Russia Direct presents a June think tank roundup covering the rising threat from ISIS, Russia’s top investment conference and Putin’s visit to the Vatican.


Imam Hamed Mazloum, center, and other rally outside the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 21, 2014, protesting against terrorism and the other against the al Qaida splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL (sometimes called ISIS). Photo: AP

June certainly wasn’t short on news. Russian political analysts focused on ISIS, Russian President Vladimir Putins visit to Italy and the Vatican, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the ongoing dispute between Russia and the West.

The challenge of militant Islam

June saw an intensification of the debate around the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and prospects for its expansion into Russia. This was due not only to the groups increased activity, but also because of the case of 19-year-old Muscovite Varvara Karaulova, who was intercepted trying to cross the border from Turkey into Syria where she apparently intended to join the ranks of ISIS.

Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) expert Vitaly Naumkin pointed out the strengths of ISIS, in particular its high level of governance and society. “ISIS is not just barbarians and savages,”he wrote. “It employs highly qualified specialists, some of whom have created a powerful informational machine."

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This orderliness helps recruit more people into its terrorist ranks and strengthens the organization, making it extremely difficult to combat. Naumkin argued that ISIS will only get stronger in the near term, and the only way to deal with it is for its opponents to unite.

The analyst said Russia and the West must find the will to overcome their differences.

“We remember how the Soviet Union entered into a coalition with the West against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. I believe that the situation today is similar, and that we must put aside our differences and work together to fight this new evil,” he wrote.

Moscow Carnegie Center head Dmitry Trenin gave a long interview about the threats posed by ISIS. According to Trenin, the main danger lies in the fact that ISIS is the first terrorist organization to have created an effective proto-governmental structure, drawing into its orbit many problematic regions and large numbers of people who do not necessarily support ISIS.

Trenin said he sees “global consequences”in this development, and believes that faced with a common threat, Russia and the West can unite to fight against it. However, at present,“Russia and the countries of the West are fighting ISIS in isolation,” he said.

In June, several experts from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) drew attention to the prospect of ISIS expanding its influence into Russia. According to the group itself, there is a separate cell, or wilayah, operating in Russias North Caucasus.

Despite the fact that Russia is clearly not the first target in the groups list of enemies, ISIS is actively recruiting on Russian soil with considerable success, experts note.

Ahmed Yarlykapov, in particular, highlighted ISISsystem of recruitment, which aims to attract a wide variety of specialists from volunteer soldiers to economists and oilmen. ISIS is able to persuade such people that the group offers an alternative and new opportunities for development, which, according to Yarlykapov, is potentially dangerous in the tinderbox of Russias North Caucasus and other regions.

Yarlykapovs MGIMO-University colleague Sergei Druzhilovsky played down the rhetoric about the spread of ISISinfluence in Russia. “Russia is not their target,” he said. Druzhilovsky believes that ISIS can only take on Russia with a firm footing in the Middle East and North Africa, which it presently lacks.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2015

Junes most important economic event, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), was widely discussed by Russian think-tankers. Analysts differed in their assessments of SPIEF, but most concurred that the Forum demonstrated both the difficult situation that Russia finds itself in as well as opportunities to make progress.

MGIMO-University expert Ekaterina Arapova noted the modified agenda of the Forum, in particular the strong shift in focus towards economic ties with Asia and cooperation within the BRICS framework. The author linked this to new political and economic difficulties. Yet she wrote that she considers the shift of emphasis to be a highly positive outcome. Arapova stressed that geopolitical tensions are not the only issue.

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“The focus on potential partnerings with the countries of Asia is due not only to the cooling of relations with the West and the geopolitical tensions, but to objective factors relating, first, to the need to strategically realign the Russian economy and overcome the structural imbalances and, second, to major systemic reform and reorientation of the overall model of economic growth, which are timely matters for a number of Asian countries,”she wrote.

Georgy Bovt, CFDP, looked at the obvious contradictions between Russias official position in the international arena and its statements at SPIEF 2015 about openness and willingness to cooperate. Bovt put his finger on the fact that, economically, the Forum was a total failure. But politically, it pointed the way towards restoring ties with the West, which was not a bad result.

