Russia Direct presents the latest in its series of think tank round-ups from the leading U.S think tanks on Russia and Eurasia. With many experts regarding Crimea as a fait accompli, the focus now shifts to predicting Russia’s next moves.

 What's next after Crimea? Photo: RIA Novosti / Mikhail Metzel

The top U.S.-based think tanks appear to be converging on several key themes as they go about analyzing the geopolitical landscape in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Crimea. They see a world order that has already changed significantly, and that may change once again if Russia intervenes elsewhere in the post-Soviet space – whether it’s in Transnistria or Eastern Ukraine.

Most importantly, U.S. think tanks view Russia’s actions in the Crimea as upending the global status quo. Stephen Sestanovich of Council on Foreign Relation (CFR) has called Putin a “wrecker of international norms.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Kuchins of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) can’t believe that “as long as Vladimir Putin is running Russia there is any chance to return to the status quo ante.”

The takeaway here is that pundits are pro-Ukrainian sovereignty and discouraged by Putin’s bold tactics, which appear to be creating a new status quo. One thing is for sure, according to Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow: “Don’t bet on…business as usual.”

What’s the next move for Putin?

U.S. think tanks have dedicated significant attention to predicting Putin’s next moves. Brookings, CSIS, CFR, and Carnegie Endowment for International Piece (CEIP) are all convinced that the Russian appetite is surely not yet satiated with Crimea.

It seems only a matter of where and when he will strike that has yet to be determined. CSIS’ Carl Meachem thinks Russia may be headed to Latin America in the near future, while others think a region in the post-Soviet space is far more probable. Most importantly, they all seem to ask: Where is the next Crimea?

By and large, U.S. think tanks see Transnistria as the next “flashpoint.” Transnistria – an autonomous, former Soviet territory – is part of Moldova, landlocked by Ukraine and Romania, and yet loyal to Russia.

In recent years, Transnistrians have voted to join the Russian Federation. Consequentially, pundits from Brookings and Carnegie believe that, in the same way Russia vied for Crimea, it is vying for Transnistria’s future as well. As tensions mount, the U.S. think tanks see the situation in Transnistria as a “gathering storm.”

U.S think tanks, for the most part, view Crimea as a fait accompli: an irreversible act that cannot be undone. Brookings, CEIP, CFR, and CSIS are all focusing on the costs and repercussions of Crimea and opining on issues such as the current state of Ukrainian sovereignty.

With regards to “Putin’s version” of Ukrainian federalism, U.S. think tanks suggest it’s moot. CEIP and Brookings seem to be in agreement that Putin has devised for Ukraine a watered-down federalism, being both “weak and divided” and a vehicle to subsume Ukraine.

Why did Russia intervene in Crimea?

But that’s where the similarities end, as each of the major U.S.-based think tanks seek to define why Russia chose to intervene in Crimea in the first place: Was it simply irredentism or something far deeper and more strategic?

Brookings’ Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott seem to believe Putin’s explanation for protecting Crimea’s large Russian (and Russian-sympathetic population), and accept Putin’s justification of a doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” them.

From this perspective, Crimea was simply a plan by Russia to protect ethnic Russians and bring them back into the Russian fold. Talbott even considers a “super-dangerous scenario” in which Russia also invokes the “responsibility to protect” to protect large Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia.

However, Carnegie’s Lilia Shevtsova and Brookings’ Riccardo Alcaro aren’t buying it. Both consider Putin’s “responsibility to protect” to be merely a “pretext” for a bigger strategic power play at hand.

Shevtsova questions the conclusion that Crimea was taken to protect the Russian-speaking population because Russia has made no moves toward Russian-speakers in Central Asia whose “rights are genuinely being violated.”

She further contends that Russia’s advancements are part of the “Putin doctrine:” a credo that perceives Russia as the “civilizational pillar,” the “galactic center around which orbit satellite-statelets,” and the perpetuator of Russian uniqueness to “contain” the West. To Shevtsova, Crimea was but a “preemptive” land grab toward a “more ambitious end.”

Crimea's annexation to Russia on March 16 created a new reality. Source: Kommersant. Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko

Predicting Russia’s future ambitions

What might that “more ambitious end” be? Carl Meachem suggests that Russia may become strategically involved in Latin America in the near future. This was the most creative explanation from the U.S. think tanks of what the “next Crimea” might be, both geographically and ideologically, but surely hints at how Putin views the shifting geopolitical game between the West and Russia.

CFR and Carnegie have both cited Putin’s boosted popularity ratings in Russia since the Crimean takeover, suggesting in no small part that he has used Crimea to convince Russians that his successful ends are worth the necessary means.

CFR’s Sestanovich calls Putin-boosting a “national hysteria,” Brooking’s Talbott blames the “Kremlin-controlled media,” and Carnegie’s Shevtsova invokes Putin’s “triumphalist” control over a fickle Russian nation previously disconcerted with his leadership.

The shifting geopolitical game and Putin’s newfound popularity at home may have some unintended – and even positive – consequences. Brookings’ Steven Pifer struck an optimistic note regarding U.S.-Russian relations, indicating that arms control cooperation could be the key to reversing this “post-Cold War low.”

Even during the Cold War, Pifer asserted, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had to cooperate on arms control in order to avoid mutually assured destruction (MAD). It seems likely the nuclear new START treaty, if utilized correctly, could be exactly that for U.S. and Russian relations: a new start.

Finally, Carnegie’s Akio Kawato developed a unique stance discussing Putin’s affinity for judo and his subsequent, judo-like diplomacy.

As Kawato notes, with “one decisive throw” (ippon), Putin can “win” the global geopolitical game catalyzed by the intervention in Crimea. But if Putin chooses instead the path of the “endless power game,” the result “may turn out to be lethal.”