Russian think tank review: In January, Russian experts discussed the further deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, as well as the results of the parliamentary elections in Greece and the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.
Right-left: Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attending the CSTO Collective Security Council's extended meeting on December 23, 2014. Photo: RIA Novosti
In the first month of 2015, Russia’s expert community discussed two pivotal events in Europe that have the ability to shape the future of Russian foreign policy – the rise of the radical left party Syriza in Greece and the terrorist attack by radical Islamists in Paris. Against this backdrop of political turmoil within Europe, these experts also analyzed Russia’s potential slide into international isolation.
Is Russia sliding into isolation?
This is not the first time that the Russian expert community has raised this question. It was being asked already last year, even before the annexation of Crimea and large-scale war in the Donbas. However, it is now that this issue has somehow become particularly threatening.
The experts are not always unanimous in their views on the situation; however, no one doubts that relations between Russia and the West have reached their most dangerous point in the last few decades.
Some experts believe that the Russian side is to blame for the deterioration of the situation, and the country is pushing itself into international isolation. Among these is Alexander Goltz of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), who, in his article “The Lone Bear is left with Nothing”, argues that, “As a result of the annexation of Crimea and the color counterrevolution in the Donbas, Russia has found itself in fierce international isolation.”
“Like shagreen leather, the list of states willing to host the Russian leader is shrinking. I suspect that in 2015, only North Korea and Zimbabwe will remain,” continues Goltz, pointing out that Russia and its president have brought this situation to its extreme, and now they themselves have no idea how to get out of it.
“In the end, he ended up all alone – with nothing,” Goltz concludes.
Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees with Goltz about the causes of the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West and considers that Russia’s foreign policy often turns to bluffing and is too often based on “myths” about its greatness and influence. Such an approach to foreign policy has led Russia to a dead end, from which it will not be able to exit in the near future.
“It is unlikely that in the coming year something will happen that can qualitatively change the foreign policy of Russia,” said Malashenko. “There are no miracles. Therefore, the Kremlin will not give up its myths and continue to bluff. However, very few share the Kremlin’s mythology, and a bluff will remain a bluff.”
Fully disagreeing with the position of her colleagues regarding Russia’s guilt is the Americanist Tatiana Shakleina of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), who devoted an entire article, “Where are you heading and where are you turning, America?”, to the historical approach of the West and the U.S., in particular, to their relations with Russia.
Shakleina believes that “much of the responsibility for the current instability in Greater Eurasia lies on the doorstep of the United States, which together with its NATO allies, engaged in the “democratization” of the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.
“Being far removed from the combat zones and actual wars, America is not very worried about living next door to states that are in a crisis, as they strive to defend their territory and its citizens,” says Shakleina, adding that America's policy “on the territories of our continent" is "an extreme.”
Valentin Katasonov of the Strategic Culture Foundation also blames the United States and other Western countries for the escalation, because, according to him, they have unleashed a global information war against Russia.
“For almost a year, Washington has been waging an undeclared war against Russia, and using economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but probably, the most effective in this war is the information weapon,” the expert believes.
The new leadership of Greece – a potential Russian ally?
The coming to power of left-wing forces [the Coalition of the Radical Left, or the Syriza Party, led by Alexis Tsipras] in Greece was actively discussed by Russian experts. Experts from various think tanks have not come to a consensus as to the future of Greece as a member of the EU and as Russia’s ally.
Some are predicting an early exit from the EU, while others are saying that the harsh rhetoric of the new government will become moderated under the pressure of the nation’s difficult economic situation.
“What the country will do in fact, nobody knows,” said Leonid Gusev at MGIMO-University. “Greece itself understands that no one will let her behave any way she wants. The Greeks have simply been given an opportunity – to freely express themselves. After all, Greece still finds itself in a precarious situation, with another potential parliamentary crisis on the horizon. So all this talk means nothing. Here we must tread carefully, because Greece, by and large, is a poor country, and it is easy to ‘bend’ it in any direction.”
Another expert at MGIMO-University, Oleg Barabanov, does not agree with him. In commenting on the elections in Greece, Barabanov says that the new Greek government is very determined.
