Russian think tanks welcome Russia's actions and initiatives on Syria, but are not rushing to celebrate the diplomatic triumph quite yet.

Participants of the rally to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian city of Latakia. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrei Stenin

Russia Direct presents the first in a series of monthly roundups of what experts from Russian think tanks have been up to and what conclusions they have drawn from their work. The focus is on four Russian think tanks: the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the Center for Policy Studies (PIR Center), the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), and the Carnegie Center Moscow.

For the expert community, September proved to be an eventful month that included the talks on Syria, the 10th anniversary meeting of the Valdai Club and the G20 Summit in Petersburg. Almost without exception, the Russian think tanks focused on the future implications of the Syrian chemical weapons agreement and the potential for creating a new model of future conflict resolution.

The conflict in Syria

In their comments on Syria, RIAC, CFDP, Carnegie Center Moscow, and PIR Center experts show a rare degree of unanimity.

First, almost in unison, the analysts sing the praises of Russia's diplomatic gambit: the brilliant and opportune proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. "We have Lavrov — the savior of Syria and the U.S." (Dmitri Bykov, CFDP). "Russia, for the first time and to the surprise of many, did not act in its traditional role of passive critic and active spoiler, but as a power aware of its responsibility and willing to bear it." (Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Center Moscow). "Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to be congratulated on a brilliant diplomatic victory." (Alexander Golts, CFDP).

It would all represent a sudden and striking outpouring of patriotism on the part of the Russian expert community, if not for one "but..."

The "fly in the ointment," of course, is the actual logistics of how to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. As the Russian think tanks point out, it would be fundamentally short-sighted to ignore this factor.

The CFDP draws attention to the need to look at the details of the agreement on the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal. According to Golts (in his article "Lavrov's victory"), the slated agreement cannot be implemented in principle, since no one has any understanding of exactly how to proceed: Should the weapons be taken out of the country (where to?) or destroyed in situ (but Syria does not possess the capability)?

Not to mention the fact that a civil war in Syria is effectively in progress, and that moving supplies of chemical weapons across the country in such conditions would not be a run-of-the-mill task, to put it mildly. The agreement comes under similar criticism from the PIR Center, which stresses the unprecedented nature of the operation to remove chemical weapons from Syria.

Fyodor Lukyanov, CFDP chairman and RIAC expert (in his article "The quintessence of crises”) supplements the arguments regarding the technical complexity of the agreement with several problematic aspects, not least of which is the Syrian opposition's dissatisfaction with the proposal, making it more likely to resort to further provocation. In addition, Lukyanov cautions against excessive optimism regarding the U.S. position: "The U.S. administration is under pressure to get a quick result... The fear of appearing incompetent will induce the president [Obama] to act impulsively.”

Second, the experts are unanimous in their assessment of the current role of the U.S., and the link to Russian-U.S. relations in general. According to these experts, the Syrian crisis has shown that even a power such as the U.S. cannot deal with complex foreign policy and international issues in isolation.

Europe has distanced itself from the proceedings: Germany is traditionally opposed to any kind of intervention, British MPs voted against joining the coalition, while France's offer of a single ship has been mocked by all and sundry.

Washington needs a partner, and, as in the good old days, Moscow could be willing to step up to the plate. Although that bipolar world no longer exists, "Moscow and Washington stand once more on the threshold of a new phase." (Fyodor Lukyanov, CFDP, RIAC). In the eyes of the expert community, Russia has reestablished itself as the "only power psychologically willing to confront the U.S." (Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Center Moscow).

In other words, suddenly Russian-U.S. relations have the potential to reach a new level of mutual respect and dialogue, which is clearly a positive change for Russia.

Third, perhaps the most important measure of the Syrian crisis is systemic — and that’s related to the reshaping of the world order. A year ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, "How the Syrian crisis is resolved will largely determine the future model of the international community's response to internal conflicts."

This idea was seized upon by Russia's think tanks, which suggested that the Syrian conflict be viewed not simply as another regional crisis, but as a systemic conflict capable of shaping the "model of future conflict resolution."

Simply put, the think tanks express the hope that global politics will gradually begin to shake off the practice of "humanitarian intervention" without the approval of the UN Security Council, allowing "Big Diplomacy" to return to the fore.

Russia needs global partners

Over the past month, Russian experts have published several articles on the need to diversify Russia's partner relations with other countries. The think tank analysts believe that now is the time both to expand cooperation with new partners and to intensify existing ties.

RIAC expert Vladimir Sudarev, in his article "Russia and Mexico in search of new spheres of cooperation," analyzes the current state of Russian-Mexican relations and their future prospects. Sudarev explains that the two countries' interplay lacks dynamism, although both sides have recently taken steps to overcome this negative trend.

Sudarev considers Mexico to be an extremely important partner in many ways, primarily economic and commercial, and, given the favorable political atmosphere in which the two countries currently interact, now is the most opportune moment to "raise Russian-Mexican relations to a qualitatively new level." Russia would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity, he asserts.

The PIR Center held a joint seminar on Sept. 6 with the Bamdad Institute for Strategic Studies and Research, Tehran, which examined the potential for Russian-Iranian relations. According to the participants, the high level of political pragmatism displayed by Presidents Putin and Rouhani favors the development of mutual cooperation between the two countries.

CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov (in a commentary piece entitled "Russia ready to forgo special relationship with Ukraine in pursuit of its own vector") notes that Ukraine's signing of an association agreement with the EU is pushing Russia to review its foreign policy priorities, in which cooperation with Asian countries is taking on increasing significance.

As the Russian think tanks seem to suggest, an eventful September might have seen the beginning of new system-shaping trends, the scale of which we have yet to fully appreciate.