Russia Direct presents the first in a series of monthly roundups of what experts at U.S. think tanks focused on Russia and Central Asia have been up to and what conclusions they have drawn from their work.

 President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama at the 2012 G20 summit Photo: RIA Novosti

1. Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

The prospects for a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations and geopolitical challenges surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were two of the main themes that CSIS experts chose to focus on over the past two months.

In the Voice of America’s “Encounter” program on May 17, Andrew Kuchins, the director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the CSIS, together with Helle Dale, a senior fellow in public diplomacy studies at the Heritage Foundation, spoke with host Carol Castiel on the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. The program focused on the prospects for improved U.S.-Russian relations.

Both scholars were pessimistic, citing differences over Syria and arms control, although both agreed that the U.S.-Russian relationship is based on pragmatism.

Russia reacted negatively to Barack Obama’s “reset” proposal despite U.S.-Russian cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council, a new START Treaty and U.S. assistance in Russia’s accession to the WTO.

Dale cited an Obama administration official as saying: “In U.S.-Russian relations we work on the assumption that the Cold War is over, but Russia behaves as if it’s still on.” It is hard to be optimistic about U.S.-Russian relations, she said.

On the question of whether there was common ground, Kuchins said that Russian cooperation on counter terrorism is selective. Dale noted that Russia views relations with the United States negatively: A persistent theme in Russian public diplomacy portrays the United States “as stupid and evil.”

According to Kuchins, the loss of “great power” status is one reason for such hostility. However, managing the rise of China represents a huge challenge for Russia, and “in that context, we can find common interests in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

Political instability in the North Caucasus was the focus of a May 17 article in The National Interest, entitled “Sochi’s Olympic Security Obstacles” by Sergei Markedonov, a visiting fellow at the CSIS. In the article, he discusses the Circassian genocide issue and the significance of the Cossacks as a political force in the Krasnodar Region.

He also touches upon Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, recognized as a de facto state by Russia and considered to be an occupied area by Georgia, a key U.S. and EU ally. Located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sochi, Abkhazia’s status impacts the Sochi Games in different ways. For example, Georgia initially called for a boycott of the Sochi Games. The Abkhaz leadership, for its part, is suspicious of Moscow’s regional economic plans.

2. Brookings Institution

 Arms control and America’s role in the world were key issues discussed in meetings at Washington’s Brookings Institution in May. Both themes have major implications for U.S.-Russian relations.

A hot debate broke out among three experts on disarmament at a May 22 meeting on “Options for Reducing Nuclear Arms.” Keith Payne, president of Washington’s National Institute for Public Policy, Bruce Blair, co-founder of the international disarmament movement Global Zero, and Steve Pfifer, director of Brookings’ arms control initiative, openly disagreed over how Obama should pursue arms control during the remainder of his second term.

Blair argued forcefully that Obama should push a “far-reaching agenda” of cuts, as proposed by Global Zero. He also called for eliminating all land-based intercontinental missiles and taking all nuclear weapons off launch-ready alert, and for Obama to set a target date for moving to zero nuclear arms in the future.

“The Cold War ended 20 years ago. We need to remind ourselves occasionally we don’t need to fight the last war any longer,” Blair said.

Payne strongly disagreed. He favored persuading Russia to be more open about its tactical nuclear weapons, where it enjoys a “ten to one advantage” over the United States. He dismissed the goal of a zero nuclear world: “Nuclear deterrence was a Cold War goal, but deterrence is still an extremely important goal in the post-Cold War world.”

Pfifer took the middle road. He favors a long-term goal of zero nuclear weapons if it is achievable. In the meantime, he said, “I’m a believer in nuclear deterrence.” He proposed that Obama push for another round of U.S.-Russian negotiations that would focus on all nuclear weapons, not just strategic arms.

Another Brookings expert on arms issues and Europe, non-resident fellow Clara O’Donnell, also weighed in last month on missile defense, a thorny issue in U.S.-Russian relations. In an opinion piece, “NATO and the Costs of Star Wars,” O’Donnell argued that America’s European allies should try to convince the Obama administration to scale back missile defense deployment because the systems are a drain on taxpayer’s money, unreliable and further strain relations with Russia and China.

Meanwhile, neither North Korea nor Tehran has missiles that can reach the United States. “For the benefit of NATO-Russian relations and global arms control, the Europeans should encourage their ally to reassess its stance,” O’Donnell wrote.

The publication of books by leading experts has catalyzed other foreign policy debates at Brookings. Among these new volumes are “The Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” by Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a non-resident Brookings fellow. Another is “Reviving U.S. Foreign Policy: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order” by Richard N. Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

These books present contrasting views on U.S. foreign policy.