The analyst quipped caustically that “we sense intuitively that we are not ushering in a new Cold War, but at the same time no one is rushing to invite us to Yalta-2.”

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) published an interview with renowned Russian economist and head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Shokhin. Shokhin noted the positive results of the Forum, the potential solutions to economic problems that had been raised there, and the agreements reached with Russia’s foreign partners.

Although progress in talks with Asian partners warranted special mention, Shokhin said, Russias long-standing ties with Europe shouldn’t be ignored. Moreover, he noted some downsides of the Forum.

“It is very important that the Forum does not concentrate solely on Russian issues with foreign governments and businesses,”he stated. “And that our companies are actively involved in the global discussions of the G20 in shaping the business agenda with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS countries. It is very important to preserve the globality of the Forum, so that it is international in all aspects.”

Putins visit to Italy and the Vatican

Russian analysts looked closely at Russian President Vladimir Putins visit to Italy and the Vatican, during which Putin met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Pope Francis. Putin also attended the opening of Expo 2015 in Milan, where he inspected the Russian pavilion.

RIAC expert Marco di Liddo believes that we could soon see a rapprochement between Russia and the Vatican, since the two states see eye to eye on many global issues.

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“Both are highly critical of the processes of political, economic and moral globalization that are erasing the diversity of humanity and imposing a uniform, standardized model of existence on all peoples and all states,”the analyst said. “Neither looks favorably on the ‘one-sidednessof US policy, and both oppose the international consequences of it.

Both consider it necessary to revise the current world order in favor of multipolarity, taking into account the political and economic realities of the BRICS and other rapidly emerging countries. The key point is that both recognize the importance of traditional values and the precedence of family, national identity and Christian principles as the bedrock of modern society.”

Vladimir Degoev of MGIMO-University argues that Putins visit to Italy demonstrates the “effectiveness of bilateral relations.”The analyst said that “Russia needs to develop this format of relations with member countries of the European Union, since it could ultimately split the bureaucratic euro-monolith engaged in ‘sanctions waragainst Moscow.

Changes in the political and bureaucratic elites of Europe, and the very logic of international relations, give hope that this monolith will not stand firm for much longer. At least these factors are working against the sanctions.”

Russia-West relations

Russia-West relations were again top of mind for Russian experts. This time the discussion shifted slightly towards how tensions with the West are pushing Russia into the arms of the East.

Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, and Andrei Kortunov, RIAC, published a joint article on the problem of relations between Russia and the West. The article argued that America views Russia as a “third-order country,”not as a potentially equal partner.

Russia in this sense is bundled with North Korea and ISIS, which is not to the Kremlins liking. Russia is leaning towards partnership with China, believing that this will help equalize relations. But Trenin urged the Kremlin to tread carefully, lest China swallow Russia whole, especially in light of China’s economic power.

Kortunov, meanwhile, posited that Russia should stop “confining itself to a geographical choice [between Europe and China],”since the country “risks losing out.”The expert said that “in the modern world geography means little.

That is a fundamental difference between today and last century.”He asserted that no matter what direction Russia takes, the country must learn to compete in sectors other than raw materials, whereupon there is no shame in learning from other emergent economies —South Korea, for example.

Alexander Lukin, MGIMO-University, suggested that the Wests aversion to Russia is pushing the latter into ever closer intimacy with the East, especially China, with which Russia shares many values and beliefs. The expert explained that “China and Russia are not offering their model to other countries of the world, let alone imposing it.”

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“That is the preserve of the West, which uses the ideology of ‘democratismto conceal the old idea of superiority over other races, peoples and civilizations,”he continued. “But Moscow and Beijing flatly reject Western dictates.”

Unlike his MGIMO-University colleagues, CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov said that in principle there is no choice between East and West, since “in the interests of balanced development Russia needs both.”The expert explains that in the light of tensions with the West, “Russias pivot to the east is an objective necessity.”Thereupon, Lukyanov is adamant that Russia must not give up on the western vector, but strive to adopt a balanced position that unites East and West