Russia Direct presents the third in its series of monthly roundups from U.S.-based think tanks focused on Russia and Eurasia.

Russia and China: cooperation, not competition  Photo: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

In August, the leading U.S.-based think tanks focused on Russia turned their attention to several key issues that could impact the future of U.S.-Russian relations: Russia’s China pivot, the Snowden Affair, new international security concerns in the Asia-Pacific and the creation of a new Eurasian Union.

In addition, the think tanks took a closer look at several aspects of Russian domestic policy, such as the role of social media in the fledging protest movement in Russia, and the impact that the postponement of the summit between Obama and Putin might have on Russia’s rearmament program. Finally, they also considered the legacy of the “Five-Day War” in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, which recently marked its five-year anniversary.

Brookings: Russia’s China pivot and the role of social media in Russia’s protest movement

In “Putin's Pivot: Why Russia is Looking East,” published in Foreign Affairs on July 31, Fiona Hill, Director, Center on the United States and Europe, and Senior Fellow, Brookings Foreign Policy program, and Bobo Lo, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House, examine Putin’s “turn” to the Asia-Pacific region “after decades of strategic and economic neglect of its own Far East.”

At the St. Petersburg Forum last June, Putin laid out plans to increase Russia’s economic growth by focusing on the Asia-Pacific region rather on its traditional markets in Europe, a strategy accompanied by a growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The authors emphasize that Russia’s “primary goal” is “to cooperate, not compete, with Beijing” and note that, in July, China and Russia “solidified their cooperation with joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan.”

The reason for this strategic reorientation is twofold: an understanding that a shift in power to the East is underway and that “the rise of China comes at the expense of the United States and the West.” An equally important goal for Russia is the need “to protect its landmass, boost its presence in the Pacific, and… figure out a way to work with China and other regional players.”

Nevertheless, Hill and Bo point out that Moscow’s strategic focus remains the West: “Its population is mostly in the West, its economic ties are mostly to the West, and its official military doctrine remains fixated on the United States and NATO.” This state of affairs will continue because “old patterns are hard to break, and even the most promising of the new efforts are proving difficult to sustain.”

In short, Hill and Bo view the focus on the Asia-Pacific as “talk” rather than real action. For example, between 2004 and June 2013, the countries signed six joint agreements on gas, but no deal on actual deliveries has materialized. Russia accounts for “only 1 percent of total regional trade and just over 2 per cent of China’s external trade.”

The same applies in geopolitics. Across the region, Russia has no discernible influence on security decision-making, which remains largely the purview of China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. On the Korean peninsula, Russia is the least influential player in the so-called “six-party talks” concerning North Korea.

Moreover, Asian countries do not regard Russia as a “credible player in the region,” since it has little to contribute besides natural resources and weapons. The fact that Putin and his most senior-ranking officials have given themselves the sole right to oversee relations despite having few close contacts or expertise compounds the problem.  The authors contrast this with the U.S., which has “the presence, the capabilities, or even the degree of interest to make its pivot a strategic and economic reality.”

However, in recent years, Russia has reaped significant benefits from its relationship with China. For example, “a generally well-disposed China has contributed to the security of the Russian Far East, and thus the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,” the authors write.  China has also supported Russia at the U.N. Security Council.

Hill and Bo conclude that Russia’s moves are aimed at claiming a place in the “new world order,” but in the long term “the economic and political gap between a dynamic China and a non-modernizing Russia will be too wide for Moscow to bridge in the Asia-Pacific.”

On July 31, a discussion was held at Brookings, entitled Russia and Turkey, Putin and Erdogan: One and the Same? The discussion included Fiona Hill and Kemal Kirişci, TÜSİAD senior fellow and director, Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project, focusing on the role of new social media in protests in Russia in late 2012 and Turkey in 2013.

Hill noted that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a lawyer, first came forward as a blogger and as a whistleblower on corruption and then created his own website to launch his campaign. Independent journalists and social activists have posted videos on violations of social and political rights on YouTube.

These new methods of interaction are changing the role of political parties and media and creating “a new space for politics,” according to Hill. She also pointed out that the old established states and structures in Russia and Turkey are becoming increasingly challenged as to how to deal with the new social media.

Protest movement and social media: A challenge for Turkey. Photo: AP

In his New York Times op-ed article, “The End of a Nuclear Era,” James E. Goodby, Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow at Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, notes that the “pause” in serious U.S.-Russian negotiations can be put to good use by focusing on “creating a new nuclear security paradigm” through multilateralism.

This would involve all nuclear-armed states -- Japan, South Korea, China, India, Pakistan and other Asian nations -- and others. Goodby believes nuclear diplomacy should shift to Asia.

“Threats of nuclear war all lie in an arc of Asia, running from Iran in the West to the Koreas in the East. For this reason, among many, China is an indispensable strategic partner for the U.S. if Asia-based threats are to be successfully managed,” he wrote.

Council on Foreign Relations: The new cold spell

On August 8, Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR, interviewed Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, CFR.

The interview, “Another Cold Spell for U.S.-Russian Relations,” discussed the sharp deterioration in U.S. Russia relations in the past year, culminating in the Snowden imbroglio, which Sestanovich says Russia “could have solved in a number of ways but chose not to.”