“A Greek exit from the Eurozone is quite predictable,” suggests the expert. “As the Germans had previously stated, Germany has already started making preparations for Greece’s exit from the EU after the victory of Syriza. Now the same situation is brewing up in Italy, a country with a much larger economy. A Greek exit from the Eurozone could start a chain reaction, which will definitely undermine the Euro.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of CFDP and an expert at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), says that Syriza’s victory, in the overall picture, has changed the political landscape in the EU. The expert considers that in many European countries there is a new trend – of forces, until recently marginal, becoming full participants in the political process, which are finally getting the opportunity to implement their agendas (this is not just about Syriza, but also about Le Pen’s National Front, for example).
Nevertheless, Lukyanov expressed doubts about the ability of such parties to bring their radical measures to life.
“Now the rhetoric has softened, the leader of the Left does not want to scare his electorate with any imminent shocks,” he said. “After all, the voters do not expect a revolution from him, but a better agreement with their external creditors, so that the economy gets at least some respite. The success of the Syriza Party will not lead to a break with united Europe, but rather a more worthy and promising relationship. ...Experience has shown that the European political environment knows how to effectively ‘grind down’ its rebels.”
What the 'I am Charlie' slogan means for Russia
Of course, Russian experts could not avoid commenting on the tragic events in the beginning of the month in France: the terror attack on the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical media outlet. After all, Russian society is well aware that Islamic extremism also poses a direct threat its own national security.
Many experts were talking about the problems with integration policies in Europe, about their actual failure. Among them was Sergey Veselovsky, expert at MGIMO-University and RIAC, who believes that it is these policies that are the root causes that lead to such events.
“The terrorist attacks in France have once again reminded the authorities about the enormous problems migrants and their children have in adapting to life in European society,” he writes. “A marginalization of migrants is taking place... In fact, we are talking about the formation and consolidation of a new type of informal caste society.”
Veselovsky concluded that, “not all the attacks in Europe are externally imposed; some are the result of very specific and objective internal problems. And the success of any new anti-terrorism campaign will largely depend on how quickly European leaders are able to realize this truth. Otherwise, a second wave of Islamist terrorism in Europe may soon become a tragic reality.”
Mikhail Remizov from CFDP agrees with Veselovsky on the causes of the tragedy being European migration policy and political naturalization (the granting of citizenship). Remizov warns against similar measures being implemented in Russia, which, in his opinion, is in even greater danger than Europe – the challenges Russia is facing on the part of Islamism are, perhaps, even more acute than in Europe.
“But we, unlike many European countries, have not yet passed the point of no return, when yesterday’s guest workers become new citizens. This is a line that we must never cross, under any circumstances,” said the expert.
The failure of multiculturalism and tolerance policy was addressed by Carnegie Moscow Center's Malashenko. He believes that, “Assimilation is hardly possible,” since adaptation “occurs with great difficulty” and multiculturalism “in fact did not take place.”
“In fact, in Europe today, there is a conflict of identities, which continues to grow,” Malashenko argues, with an emphasis on Russia’s position on this issue. “On the one hand, the Kremlin has certainly condemned these attacks: It was difficult to expect anything else. On the other hand, Russia on its anti-terrorist march was not represented by its president, but rather the Minister of Foreign Affairs (the Ukrainian deadlock played a role here). In a sense, Moscow’s view of the January events in France was expressed by the President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov becoming a de facto federal level politician who criticized the publication of cartoons of the Prophet.”
“Russian official propaganda also repeatedly noted the inappropriate behavior of the Western media,” adds Malashenko.
Meanwhile, Lukyanov mulled over the political context of the tragic events that occurred in the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo. And he believes that the political establishment in France must now take decisive action, otherwise they risk pushing voters into the arms of radical forces.
“Making comments that terrorists have no nationality or religion will hardly find a broad response today, as things are all too obvious,” he writes. “The massacre at the satirical weekly, and related events, should now force the political establishment to undertake serious measures, otherwise the mainstream political parties may see a mass radicalization of their electorate, and lose voters to the National Front.”