Think Tank Review: The 1-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Yemen are the focus of Russian think tanks this month.


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, gestures next to German chancellor Angela Merkel during a joined news conference following a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The red light in the picture belongs to a television camera. Photo: AP

In March, Russian think tanks focused their analysis on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, and the situation in Yemen.

The growing crisis in Yemen

The tangled military and political situation in Yemen attracted the attention of Russian think tanks. Analysts are sure of Saudi and Iranian interference in Yemen, yet it is not clear how productive or destructive the intervention of the two major regional players in Yemen’s affairs will prove to be.

Elena Suponina (Moscow Carnegie Center) analyzes in detail the interests and motives of the various parties to the conflict, explaining that Saudi Arabia has at least three reasons to dislike the Houthis and their political initiative against the Yemeni government.

First, “Saudi Arabia believes that Iranian ambitions lie behind the goings-on, and fears the shadow of Tehran. After all, the Saudi kingdom has its own Shia minority. Riyadh would not like them to fall under a ‘bad influence.’” Second, “as a monarchy, Saudi Arabia is not fond of revolution.” Third, she notes, “rich Saudi Arabia, forced to coexist with poor Yemen, helped it financially, hoping in return for security on its southern borders.”

Gevorg Mirzayan (Russia in Global Affairs magazine) also highlights Riyadh’s special role in the conflict, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s prolonged attempts to establish control over Yemen. At the same time, he notes that Saudi intervention could have devastating consequences for regional security:

Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, gather to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: AP

“Over the past few decades Riyadh has viewed Yemen as a zone of exclusive interests, barring entry to outsiders. In trying to resist the Houthis, Riyadh pursued a policy of supporting Islamist structures in the form of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which recently swore an oath of allegiance to ISIS, becoming the group’s branch in Yemen), for which the Shia of Ansar Allah are nothing less than an existential enemy.”

The one-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea

March 18 marked the date last year when the Russian Federation added one more constituent entity to its fold - Crimea. Experts could hardly ignore such a seminal event. Russian think tank analysts can be provisionally divided into two groups: those who philosophized on the reasons and historical significance of Crimea’s return to Russia, and those who analyzed the immediate short-term effects of the peninsula’s “membership” in the Russian Federation.

The former include Dmitry Bykov (CFDP), who believes that in the long-run Russia does not need Crimea as an end in itself: “Crimea is a mere argument in the debate about Russia — in and of itself it is no use to anyone. It was annexed to punish Ukraine and brand Russian oppositionists as traitors, not to help it flourish and mature... After all, Crimea returned home. Home, do you hear? Not paradise. There’s no place like home, end of story...”

The analysts (as opposed to the philosophers) include Dmitry Oreshkin (CFDP), who remarked, somewhat glumly that, “Russia’s positions have been eroded and grown much weaker.” He adds: “I think the trend is negative... Russia is an abstraction, Crimea is an abstraction. The unfriendly West is some kind of abstraction. In this abstract world, we deserve a pat on the back for annexing Crimea. But when one looks at the specific elements of the process, it turns out that in all key areas Russia is more the loser, and Crimea and its people with it,” concludes Oreshkin.

Other consequences of the annexation were addressed by the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitri Trenin, who notes that the whole situation around Crimea and Ukraine “upended the project to integrate Russia with the West.” Trenin observes that as a result not only have relations between Russia and the West sunk to an unprecedented low, but also the “dialogue” has essentially morphed into a “set of monologues.”

Andrei Sushentsov (MGIMO) analyzes the radical changes that have occurred in the international arena in the wake of Crimea’s annexation. Sushentsov explains that, above all, Crimea has impacted on the internal unity of the “West,” splitting Old Europe and forcing some of its members to stop blindly following the lead of the United States. 

“The very unity of the EU is again under threat. A number of EU countries — Hungary, Finland, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic — opposed the sanctions against Russia. The choice was between solidarity with the United States and internal solidarity within the EU. What Brussels does next will decide the fate of the European Union,” he comments.

A monument to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin damaged by bombing and shootings between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in Shakhtersk, the town of Eastern Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) carried out an interesting poll on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, asking visitors to its website a question about the implications.

More interesting still was the result. The vote could hardly have been split more evenly: 36 percent of respondents believed that “historical justice has been restored,” 32 percent that “it was a difficult decision determined by circumstances,” and the remaining 31 percent that “the negative consequences of the decision outweigh the benefits.”

Russia-West relations continue to deteriorate

Not a month goes by without a think tank debate on the state of Russia-U.S., and more broadly, Russia-West relations. The past month has seen no abatement of the argument that the main problem in Russia-West relations is the complete lack of substantive dialogue.

In an article tellingly titled “Diplomats in the dugout: Why dialogue between countries has turned into trolling,”  the head of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), Fyodor Lukyanov, writes about the changes in the diplomatic discourse. Lukyanov attributes this to the faster exchange of information and the need to instantly communicate even the most complex points to average citizens.

As Lukyanov explains, “The legal aspects of right and wrong used to be interpreted by experts in conference rooms; now they are becoming part of an open discussion with an inevitable decline to the 'take a look in the mirror' standard of argument. In another article Lukyanov opines that even terrorism as the number one challenge to modern society is no longer able to unite Russia and the West.

The absence of normal dialogue between the sides was covered by Dmitri Trenin (Moscow Carnegie Center), who emphasized that in the medium term it will be key: “At a time when official contacts between Western government bodies and the Kremlin are becoming increasingly difficult, and mutual trust is lacking, lest there be miscalculations both sides need to establish reliable channels of communication and find competent partners for dialogue.”

On the problems of dialogue or lack thereof, Oleg Barabanov, an expert of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), notes the hypocrisy of the West: “Relations at present are in a poor state, no doubt. And I do not see much potential for improvement. It is clear that the sanctions will continue, and the European Union will go on playing a double game of good-cop, bad-cop.”