Think Tank Review: Russia's evolving relationship with China and the potential significance of John Kerry’s visit to Sochi preoccupied the attention of Russian think tank experts in May.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, reviews honor guards shortly upon his arrival to Vnukovo II government airport in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, May 8, 2015. Photo: AP

In May the strengthening of the Russia-China alliance, the elections in Poland, and the resumption of dialogue between the Russian Federation and the United States were on the agenda of top Russian analysts.

Where will the focus on China take Russia?

Following the parade in honor of the 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, during which Chinese President Xi Jinping sat solemnly side by side with President Vladimir Putin, Russian experts pondered the further strengthening of ties between the two countries, and where this collaboration might lead Russia.

In particular, CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov noted the qualitatively new level of Russian-Chinese agreements. He points out that the memoranda signed on May 8 are fundamentally different from the myriad previous bilateral agreements in proposing a greater range of specific projects and areas of cooperation.

Lukyanov stresses that the strategic partnership now includes the term “concordance of plans,” which is a sign of marked progress. Moreover, he writes that, “The general content of the memoranda indicates a swing towards infrastructure development in Eurasia, whereupon the momentum and initiative will propagate not from west to east, as everyone assumes, but vice versa.”

“All countries in this respect have an interest in large infrastructure projects to give themselves social and economic incentives,” he remarks.

However, Lukyanov is quick to pour cold water over the most ardent supporters of Russia’s union with China. Cooperation in the military sphere is unlikely, he opines. Moreover, China continues to balance its foreign policy between the major players, and will not reject close relations with Washington if they are placed on the table.

MGIMO experts Sergei Luzyanin and Alexander Lukin also believe that Xi Jinping’s visit to the Victory Day parade has tremendous significance for Sino-Russian relations.

“Given the atmosphere of sanctions and the undeclared Cold War, the visit to Moscow of the leader of the world’s second largest economy and superpower-in-waiting was not simply about observing the parade,” notes Luzyanin. “It signifies that Moscow and Beijing are bound together... by a common geopolitical understanding of the challenges, threats and shaping of the future world.”

Lukin completes the picture by noting that the visit of the Chinese leader hints at a gradual “consolidation of the non-Western world,” into which “we are being pushed by the hostile policy of our Western partners.”

Meanwhile, Carnegie Center analyst Igor Denisov urges restraint in not succumbing to the euphoria of the prospects of cooperation. He notes in particular that Chinese TV did not show a live broadcast of the parade itself, as in previous years, and that publications about Xi Jinping’s visit were limited to photographs of a strictly perfunctory nature, eschewing images of the parade, Russian military equipment and soldiers.

Denisov suggests that this may be due to two reasons: First, China’s leaders fear that the Moscow parade could overshadow Beijing’s own victory parade in September 2015; second, the Chinese government is in no hurry to demonstrate the “strategic partnership” with Russia to the world and its own people to avoid becoming embroiled in a confrontation with the West.

Does John Kerry’s visit to Russia signal a new phase?

In May Russian experts pondered the significance for Russian-U.S. relations of the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Sochi, and whether the international climate would improve as a result.

They agree on one thing: talk of a breakthrough is premature. The personal meeting and resumption of dialogue at such a high level is a major step forward, but insufficient by itself, whereupon the outcome of the meeting left much to be desired.

Fyodor Lukyanov of CFDP explains that Obama is gradually winding down his time in office, and hence focused on his so-called legacy, meaning that major international issues, above all Iran and Syria, need a resolution. Without Russia there can be none.

Therefore, the expert posits that the U.S. will seek a new modus vivendi with Russia that assumes cooperation on some issues and confrontation on others (such as Ukraine), warning at the same time: “This modus vivendi does not mean a softening of the rhetoric — on the contrary, the real abatement in tension may have to be offset by more combative statements.”

RIAC General Director Andrei Kortunov believes that Russian-U.S. relations are gradually emerging from the critical phase, but will remain in a “stable but serious condition” for some time to come. Kortunov notes that the visits to Russia by senior U.S. officials, including John Kerry and Victoria Nuland, could be the first step towards the restoration of dialogue, but needs to be followed by greater efforts.

