Think Tank Roundup: Russian experts forecast increasing confrontation with the West based on recent foreign policy pronouncements by Russia’s elite and the lack of any breakthroughs in solving the Ukraine crisis.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, talks with his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, 2012. Photo: AP

In October, Russia’s major think tanks focused on Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club event in Sochi, the elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), and the Asia-Europe Summit in Milan. While experts spoke in unison on the main issues on the agenda in Milan, they differed in their assessments of Putin’s speech and the elections in the breakaway republics in Ukraine.

Putin’s Valdai speech as the defining moment of a new era

Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club, one of the largest discussion and political forums in Russia, produced a curious effect among commentators. Unanimously announcing that it marked a new era of fatalism on the part of the Kremlin, they nevertheless judged Putin’s words as nothing new. Moreover, analysts agreed that Russia is tired of being cast as a "global villain," since in reality it does not want world domination in any shape or form.

The head of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), Fyodor Lukyanov, believes that Putin expressed the general mood of the Russian elite.

"Putin does not intend to negotiate; it’s not aggression, but fatalism. The Russian president now believes that there is no use even trying to persuade the other side, especially the United States," Lukyanov wrote. "And the sanctions will remain in place no matter what happens in Ukraine. The sporadic (now non-existent) telephone conversations with Barack Obama are a clear indicator of the status quo. It is not a question of their personal animosity, which is here to stay, regardless. It is simply that they have nothing to talk about."

Lukyanov highlighted that Putin spoke figuratively of Russia’s unwillingness to get involved in any "dismantlement" of the global political system: "The bear defends its own taiga, which it considers to be its inalienable right, but has no intention of entering other 'climatic zones' where it doesn’t feel 'at home.'"

Henry Sardaryan from Moscow State Institute of International relations (MGIMO-University) emphasizes the importance of the Valdai speech and its focal points.

"Putin’s speech at the plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club represented a watershed in the post-bipolar world order," he argues. "As analysts have already noted, it contained the most anti-American statements of any Russian president in all the post-Soviet era."

The fact that Russia is not interested in hegemony in any conceivable manifestation was picked up on by Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"In terms of foreign policy, the ideal variant for Moscow is a concerted approach, i.e. harmonization between global powers, including Russia, which precludes a bipolar world or global hegemony," he wrote.

Meanwhile, other experts viewPutin’s speech not as confirmation that confrontation with the West is a foregone conclusion, but as another call for cooperation in addressing global challenges. Chief among this group of analysts is Igor Ivanov of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

"In his speech Putin explicitly called for a restoration of the U.S.-Russian dialogue, including a discussion of strategic nuclear weapons," he argues. "Intergovernmental problems have never been resolved by severing contacts, suspending dialogue, and substituting diplomacy with fraught, hostile rhetoric. I very much hope that the hand held out by Vladimir Putin to our U.S. partners is not left hanging in the air."

The elections in the DPR and LPR and their implications for Russia

Central among this month’s topics were the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Even before the vote, experts were vociferously divided over Moscow’s recognition of the result. Nor was any consensus reached afterwards.

CFDP analyst Georgy Bovt, for instance, believes that the situation is now such that little depends on the "right" or "wrong" actions of Moscow. The effect is always the same - further tension between Russia and the West. And Russia already has nothing to lose.

“Moscow seems to perceive sanctions less and less as a deterrent. The realization is that whatever we do, the West will drag its feet on lifting sanctions," writes Bovt.

He also notes that "objectively speaking, the sooner the elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, the better for Moscow. And not simply to legitimize — to use the fashionable term — those in charge of the region and to stick two fingers up at Europe. But also to streamline control over these entities with the help of those leaders willing to listen to Moscow."

Andrei Kortunov of RIAC believes that the "further development of the situation in Ukraine will largely depend on Russia’s position. Clearly, the Kremlin will be under pressure not only from the West, but also from the newly elected leaders in the DPR and LPR, whose number one task after the November 2 elections is to improve ties with Moscow. When the Donbas region sets about building its own machinery of government, the DPR and LPR will be counting on Moscow to support their full legitimization."

Kirill Koktysh of MGIMO considers Moscow’s recognition of the election results in a far less categorical manner, suggesting that it could become a bargaining chip in relations between Russia and the West.

"As for the legal consequences, I think they will be postponed until at least spring," he remarks. Russia will likely respect, rather than recognize the results, reserving the latter for political bargaining. A moment of truth will arrive, probably closer to spring, when it becomes clear the extent to which Ukraine and the breakaway republics were able to survive the winter, and what level of security they can guarantee their citizens."

The Asia-Europe Summit in Milan

Of equal importance for Russian experts was the Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit in Milan. Experts consider it a crucial platform on which to discuss the worsening economic crisis, yet recognize that the format is not conducive to securing steadfast agreements.

RIAC's Kortunov, in particular, notes that, “For Russia it is an opportune moment to reestablish contact with various partners. I would compare the summit with the meeting in Normandy in summer, where Vladimir Putin held a series of unofficial meetings with Western leaders to lay out Russia’s position and listen to their arguments. The informal nature of the meeting means that such talks are less binding than if held bilaterally. For Russia, it is a bridge-building exercise.”

The impact of such format was also touched upon by Lukyanov  of the CFDP. He sees the Asia-Europe Summit as "an event with no clear agenda or specific tasks." However, he appreciates the scale of this meeting between the leaders of Europe (the EU plus Russia) and Asia (East, South East, South), because "the participants account for more than two-thirds of the world economy."

"ASEM does not make decisions, but as a platform for important leaders to get some face time, it is useful,” he concludes.

The nature of this "unformatted" meeting is encapsulated by Koktysh of MGIMO-University. According to him, even though "the basic reasoning of each party [in the Ukrainian crisis] remained unchanged," at least "we saw the contours of future agreements."

"The problem is no longer intractable, and the steps that need to be taken are understood," he wrote. "A gradual evolution, a gradual convergence is taking place. Soon, perhaps, a framework agreement will emerge. Milan was not expected to see the signing of any documents. It was about the convergence of minds and values."