On May 14, at a Brookings meeting, Nasr bemoaned the U.S. retreat from engagement in the broader Middle East. Nasr faulted the administration for choosing the military surge over the diplomatic option in Afghanistan. The U.S. foreign policy retreat is opening the way for other powers, including Russia and China, to expand their influence in ways that may not serve American long-term interests.

Haas offered a sharply different take on the problem. He identified a “persistent pattern of overreach” by the United States first in Iraq in 2003 and later in Afghanistan in 2008-2009.

Haas called for the United States to “restore the balances” in public policy by placing less emphasis on the Middle East and more on East Asia and the Pacific, plus more emphasis on domestic policy. His conclusion: Since the United States does not currently face a grave threat, now is the time to right the course at home.

3. Council on Foreign Relations

In the “Ask CFR Experts” series on the think tank’s website on June 18, Stephen Sestanovich, a George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, answered the question of whether Russia’s economy will keep growing along with those of other BRICS countries.

Sestanovich was not optimistic as he discussed the trajectory of Russia’s declining GDP growth over the past eight years. Contributory factors are the “turmoil of the Eurozone,” as the EU accounts for 44.4 percent of Russian exports, the failure to diversify the Russian economy, to fight corruption, to attract large-scale foreign investment and to encourage business startups.

Aleksei Malashenko, co-chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society and Security Program, discussed the issue of Islam in Russia and the relationship between Moscow and the Caucasus on May 9 as part of the CFR National Program and Outreach.

Malashenko made it clear that Moscow’s misguided policies are having a negative impact both in the North Caucasus and increasingly in Russia itself.  In the North Caucasus – in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan – “Shariatization” is a major problem. Its appeal is a reaction against Moscow’s negative course.

Malashenko thinks destabilization of this region and radicalization of Islam will continue, and as for the Sochi Games: “Who knows how Islamic groups will behave then. The Boston bombing made Moscow think that something similar could happen at the Games.”

4. The Jamestown Foundation

The foundation, based in Washington, DC specializes in research and analysis. Its Eurasia Daily Monitor (EDM) provides detailed daily reporting and analysis on Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia Direct selected several articles from the past month reflecting the most prominent topics.

In “Kremlin Efforts to Subdue Clan in Dagestan Likely to Backfire” published on June 24, Valery Dzutsev, a regular contributor to EDM on the Caucasus and Russia, reports on the latest insurgency-related violence in Dagestan and the new leadership appointed directly by Moscow.

The instability and violence endemic to the North Caucasus, which is adjacent to Sochi, is best exemplified by Dagestan, where the situation remains dire after the appointment of a new head Ruslan Abulatipov. In May, 129 out of the reported 147 victims of the insurgency-related warfare in the North Caucasus came from Dagestan. Government forces are also continuing their campaign against the militants, including kidnappings and killings.

The recent surprise and spectacular arrest orchestrated by Moscow in early June of Said Amirov, the powerful mayor of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, is part of Moscow’s plans to change the clan leadership ahead of the Olympic Games to effect greater direct control. However, Putin is unlikely to opt for modernization in this backward republic.

In “Russia’s Predicament and the Plight of One Economist” published on June 3, Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) and a regular EDM contributor, covered the plight of Russia’s most renowned economist Sergey Guriev, who opted to stay in Paris after an interrogation relating to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky affair.

“Not only does this fit into the larger pattern of tough persecution of dissent and discontent, but it also reflects the growing hostility of Russia’s leadership toward economic expertise.”

In his piece on June 20, “Russian Muslim Militants Are Joining the Ranks of Rebel Fighters in Syria,” Mairbek Vatchagaev, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Chechnya historian, cites Russian analysts who say that that up to 250 militants from Russia are fighting in Syria.

This includes Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and, in a new development, Tatars from the Volga Region, which shows that the North Caucasus is not the only part of Russia experiencing a surge in jihadist ideas. Moscow is increasingly being drawn into fighting Islamic forces, which some analysts view as posing a great danger to its future.

In his article “Opposition to Customs Union Grows across Eurasia,” dated June 20, Alexander Kim, an expert on Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region, reported that plans afoot to further integrate Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine into the Eurasian Customs Union were being increasingly opposed by opposition members in Kiev, some of whom clearly prefer EU membership.

In Kazakhstan, although the opposition is fragmented, the issue has become politicized. The ECU, established by Russia as a vehicle for reintegration of the post-Soviet space, is currently comprised of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.