Think tank roundup: In June, top analysts focused on the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, the future prospects for Russian-Chinese relations and the changing nature of Russia-West relations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. Photo: AP

For Russian experts, the most discussed topic of June was the Brexit referendum in Great Britain. Almost no one predicted this result, with many Russian analysts experiencing great surprise that the British voted to leave the EU.

Experts also turned their attention to China and the high-profile meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, viewing this official visit as a barometer of the current state of Russian-Chinese relations.

The shifting status of Russia’s relations with the West also preoccupied the attention of Russia’s top experts, who attempted to analyze whether Russia and the West were any closer to a compromise on key geopolitical issues.

The implications of Brexit for Russia

In connection with Brexit, Russian think tanks discussed the following questions: What will happen with the EU now? What are the implications for Great Britain itself? How does Moscow view the events occurring in London?

The EU and the UK have fallen victim to uncontrolled and thoughtless expansion, as well as an unprecedented migration crisis, according to professor Natalia Kapitonova of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University). The British are tired of the endless stream of migrants coming from poorer EU countries and the influx of refugees from the Middle East, both of which they perceive as a threat.

The role of the British leadership, which went too far in its attempts to blackmail Brussels, also played an important role. The British did not anticipate such serious consequences of their actions. Kapitonova believes that Britain’s exit from the EU could have a domino effect on Europe – even if it does not directly encourage other countries to the leave, then, at the very least, it will have an impact on the development plans of the Union, and will substantially slow down the integration processes.

Nikolay Kaveshnikov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and associate professor at MGIMO University, on the contrary, believes that the exit of the UK is unlikely to cause a domino effect, because in the EU, there are almost no other Eurosceptic countries that have the resources and political weight, outside of the integrated group, that can be compared with the UK.

The expert considered several possible Brexit consequences for the EU. Among them – the collapse of the ideology of integration, strengthening of intergovernmental relations to the detriment of supranational institutional relations, creation in the EU of a kind of “core” of the most important countries, and the formation of peripheral provincial parts of the EU, in which the least successful member states will find themselves.

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Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center tried to explain why Brexit was so positively perceived in Russia. Russian officials were very careful when it came to talking about Britain’s leaving the European Union, but no one doubts that the British vote was perceived positively in Russia.

For Moscow – which has never been able to engage in a productive dialogue with the Brussels bureaucracy that simultaneously tries to express the opinion of all and none – the idea of building bilateral relations with a sovereign state is much more preferable. This does not mean that Russia is hostile to the European integration project. Yet a fragmented Europe is conceptually clearer, because it corresponds to the Kremlin’s goal of pursuing multi-polarity in modern international relations.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), believes that the exit of Great Britain from the EU threatens the existence of a “greater Europe.” The expert also noted that, obviously in the EU, no one expected such an outcome, because the reactions coming from the major capitals were languid and ambiguous.

This only adds to the feeling that a turbulent period is coming to the European space, says Lukyanov. Likely awaiting Europe and the whole world is a new phase of a quest of national identity or “re-nationalization,” because Brexit has proven that national interests can be stronger and more important than ideological projects, even when they promise benefits for all.

Russian-Chinese relations and Russia’s pivot to the East

In light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China on June 25-26, Russian experts actively discussed current relations between Moscow and Beijing, in particular the problem of equality in the partnership, as well as prospects for the formation of an alliance between the two countries.

Vasily Kashin, an expert on Asian affairs at RIAC, emphasized that Putin’s recent visit was the most intense, in terms of both the practical content of the signed agreements and in terms of formation of the ideological content of the Russian-Chinese partnership. This ideological component is no less important than the numerous agreements signed in the economic and energy spheres.

China and Russia are increasingly on the same page when it comes to a vision of the modern world order, especially in matters of security and strategic stability, which both Moscow and Beijing regard as a broader concept than does Washington. A common position on issues of nuclear and information security is a big step forward, not only in bilateral relations, but also in the formation of a more harmonious system of international relations.

Alexander Gabuev, an expert with the CFDP and the Carnegie Moscow Center, analyzed the results of the first two years of Russia’s “turn to the East.” Gabuev stresses that many in Russia have become disillusioned with Moscow’s new friend. As it turns out, to deal with the East is no easier, and sometimes even harder, than with the West. This disappointment, says the expert, is the result of initially too high expectations. In reality, a turn is being made to the East, but it is just going very slowly.