“Across the board, you can't point to areas where the concrete interests of the United States and Russia are being advanced cooperatively,” Sestanovich writes. This includes Syria, Iran, missile defense, U.S. proposals for a new phase of strategic nuclear reductions, trade and investment.

Barack Obama on the "reset": Let's take a break. Photo: AP

Regarding the lack of progress on arms control, Sestanovich made two points. Firstly, Moscow’s lack of interest was because its doctrine emphasized nuclear weapons. Secondly, ballistic missile defense programs favored by the Obama Administration will require many years to be realized. Therefore, Russia has no incentive to reach an early agreement.  

Atlantic Council: Mutually Assured Stability

In the report Mutually Assured Stability: Establishing U.S.-Russia Security Relations for a New Century published by the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, dated July 29, Celeste Wallander, Associate Professor, School of American Service at American University, argues that the optimal strategy for the U.S. and Russia in the 21st century is a new concept: Mutually Assured Stability. This concept should displace Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which dominated U.S.-Russian security relations during the Cold War.

Wallander notes the changed national security conditions in the 21st century and the altered quality of the U.S.-Russia political relationship, both of which have caused a “disconnect” on missile defense, with Iran and North Korea looming much larger than Russia as nuclear threats for the U.S.

Moreover, given Asia’s increasing importance in global security and possible long-term political and security change in the Middle East, Wallander writes that this disconnect must be addressed for strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia to be sustained. In the 21st century, she believes, this will involve both countries cooperating on Eurasian security and dealing with the “potential destabilizing effects of emerging military technologies.”

The Jamestown Foundation: Medvedev and Saakashvili on the Five-Day War and Russia’s rearmament program

South Ossetians evacuate the South Ossetian capital of Tshinvali August 10, 2008. Photo: Reuters

In his article “Five Days’ War Five Years Later,” dated August 12, Giorgi Menabde focuses on the fifth anniversary of the Russia-Georgia conflict, focusing on the response by Russian and Georgian leaders.

In an interview for Russia Today and Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev expressed his readiness to start a dialogue with Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government to restore relations between the two nations, as long as Tbilisi accepted the post-war status quo. However, Russia would not reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence.

For his part, President Saakashvili told the Georgian media about previously unknown details of the conflict, for example that U.S. Vice President Cheney pressed President Bush for U.S. involvement, including an aerial strike on the Roki tunnel through which Russian forces were trickling into South Ossetia.

In “Obama’s Cancellation of Summit Meeting with Putin Reverberates in Moscow,” dated August 8, Pavel Felgenhauer, Jamestown analyst, writes that Russia hopes the summit cancellation is a one-time affair. One reason: a key Putin policy aim is the massive $800 billion rearmament program extending until 2020.

This program involves the production of new weapons, especially modern radars, guidance, and command and control systems, which Russian defense industry officials told Jamestown cannot be realized without Western electronic components, special materials and know-how.

The real nightmare today for Moscow is that any “Cold War-style punishing technology transfer controls” could destroy Putin’s “disarmament program, aimed at rebuilding a potential to counter the U.S,” notes Felgenhauer.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Snowden Effect, Georgia and Eurasian Union

In a Global Times op-ed entitled “Snowden Effect Leaves Ties With Moscow in Ruins,” dated August 19, Dmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center, notes that U.S.-Russia relations are at a crossroads and the “reset” is history. Unless both countries find a way to collaborate, relations will “drift toward more contention and conflict,” a state of affairs that coincides with certain groups’ interests in both capitals, but Russian and U.S. national interests will definitely suffer.

Is the "reset" history? Photo: AP

In “Change Since 2008. Everything and Nothing,” dated August 8, Tedo Japaridze, Chairman, Committee on Foreign Relations, Georgian Parliament, reflects on the five-year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war “when Georgia lost 20 percent of its sovereign territory and was shunned from NATO membership.” Nevertheless, Georgians remain “unwavering” in their “commitment to a Western trajectory.”

Despite positive factors uniting Georgians and Russians – geography, the prevalence of the Russian language among educated Georgians, economic factors, a common religious faith − the key problem in Georgia-Russia relations is Russia’s lack of understanding of the role of “soft power.” Japaridze asks, “‘Why indeed’ is there no pro-Russian force at Stalin’s and Beria’s birthplace?”

Japaridze notes that the Eurasian Union or Collective Security Treaty Organization are perceived as “multilateral facets of a Russian lebensraum policy.” The concept of engagement is missing from Russia’s ‘dialogue’ demonstrated by Russia’s huge subsidies to “its nation-building projects in the region.” In short, Moscow lacks Brussels’ “Neighborhood Policy,” which is “bad geopolitics.” “Returning to Europe” has resonance, while being intimidated into a choice hardly constitutes an “alternative trajectory.” 

In her article “Eurasian Union: Myth, Imitation, or the Real Thing?” dated August 6, Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate, Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union are unrealistic.

Following his reelection, Putin chose “integration” as his next major plan. Shevtsova explains, “Expanding Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet area and essentially returning to an ersatz version of the Soviet Union serves to bolster Russia’s great power status … a central pillar of the personalized power system.”

An example of the project’s infeasibility is that Russia will apply “the carrot and stick approach” to keep member countries within the union, which Shevtsova contrasts with the European Union’s pursuit of “common aims.” Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has already stated that “integration” did not mean “handing over sovereignty.”