Think tank review: In December Russian experts discussed Vladimir Putin’s trip to Japan, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the key results of the year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, share a light moment during their visit to the Kodokan judo hall in Tokyo, Japan, Dec. 16, 2016. Photo: AP

In December, Russian pundits assessed the implications of Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan, where some speculated that he might discuss resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute and sign a long-awaited peace treaty for World War II. Another key event was the tragic assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, who was shot by an Islamist radical protesting Russia’s operation in Syria. In addition, as the year came to a close, experts in Russia analyzed the key results of the passing year.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan

On Dec. 15-16 Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Japan to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even though no agreement was reached on the Kuril Islands question, the two sides still signed a number of documents on cooperation in economics, finance and infrastructure.

Alexander Gabuev from the Carnegie Moscow Center calls the revival of dialogue between Moscow and Tokyo a “personal project of Prime Minister Abe.” Strengthening ties with Russia traditionally was not on the list of priorities of the Japanese elite, so in this regard Abe not only acts against Washington's wishes, but also against those of the country’s ruling elite.

What is important is that this rapprochement is necessary for Tokyo to contain the growing power of China. To counterbalance Beijing, Tokyo needs a partner and Russia might help Japan in this effort. According to Gabuev, although the visit did not bring any visible results, it was very important for the overall dynamic of the relationship and future cooperation between the countries.

Dmitry Streltsov (Russian International Affairs Council) believes that the meeting was beneficial for both countries. For Japan, the revival of dialogue with Russia offers a way to boost its regional influence and potentially create a counterbalance to China and the Russia-China alliance. Besides, it has been some time since Japan has tried to become more independent from the U.S. in foreign policy matters, so strengthening ties with Moscow is one of the ways to achieve this goal.

At the same time, any advancements in the resolution of the territorial dispute will boost Abe’s rating at home. As Streltsov notes, Russia also needs Japan in order to develop a more balanced policy in the Asia-Pacific and diversify its ties in the region. According to Streltsov, Moscow might also benefit from Japanese investment and joint initiatives. In addition, Japan might help Russia promote its interests in the West.

As Alexander Panov of MGIMO University notes, expectations from high-level meetings between Japan and Russia have always been overestimated. “Hawks” and nationalists from both sides warmed up the atmosphere by predicting a potentially controversial resolution of the territorial dispute, but their forecasts never came true. Panov points out that, given the current conditions, the countries are unlikely to reach a compromise even though the preconditions for that have emerged. Russia and Japan will move slowly using the economy as a starting point. Joint projects signed by the leaders will work to boost trust between the countries and their success will provide a basis for future interaction.

Also read: "Russia, Japan won't let Kuril Islands dispute hold back economic ties"

Russian ambassador killed in Ankara

On Dec. 19 Russia was shaken by the horrific killing of its diplomat in Ankara. Andrei Karlov, Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was shot in the back by a former Turkish policeman at a photo exhibition in the Center of Modern Art. The attack was an act of revenge for Russia’s operation in Aleppo that helped pro-government forces to clear the city of Islamists and the radical opposition. Russian experts assessed the reasons and implications of the tragedy.

Fyodor Lukyanov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) points out that the assassination of the Russian ambassador is a sign of a growing wave of barbarity that is threatening to spread all over the world in the near future. Instability in many regions, especially in the Middle East, has revived old methods and paradigms that the world had buried in the beginning of the 20th century. Barbarity as a denial of rules and basic norms of international relations is spreading to new territories, bringing chaos. In this situation, it is important to make sure that the killing of a Russian diplomat does not impact the dialogue between Moscow and Ankara as this might make the Syrian crisis even more dangerous.

Alexander Baunov from the Carnegie Moscow Center criticized those who welcomed the killing of the Russian ambassador. This is unacceptable given that the whole system of international relations today rests on the notion that every ambassador, notwithstanding the country he is representing, is under protection of the country of his current residence. Baunov connects the killing with Russia’s actions in Aleppo, though he notes that this might not be the case after all. The fact that this terror attack coincided with the terror attack in Berlin is quite important: radical Islamists do not see a difference between Russia and the West. So the countries should unite to counter a common enemy. For now there are no signs of this happening.

Sergei Veselovsky (MGIMO University, Russian International Affairs Council) thinks that the Ankara shooting will not lead to another crisis in Russia-Turkey relations. Moscow’s reaction to the attack was restrained and it is more likely to see an intensification of dialogue between the countries with Ankara making concessions in some questions, including Syria. At the moment Russia should ensure that Karlov’s murder is investigated objectively. This is important given that the authorities in Turkey were quick to attribute the killing to the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a well-known Turkish Islamic cleric who has been living in the United States since 1999.

Also read: "The Ankara assassination won't stop Turkey from tilting to Eurasia"

The year in review

The year of 2016 was full of tragic moments and will leave a mark on human history as one of the most unstable in recent memory. Russian experts offered their conclusions on the passing year and made predictions for the year ahead.

Veselovsky (MGIMO University, Russian International Affairs Council) states that the year is ending on a very worrisome note, in an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. This is due mainly to the terrorist threat that has recently shaken Berlin and Ankara. While terrorists are stepping up their activity on the planet, national governments are failing to come up with an effective approach to counter it. According to the expert, next year might bring further escalation of the situation due to the inability of the great powers to agree on joint counter-terrorism efforts.

Lukyanov (CFDP) lists all the memorable moments of the passing year: Brexit, the election of Republican candidate Donald Trump as next U.S. president, the coup attempt in Turkey and revival of Russian-Turkish relations and the referendum in Italy that resulted in the ouster of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The year 2016 has shown once again that nations have been unable to create a new stable world order after the end of the Cold War. Populists that were traditionally despised by the global ruling elite have come to the forefront of world politics. The ruling elite in the most developed countries has found itself disconnected from the population and this is a very important result of the passing year. Lukyanov believes that in 2017 one should expect a full-fledged transformation of the global agenda. It is already clear that Cold War-style rhetoric is not rational anymore.

Alexander Lukin and Georgy Toloraya of MGIMO University also point out that 2016 marked a rebellion of the common voters against the ruling class that has failed to meet the public’s needs. The population, especially in developed countries, has long tolerated the negative effects of global liberalism with its free trade, political correctness and openness. Even though the passing year has shown that the public is losing its patience, the global elite does not seem too eager to give up its positions and the fight for the current political course might escalate in the coming year, the experts say.