Think Tank Roundup: Russian experts believe that President Vladimir Putin’s appeal to the international community to fight ISIS is unlikely to be heeded. Moreover, Putin’s face-to-face meeting with Obama likely yielded little.

From left to right: U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in New York, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo: AP

In September, Russian experts paid the most attention to Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN, his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in New York, and the potential implications for Russia of the ever-growing migration crisis in the EU.

Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN and its implications

Without any doubt, the most discussed event in September was Vladimir Putin’s speech at the United Nations. Many days before he came to speak at that international podium, experts were actively discussing the possible topics that the Russian president would touch upon, as well as the tone of his speech: Would it be aggressive or open to compromise?

In general, experts positively assessed the speech delivered on Sept. 28, even though they are not convinced that the president’s message was heard by Russia’s Western partners, or that Putin’s performance at the United Nations will be followed up by the warming of relations between Russia and the West.

 Recommended: "Putin's UN speech showcases Russia's view of the global order." 

Alexander Baunov, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the current Russian strategic task is to convince the whole world, and especially the West, that Russia is much less of a threat than the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Therefore, Mr. Baunov stressed: “The main task of Putin’s speech was to clearly determine that ISIS was an unequivocal evil, the worst enemy of humanity, and in such a way to overcome the controversies between Russia and the West – but in no way changing anything that Russia is doing now.”

Meanwhile, the West is in no hurry to give in to Putin’s entreaties; after all, Western leaders consider that they can cope with ISIS without Russia’s assistance. This is where Mr. Baunov sees the main contradiction, the resolution of which will require great efforts on the part of Russian diplomacy.

Andrey Uglanov, expert at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), considers Putin’s speech as a specific way to force a plan of action on the West. Should the West ignore Putin’s appeal, Russia will have to address the Syrian problem alone, and consequently, the processes in the Middle East will be controlled by Moscow (the Kremlin’s determination in this matter has been demonstrated by Russian bomber strikes against ISIS that started on Sept. 30 – Editor’s note).

At the same time, the speech was aimed at removing Ukraine from the political agenda, which would go a long way in repairing the crumbling relations between Russia and the West.

Uglanov believes this is an effective strategy, but rather dangerous – leading a fight against ISIS outside of Russia can turn into problems inside the country, as terrorists of ISIS could start operating inside Russia, carrying out terrorist acts against Russia’s civilians.

 Also read: "What are the risks of Russian military involvement in Syria?" 

Alexey Tokarev (MGIMO) is very skeptical when it comes to how Western countries will perceive Putin’s speech. Despite the obvious appeal of Putin’s desire to cooperate in the fight against a great common evil – the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria - the West “views Putin as a bad boy, who lies directly into another’s eyes.” 

After all, they believe that Putin sent tanks into Ukraine and supplied the Donbas “terrorists” with BUK ground-to-air missiles that were used to shoot down the Malaysian Boeing. Now he is accusing the United States of carrying out a coup d’état, and insisting on the primacy of international law – how can one talk with such a man?

According to Tokarev, this makes cooperation between Russia and the West almost impossible.

Obama’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of UN

On Sept. 28, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama met privately. Russian experts of course could not ignore such an important event, because in reality Putin and Obama have not had any meaningful bilateral meetings since 2013. The contents of this meeting were not disclosed, however, the agenda featured Syria, the fight against ISIS terrorism, as well as Ukraine.

Russian experts have different opinions as to the results achieved at this meeting. Among the cautious optimists were the representative of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Alexey Arbatov, and the head of CFDP, Fyodor Lukyanov. Among the skeptics were CFDP analyst Georgy Bovt and MGIMO expert Mikhail Troitsky.

Arbatov, expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, saw positive signs in the behavior of the leaders after their meeting. Despite the absence of a joint statement, the very length of this meeting meant that it involved meaningful conversation, the analyst believes. 

“This served as a symbolic resumption of direct contacts between the leaders of two great states. After all, during the past two years, there were no such meetings, and such contacts are vital when it comes to dealing with various complex international situations. And the most important thing here is – now such meetings have resumed, and both parties acted in a constructive spirit,” said Arbatov.

