Think tank roundup: In May, Russian experts assessed the visit of Japan’s prime minister to Sochi, trends in Russia-West relations, and the potential implications of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Friday, May 6, 2016. Photo: AP

In May, Russian experts discussed the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to Sochi, the progress of the presidential election campaign in the United States, and the development of relations between Russia and the West.

According to these experts, Abe’s visit to Sochi can give a new impetus to the development of a Russian-Japanese dialogue as part of the “pivot to the East” by the Kremlin. Conversely, the tension in relations between Russia and the West is growing. This could lead to a fundamentally different model of world politics, especially if Donald Trump becomes the next U.S. president.

The visit of Shinzō Abe to Sochi

While Russian-Japanese relations have a very long and complicated history, the necessity of their development is dictated by Russia’s current “pivot to the East.” As a result, Russian experts paid careful attention to the visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to Sochi on May 6.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal and chairman of the presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), believes that Tokyo is facing a complicated situation when it comes to relations with Moscow. Despite a clear lack of support from its American ally, Japan is trying to guarantee its own strategic interests, which includes improving relations with Russia. Moscow has the potential to become an important partner of Tokyo in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as become a counterweight to the growing influence of China, which is perhaps Japan’s main concern.

For Russia, it is advantageous to create a partnership with an advanced industrial economy, to create a kind of buffer zone against the West. Russia also hopes to create mutually advantageous ventures in the region. In this sense, even a relatively lackluster meeting between Putin and Abe should not be underestimated, as both sides demonstrated a willingness to create partnerships, which is already a serious accomplishment.  

Dmitri Streltsov, professor of Oriental Studies at MGIMO University, underlines the moral and symbolic significance of the meeting in Sochi for furthering Russia-Japan dialogue. While there was no formal agreement, the visit of Abe, which was made against Washington’s wishes, is very important for solidifying mutual trust between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe. Russia and Japan have many mutual interests from defense to infrastructure projects in the Far East. 

However, the realization of closer cooperation is impeded both by the geopolitical atmosphere and the specific nature of Russian-Japanese relations. But, according to Streltsov, Abe’s visit is an indication of a new step in cooperation, the beginning of which is based on developing trust between the two leaders.

Maksim Krylov, expert of the Carnegie Moscow Center, questions what Abe meant by his statement about a “new approach” when it came to dealing with the territorial dispute around the Kuril Islands. Krylov sees a couple possible solutions, including a full or partial handover of the islands to Japan in exchange for an “economic package” or other types of preferential treatment from Japan. According to Krylov, there is nothing unusual in such an approach, as these possibilities have been discussed for decades without any concrete breakthroughs.

According to Krylov, a breakthrough is just as unlikely in the future, since after the takeover of Crimea, Russia will not give up any territorial claims, even in exchange for favorable treatment. Krylov believes that even enthusiasm on the part of the Japanese cannot change the dead end nature of this situation. However, the preservation of cordial relations is one thing that can be hoped for after this meeting in Sochi.

Anton Lestev of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) tells the story surrounding the Kuril Islands conflict and underlines that it is precisely this question that remains the main obstacle for establishing a productive dialogue between Russia and Japan. At the moment, Japan has intensified its search for partners in equalizing and balancing Chinese influence in the region, and Russia is in this sense a natural ally.

Japan’s activity, including its disregard for the opinions of the United States, is caused not only by the situation in the Asia-Pacific region but also by the personality of the Prime Minister himself. Abe is one of the more nationalistically minded of Japan’s political elite, and emphasizes independence and balance in Japan’s foreign policy.

Lestev indicates that in such a situation, where there is a mutual interest on both sides, at least a preliminary agreement on the question of Kuril Islands can be reached, even though in both countries, any attempts at compromise will be seen as defeats.

Also read: "Why Russia needs stronger ties with Japan"

Russia and the West, a new dead end

In May, there were new developments in Russia’s relations with the West. For the first time in a couple of years there was a Russia-NATO summit, and Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier mentioned the possibility of Russia’s return to the G8.

However, this optimism wore off quickly. At the end of the May summit of the G7, Western nations extended sanctions on Russia, once again underlining that at the moment there will be no return to normalized dialogue, and that it is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Oleg Barabanov, professor at MGIMO University, puts forth a unique idea: What if the relations and forms of interactions that were formed after the collapsed of the Soviet Union have become entirely outdated? It has been two years since there were normal relations with the West, and Russia does not seem to be experiencing any significant hardships.

At first, all forms of interactions with Russia were unequal in nature, and were directed towards involving and integrating Russia into Western models of governance by Western rules and demands. Now, according to Barabanov, when the EU states that there will be no returning to old models, Russia is in full agreement. Barabanov emphasizes that the last two years prove that relations with the West are not in themselves valuable, especially when it comes in an atmosphere of Russia’s turn towards the East, where Russia is regarded more and more as an equal partner than as an object of reproach.

Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that the situation’s development is two-fold. On the one hand, relations with the West, and especially the United States are fixed on a “bad but stable” level. On the other hand, there is growing concern about a re-evaluation of this stability and a move toward a more and more hostile and expanding arms race.

Trenin clarifies that the confrontation is born not out of misunderstanding but out of the fundamentally different understandings of the world in both Russia and the U.S. It is precisely this factor that makes the tension between the countries so prolonged and dangerous. In connection with this, an escalation in the situation can be expected, the extent of which is not yet clear.

Sergei Karaganov, expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and professor of the Higher School of Economics, points to the many global changes in world politics, which are forcing countries to re-evaluate their policies. This includes the United States, which seems to be having a harder time adapting than other countries.

The White House is moving in a direction of continual confrontation with the Kremlin, and this makes it essential for Moscow to restrain Washington. It is the actions of Washington in this period of adaptation that are unpredictable and threaten a new escalation in world politics. In the long run, Karaganov believes, it is necessary to find ways for improving U.S.-Russian relations.         

The U.S. presidential race: It’s all about Donald Trump

The U.S. presidential race is a source of perpetual interest for Russian analysts, who are convinced that the potential victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump would change not only American domestic politics but also world politics.

Pavel Demidov of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains that the U.S. is experiencing a serious crisis of democracy and changes in its fundamental democratic institutions. Even by the next presidential election, they could lead to a completely different arrangement of political structures and organizations in the country.

The first ranks of this new arrangement will be filled with populists and radicals, because it is they who are behind the present election campaign. The victory of Donald Trump would be an unfortunate sign for the whole democratic world, which takes its cue from American political institutions. It would mean the triumph of right-wing populism in America, a development that would reverberate in other democracies around the world.

Demidov is confident that the Republicans will not destroy the U.S.’s institutions at once, but they will put forth destructive elements, a kind of time bomb, which will cause an eventual collapse. The only hope at the moment is a victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton, but this will require serious effort from her, since she herself is not perceived as the most honest or trustworthy candidate.

Konstantin Sonin of CFDP reminds readers that there has always been a tradition of establishing internal consensus towards foreign policy in the U.S., regardless of who has been behind the wheel, Republicans or Democrats. In the current case, the system seems to be malfunctioning, if Trump is elected president, this tradition will not continue. If his pre-election slogans are to be taken seriously, the Republicans will violate years of consensus, and what is more important, it will become almost impossible to predict America’s future actions in the world with Trump as president. 

Tatiana Shaklenina of MGIMO University believes that Trump (if he wins) will likely favor continuity with past U.S. actions in the field of foreign policy. For Russia, this means only that the tensions with Washington will continue.