Think tank review: Top Russian experts continue to look for clues as to Donald Trump’s future foreign policy moves. In addition, they began turning their attention to the 2017 French presidential elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump talking to a FOX journalist. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page 

In January, Russian think tanks primarily focused on the moves of new U.S. President Donald Trump and the future of U.S.-Russia relations. In addition, Russian experts paid a lot of attention to France’s 2017 presidential campaign and the ongoing civil war in Syria, especially a new round of peace talks in Kazakhstan that involved both the Syrian government and the opposition.

Trump and U.S.-Russia relations

When Republican Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his personality immediately became the most discussed event within the Russian expert community. Pundits are unanimous that the next four years in the Oval Office won’t be easy for the new president, with the future of U.S.-Russia relations still in limbo despite Trump’s friendly attitude toward Russia.  

Ivan Timofeev, the program director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), argues that there is no reason to believe that U.S.-Russia relations will improve in the short term. Moreover, in a worst-case scenario, the confrontation might actually intensify under Trump.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for alleviating the tensions, according to Timofeev. While the previous presidential administration of the United States was very critical of the Kremlin, the current one sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a partner, at least within the anti-terrorism coalition. And this is a good sign to overcome the crisis in bilateral relations, Timofeev concludes.  

Also read: "Steve Bannon, the Grey Cardinal in the White House: Good or bad for Russia?"

Meanwhile, Georgy Bovt, an expert from the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), gives his take on the composition of the Trump cabinet. He is hesitant to give any forecasts about the future foreign policy of the new presidential administration, because there is no unanimity within it. In fact, the heads of different U.S. government departments and agencies appear to be divided in their approaches toward China, Russia, the Middle East, the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other questions. The only forecast Bovt gives is this: There won’t be anything boring about Trump’s presidency.   

At the same time, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin describes the U.S. under Trump as “an unpredictable state.” In fact, Trump’s populist “America First” ideology is not compatible with the American idea about its exceptionality and global leadership, which inevitable will change Washington’s foreign policy strategy and the entire geopolitical environment. Trenin argues that it is too early to say about the decline of U.S. global leadership. Instead, the U.S. will just change its global role; but, according to the expert, it is impossible to predict how this role will be modified.    

In contrast, Elena Ponomaryova, an expert from the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), says that speculative comments about Trump’s unpredictability are exaggerated. Although the flamboyant president is indeed facing a stiff challenge ahead with some representatives of the political elites, some establishment officials actually support him.

And those who comprise the environment around Trump have certain interests and plans in domestic and foreign policy.  At the same time, Trump’s victory won’t automatically translate into the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations. The path will be tough, with Moscow having to play “a crafty and multifaceted game” with  the “tough negotiator Trump,”  Ponomaryova concludes.

The 2017 presidential campaign in France

Russia sees France as an important European partner, yet bilateral relations between the countries are in steep decline. The standoff was impossible to overcome under current French President Francois Hollande. That’s why Russian pundits are keeping a close eye on the 2017 French presidential campaign: Moscow pins its hopes on a new French president to find common ground with the Kremlin.

Alexei Chikhachev, an expert from RIAC, argues that the current presidential race is difficult to predict. However, no matter who will win the election this May, the country’s foreign policy might be the same in general, because it is not uncommon for France’s political culture to respect and take into account the foreign policy course of its predecessors, according to the pundit.

Also read: "France is closer to the election of the pro-Russian president"

Meanwhile, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center looks at the French election in the context of the increasing terrorist threat facing the country. Social instability, the influx of refugees and security challenges create opportunities for right-wing populists. From a political perspective, the Kremlin may favor their victory.

Kolesnikov argues that the populists represented by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen have a high probability of being elected after Brexit and Trump’s presidency both became a reality (initially, nobody believed either could be possible). And, indeed, on Feb. 5, Marine Le Pen suggested in a speech to her supporters that France under her leadership could contemplate its own exit from the EU.

The average French voter easily understands Le Pen’s program and might follow this program after the experience of multiple terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice: Such voters are afraid of external extremists to a greater extent than internal ones. However, it is too early to predict Le Pen’s victory, because the candidates from liberal and democratic camp have many chances to be elected. 

The Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan

In late January, peace talks between the representatives of the Syrian opposition and government took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. The negotiations were conducted within the Geneva peace process, with the active involvement of Iran, Russia and Turkey. Russian experts describe the Astana talks as important, but still express skepticism — a lot needs to be done to reach a breakthrough to end the civil war in Syria

CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov highlights that the negotiations were conducted in a new format, which was hard to imagine several months ago. And it is not only a matter of the opposition and the government starting to negotiate directly. It is also a matter of involving new stakeholders — Russia, Iran and Turkey replaced the U.S. and the EU, with new hopes to influence the sides of the Syrian conflict.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ignoring the Geneva format — the Astana talks just create another opportunity to reach a coherent and binding agreement, because all those involved in the negotiations are pragmatic and seek to reach peace in Syria. This could allow them to forget about their difference and work hard toward a common goal.

At the same time, Alexander Aksenenok, a former diplomat and an expert at RIAC, believes that the expert community placed unrealistically high hopes on the Astana negotiations. However, the talks didn’t meet these expectations. The stakeholders just outlined the additional challenges and problems and revealed even more differences within the Syrian opposition, which is disunited. During the Astana talks, Russia and Turkey tried to play the key role and apply pressure on Damascus – an approach that didn’t quite satisfy Syria and Iran. Thus, the key result of the negotiations is the very fact that they happened within a new format.

Also read: "Will the new round of Syria talks in Kazakhstan lead to anything different?"

Meanwhile, Nikolai Kozhanov, an expert at Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that the Astana talks failed to reach any tangible results. However, the good sign is that during these negotiations, the terrorist organizations — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Nusra — were clearly labeled by both the Syrian opposition and official Damascus as pariah organizations. Most importantly, the Astana talks produced an important publicity effect for the organizers: Russia, Iran and Turkey strengthened their positions as the facilitators of the peace process in Syria.