Fyodor Lukyanov (CFDP) considers that this meeting was as successful as it could have been under the circumstances. The expert believes that it is very likely the entire meeting focused on Syria, because it made no sense to discuss other issues, due to the diametrically opposed positions on these, and on which neither party is expected to budge.

At the same time, Lukyanov noted that on the Syrian issue, the Kremlin and the White House are also very far apart. However, here they have an obvious common enemy – ISIS – that must be defeated.

At the very least, this meeting led to an agreement on a kind of “mutual non-interference” in Syria and “at present this means success” (However, Russian air strikes in Syria, which were carried out after the meeting between the two leaders, bring into question this achievement. – Editor’s note).

Georgy Bovt (CFDP) draws attention to the history of the personal relationship between Obama and Putin, which, to put it mildly, does not contribute to constructive dialogue between the two states. A deep personal animosity, the expert emphasizes, directly affects the negotiation process, and each offense is remembered for a long time, and is added to a kind of “piggy bank of insults.”

In this sense, Bovt believes that any meeting of the leaders is already a success. However, we should not expect any serious breakthrough or a thaw in relations.

 Also read: "Obama vs. Putin: Mutual finger-pointing deepens ideological clash." 

Mikhail Troitsky (MGIMO), even before the meeting started, predicted it was unlikely they would achieve concrete results. The analyst believes that such meetings are not intended to achieve rapprochement, but to let the opponent know that one’s positions have not changed, and therefore there could be no agreements reached in such a meeting – this is very predictable and understandable.  

The migration crisis in Europe

One of the central themes of the month was the problem of the ever-increasing flow of refugees from the Middle East, as people keep arriving in Europe. Many Russian experts began to talk about different kinds of “End of Europe” scenarios – a radical change not only in European politics, but also in the entire civilized world outlook.

Writing about this scenario was Vitaly Tretyakov (expert at CFDP), who emphasized that the Europeans, when creating the European Union, were dreaming of a new type of society, a strong European family, in which countries share the same values ​​and adhere to the same guidelines. However, today we must admit that this dream will not come true.

The migration crisis has undermined the EU’s uniform values system, immediately identifying “defectors” like Hungary, which has put its own security and tranquility above European principles of humanism. The European dream, notes the analyst, is crumbling under the pressure of ever-growing popularity of nationalist movements, which reject tolerance.

“Nationalism in Europe will continue to grow, and this will not only be external nationalism, but also internal European nationalism – European nations against each other,” predicts Tretyakov.

Other analysts believe that migration flows will have an impact, first of all, on the current political party map of the EU.

 Related: "The inconvenient truth about Russia's Ukrainian refugees." 

Thus, Alexander Vershinin, expert at RIAC, proposes we look at the situation in France, where migration flows have brought more life into opposition political forces. He feels certain that increased discussions on this issue in France are a reflection of the complicated picture across Europe – the increasing polarization of public opinion.

The main fear of the ruling socialists is that the immigration crisis, which objectively they are unable to cope with, will encourage the electorate to turn to the extreme right National Front of Marine Le Pen, which of course, does not bode well in terms of relations between France and the EU, and between France and Germany.

“The French reality of today is that this migration crisis, obviously, is bringing to the forefront the ultra-right-wing National Front,” sums up Vershinin.

Another trend among Russian experts – was linking migration and terrorism issues.

Renowned economist Larisa Kapitsa (MGIMO), having analyzed the migration flows to Europe, believes that they cannot be called one hundred percent “natural.” The expert believes that such a mass movement of peoples can be attributed to the activities of ISIS.

“The sudden appearance of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants at the borders of Europe, the never-ending flow of migrants, despite the tightening of immigration regimes in the receiving countries, is raising suspicions that someone is conducting this process,” said the expert.

“Given the resource base of the Islamic State, it is possible to assume that the terrorists could be financing some of the refugees, in order to facilitate their penetration into European countries, and thus destabilize the situation in the EU. For the Islamic State, the more chaos there is out there, the easier it will be to carry out their planned operations.”