It is particularly important, asserts Kortunov, “to muffle the hostile rhetoric — at least at the official level.” The analyst is adamant that Ukraine must not become an obsession, since it is clearly not the only moot point, and that dialogue on other topics could help to reduce the tensions.

Cautious optimism is expressed by Mikhail Troitsky of MGIMO, who analyzes in detail the current state of Russian-U.S. relations, arriving at the conclusion that they need time. In addition, he flags that Russia needs to change the logic of its dealings with the United States.

Russia talks about “geopolitics” and “zones of influence,” which is of no interest and not properly understood by the United States, while the “right balance of geopolitics and economics will not only ensure Russian-U.S. cooperation (which is not an end in itself), but restore Russia’s outlook of economic growth and social progress.”

During his election campaign, Andrzej Duda talked with people, shared coffee with them near subway stations and even took selfies in Warsaw, May 25, 2015. Source: Reuters
Andrzej Duda’s victory in Poland

Modern Poland is perhaps one of the most anti-Russian countries in Europe. As a result, recent elections there were closely monitored by Russian experts, who predicted a winning margin for Bronislaw Komorowski. Therefore, opposition leader Andrzej Duda’s victory wrong-footed many think tanks. However, in no time at all, experts were making new predictions — this time about the future of the Russian-Polish dialogue.

Oleg Barabanov of MGIMO, for example, is extremely pessimistic about the prospects for Russian-Polish relations. The expert notes that Duda is “a loyal disciple of the Kaczynski brothers, who always fanned the flames of Russophobia in Poland.”

“There is no reason to believe that [Duda] will change this position, since his foreign policy will be under the tight control of Jaroslaw Kaczynski,” says the expert.

Barabanov also notes that a significant obstacle in normalizing relations will always be the Polish elite’s orientation towards the United States, and Poland’s insignificant role in supplying arms to Ukraine.

RIAC expert Igor Zhukovsky likewise expects no warming of relations, noting, however, that Duda is known for his pragmatism, which could be utilized to reopen the Russian-Polish dialogue.

Furthermore, the analyst points to the fact that as a member of the Law and Justice party, Duda is now focused less on Russia and foreign policy and more on Poland’s domestic issues and the numerous campaign promises that will be hard to implement, especially if his party fails in the parliamentary elections this fall.

Wrapping up the assessments of the new president’s foreign policy, Zhukovsky points to the U.S. and EU factor: “It should be understood that there is little point in evaluating the self-sufficiency of Poland’s foreign policy, since its military, political and economic integration with the EU and NATO is too close.”

Fyodor Lukyanov of CFDP predicts that, “Moscow and Warsaw face hard times ahead.” That said, he does not ignore the broader context of the Polish conservatives’ victory, pointing out that it is just one of a number of recent Eurosceptic triumphs, which means that the balance of power in the EU could soon change perceptibly.

European politicians will forever remember Kaczynski and his party (Andrzej Duda’s too) for their endless demands to expand Poland's powers in the EU, as well as the special conditions for entry into the European Union. In this sense, Duda’s victory is a defeat for Europe as well as for Russia.

“In European capitals the Kaczynski brothers’ time in office (Lech as president and Jaroslaw as prime minister) is recalled with nothing less than a shudder,” concludes Lukyanov.

Maxim Samorukov of the Carnegie Moscow Center sees eye-to-eye with his colleagues. He predicts that Poland can expect to face, among other things, internal political conflicts linked to the fact that Law and Justice is unlikely to win the parliamentary elections in the fall, which means that the president and prime minister will be from different parties, complicating the entire political process and certainly not improving relations with Russia.

Samorukov recalls the joint rule of Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice) and Donald Tusk (Civic Platform).

“To prove that he was a real opponent of Russia, unlike the milksop Tusk, Lech Kaczynski came under shelling on the Ossetian border in his motorcade and circled over Georgia during the war in August 2008,” writes Samorukov.