As the situation around Ukraine intensifies, experts warn of the potential for conflict between Russia and the West.

Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich  (left) and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso. Photo: Reuters

The fall continues to serve up events that even the expert community has trouble interpreting. No sooner had analysts come to grips with the intricacies of the Syrian crisis (demonstrating a rare level of unity), then a new problem cropped up in urgent need of explanation.

Russian think tanks are at loggerheads on Ukraine

The matter relates to Ukraine's potential signing of an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit on November 25 in Vilnius. The political temperature is unprecedented, with politicians and experts of all ideologies expressing diametrically opposed views.

The Russian expert community has failed to unite on the issue of Ukraine and the post-Soviet space as a whole. The Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), the Russian Council on International Affairs (RIAC), Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and the Carnegie Moscow Center have so far been unable to frame a common position, even inside their own research centers.

If there is any unity at all within the ranks of experts, it lies in the reasons that led to Ukraine's highly problematic political reorientation. It is clear from their comments that they see Russia and its ill-conceived and often overly impulsive foreign policy in the post-Soviet space as the main culprit.

Mikhail Delyagin (CFDP) writes, "Above all, we underestimated the importance of the EaP program... the carrot [EU membership] was not matched by any remotely similar proposal from Russia."

The same opinion was expressed by Kirill Koktysh (MGIMO), who noted the negativity of the strict customs measures taken by Russia after the announcement of the potential AA, "The European Union is well aware of the uniqueness and short-term nature of the present situation with Ukraine. The country was pushed, not as a last resort, into the arms of the EU by Russia's ill-conceived demonstration of customs power, which provoked an emotional response by Ukraine."

Lilia Shevtsova (Carnegie Center Moscow) also gives short shrift to the matter, "With its arrogance and bullying, [the Kremlin] succeeded in consolidating Ukraine's warring political clans on a pro-European footing."

There is little unity among experts on other matters, although they can be conditionally divided into two nebulous groups: those who consider the signing of an AA to be a geopolitical catastrophe, and those disinclined to view it as the end of the world and the collapse of relations between these two fraternal nations.

CFDP expert Delyagin is firmly in the first camp. He believes that Ukraine's entry into the EU's sphere of influence will be (as Putin once said) "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe since the collapse of the Soviet Union," since Ukraine's economic and political systems will not be able to survive the EU's rigorous requirements and will, sooner or later, buckle under the strain.

Delyagin is adamant that the corruption and self-interest (as he puts it) of the political elite in Ukraine is leading the country to ruin.

The second group is largely made up of RIAC experts, who, during a debate on Ukraine on October 28, agreed that "the need for Ukraine to make a geopolitical choice between Russia and Europe is, in many respects, an artificially created problem. Ukraine is committed to a multi-vector policy..."

As such, RIAC program director Ivan Timofeev is keen to stress that he does not view Ukraine's "pendulum" politics as a problem. A similar opinion is expressed by CFDP analyst Konstantin Sonin, "Whichever union Ukraine enters, it will remain Russia's closest and kindred neighbor, and one of its most important trading partners. It is a pity that Ukraine will not join the Customs Union, but it's not a tragedy."

There is also no unity of opinion as to how Russia should act. Some political scientists advocate, that "as neighbors, we should support Ukraine, no matter what" (Sonin, CFDP), and that "they [Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia] have the right to make their own political choices. But Russia's response should be focused on preserving their spiritual vicinity" (Fyodor Lukyanov, CFDP). Other experts believe it necessary to take urgent measures to change the situation (Delyagin, CFDP).

Russian experts do not rule out the potential for conflict between Russia and the U.S.

It should be noted that, whatever pressing matters lie close to home, experts traditionally never lose sight of Russian-U.S. relations. In particular, an article published on October 22 by RIAC expert Valery Alexeyev ("Is A War Against America Possible?") analyzes in detail the history of relations between the U.S. and Russia since the emergence of the bipolar world, and presents several scenarios for future Russian-U.S. interaction.

Alexeyev remarks that the number of conflicts between the two countries is growing and gradually acquiring "critical mass." In this case and in his view, conflict appears inevitable. Although, given the level of development of the new world system, it will be unlike past contretemps between the two countries, its consequences and manifestations are likely to be no less devastating.

Alexeyev suggests that the standoff between the two powers will result in a regional conflict, the field of which could be Japan (based around the unresolved territorial claims between Russia and Japan), the Arctic (Russia's pursuit of resource-rich areas close to U.S. ally Canada), or even the Asia-Pacific region.

Although some of the author's theses are reminiscent of conspiracy theories and behind-the-scenes drama (in particular, the view that Japan's political elite is looking to instigate conflict in the region in order to change the terms and conditions of the 1960-signed U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and to once again have a full army), it would be folly to ignore such assessments, since they reflect the view of at least part of the expert community.

Moreover, the potential in the Arctic, if not for war, then for serious political confrontation has also been noted by CFDF experts (Alexander Goltz, "A Very Cold War Indeed").

But all the philosophizing about potential conflict between the U.S. and Russia is less a trend of October 2013 and more a pet subject for political commentators, both Russian and foreign, since time immemorial. In this sense, Alexeyev's article can be pigeonholed with many other works over the past decade or so predicting a "big war," a "new cold war," or even a "limited nuclear war." Fortunately, to date, they remain just predictions.

October opened Russia's eyes to the need to make up its mind on Ukraine. But judging by the many approaches to the matter, even among experts, it will not be plain sailing.