not fully materialize.” But the author goes on to say that the Eurasian Union might be able to be “folded” into “China’s own ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ concept,” as a result of the landmark energy deal.

Could Russia’s Eurasian Union come under the auspices of Chinese economic expansion? Only time will tell if the very newly elected Ukrainian head of state, Petro Poroshenko, will choose integration with Russia or the West.

The Ukrainian elections 

On May 25, “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko was elected Ukraine’s newest President. Poroshenko’s chocolate empire, worth upwards of a reported one billion dollars, vaulted him to a position of popularity among the Ukrainian electorate. Though cautious, U.S. think tanks did predict Poroshenko’s likely victory over the rest of the competition in the weeks leading up to the election.

Yet much to the surprise of many, armed pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine did little to significantly disrupt overall election results as Russia has so far respected the electoral process. And in western Ukraine, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the Russian media’s portrayal of the “neo-fascist” population was hardly accurate. These developments have led some U.S. think tanks to emit guarded optimism about de-escalating the situation and “end[ing] the first phase of the Ukrainian crisis.”

On Twitter, Brookings president Strobe Talbott touted Poroshenko’s commitment to “European values” in the coming months, and Carnegie said Poroshenko’s election could be the beginning of the end of the crisis. Despite the sweet victory of the “chocolate king,” one thing is for sure: experts at U.S. think tanks are keeping their fingers firmly crossed.