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The main obstacle on this path is the coincidence of a number of adverse factors occurring simultaneously, including the slowdown in the Chinese economy, the worsening economic situation in Russia, and Western sanctions that restrict the opportunities of foreign capital coming into Russia. Gabuev also noted that Russia’s endless attempts to define itself as a “younger brother” or an “older sister” of China must finally end, because these do not have any practical value, but only waste time and the intellectual resources needed for the development of cooperation.

Alexander Lukin, director of the Research Center for East Asian and SCO at MGIMO University, positively evaluated the results of Putin’s visit to China, explaining that the trip has once again proven the viability of Russian foreign policy in the East. Lukin says that, despite the great skepticism that exists among Russian analysts when it comes to prospects of a Moscow-Beijing alliance, it is too early to judge the outcome of this “turn to the East.” Serious efforts are still needed to further strengthen relations.

“Russia needs to work consistently in the Chinese direction, because in our partners in Beijing, we see a great desire for bilateral cooperation,” said Lukin.

Russia-West relations and the new world order

Russian experts also discussed relations between the West and Russia within the context of problems of the new world order and international security. These experts firmly believe that further escalation of tensions is possible, and now is the time when countries need to take a breather and find new channels for dialogue.

Lukyanov believes that the main reason for the current amplification of tensions in relations between Russia and the West has a historical basis. The Cold War was not a real war, and it did not end with a real peace settlement, in which the positions of the winners and losers would have been defined. The West considered Russia as a defeated and weak country and refused to consider its interests when it came to the construction of the new world order.

Russia, after failing in an attempt to obtain equal status, began to act aggressively “to the verge of brinkmanship,” which determined the confrontational nature of the current relationship.

Lukyanov calls this a “fatal chain,” which may well lead to a real escalation, despite the fact that the real systemic reasons for this do not exist. In such circumstances, the most important thing is to develop a procedure for enhanced dialogue, and Washington should seriously think about this, and no longer act according to the zero-sum logic of “winner vs. loser.”

Leonid Gusev, an expert at MGIMO University, said that recently there has been a serious increase in the aggressiveness of the rhetoric coming from the U.S. towards Russia. Part of this rhetoric, in its spirit, even resembles the worst times of the Cold War. The analyst believes that this is directly related to the current presidential election campaign in the United States. Often, individual candidates use increasingly aggressive rhetoric to gain extra points in opinion polls, and Russia fits the bill perfectly here, says Gusev.

However, rationality and awareness of the need for cooperation are always more important than campaign speeches, when it comes to real politics.

“The rhetoric will likely soften, and the cooperation will continue. Still, no one really wants to return to the situation as it existed during the Cold War after 1946,” sums up the analyst.

Alexey Arbatov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in an extensive interview about the purpose and spirit of modern Russian foreign policy, noted that relations with the West, and in particular, with the United States, continue to be confrontational.

Officially, Russia has declared that the main enemy is international terrorism, but in Moscow, they do not forget about using anti-American rhetoric, accusing Washington of not only being responsible for the world’s problems, but in making efforts to undermine the internal structure of Russia.

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In this context, the expansion of confrontation is quite possible, and very dangerous, as it could lead to a large-scale armed conflict between Russia and NATO. Arbatov believes that the most important task for Moscow and Washington now is to avoid such a scenario at all costs, and this is what the political leadership of both countries should be working on.

The program director of RIAC, Ivan Timofeev, talked about the emerging new world order, which has already given birth to numerous conflicts and dilemmas – one of the main being the confrontation between Russia and the West. In Russia, this confrontation is seen as being systemic; as such, it requires an appropriate response.

However, there is a possibility that such an assessment is wrong, and in fact, the struggle in the spirit of “Realpolitik” will not determine the future of the new world order. Rather, a new image of the world will emerge from the solutions developed for individual regional “dilemmas,” among which are included China’s dilemma, India’s dilemma, and the European Union’s dilemma. Each of these problems will determine the vectors of development of the world, and Russia must be involved in this process, otherwise it is destined to play a marginal role in the new world order.