Think Tank Review: In March, Russian experts debated Russia’s role in Crimea, the future impact of Western sanctions and Russia’s troubling drift toward isolation

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  threatens Russia with tougher economic sanctions if it fails to back down from its chaotic involvement in Ukraine. Photo: AP

No other issue in recent memory has ever caused such a schism between analysts and commentators in the Russian expert community as the issue of Crimea. This schism is not only between liberals and conservatives, but also among experts of the same political leanings.

Over the past month, some Russian experts welcomed President Vladimir Putin's decision to annex Crimea to Russia and generally have voiced their approval for the move. For instance, the president of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Igor Ivanov, asserts: “Russia was forced to respond to the wishes of the vast majority of people in Crimea to return to Russia. Russia could not have acted any other way in view of its national interests, the deepening Ukrainian crisis, and historical justice.”

This concept of historical justice was also a topic for Konstantin Zatulin of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), which seven years ago published an article emphasizing that, “Crimea is pining for home as never before.”

“The predictions have come true; ours and Crimea’s goals have been achieved," Zatulin argues. "No longer do we have to avert our gaze in response to the question in Sevastopol: ‘When are you going to take us back to Russia?’”

Even Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center seems to have tempered his critical tone in relation to the actions of the Russian authorities and accepted the annexation of Crimea as fact.

“Russia has ceased to move backwards, and instead taken a step forward... After all is said and done, didn’t Putin manage to regain Crimea without a single shot being fired? Sanctions will come and go. But Sevastopol will remain Russian,” he said.

At the same time, the ranks of opponents of the annexation are also swelling. In contrast to their colleague Dmitri Trenin, two other Carnegie experts were highly critical in their assessment of this foreign policy step. Lilia Shevtsova, in her article “How Russia is renewing the world’s expectation of war,” writes: “From now on, Putin's Russia can exist only as a militarist state, moving inexorably toward totalitarianism with all its charms.”

Alexei Malashenko, also a member of the Carnegie Moscow Center, expresses the view that “strategically Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has lost: First, he displayed Russia's inability to act through the normal economic and diplomatic channels; second, personally offended by Maidan and aware of the loss, he was driven to take drastic action, which wrong-footed everyone, even the rational elements of his own entourage.”

There are also experts whose assessment of the decision to annex Crimea is relatively neutral, noting that Moscow was effectively a hostage of the situation. The head of the CFDP, Fyodor Lukyanov, put forward that position most prominently.

“Putin’s actions were dictated by events," he argues. "That’s all. The main thing is this: If the people themselves had not wanted such action to be taken, no one would have. I assure you that a month ago no one in the Kremlin could have guessed in their worst nightmare that the Russian Federation would soon add another two constituent entities. This is an example of politicians following events, rather than leading them.”

Can Western sanctions really have an impact on Russia?

The issue of Western sanctions against Russia continues to receive more attention than even the worsening political situation in Kiev or Eastern Ukraine. Experts are certain that Western sanctions are more symbolic than real, but even so, such symbolic actions could significantly narrow the space for dialogue between Russia and the West and lead many to re-think all the positive developments of recent years.

Fyodor Voitolovsky, of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) and Institute of World Economy and International Relations, comments on the growing distrust in international relations.

“Political sanctions — be they restrictions on the entry of individuals, their activities or their assets abroad — affect a fairly narrow range of the Russian political elite. But it poisons the atmosphere for dialogue, political and diplomatic,” he wrote.

Experts such as Artem Malgin of MGIMO also note that sanctions always cut both ways, meaning that the EU and the U.S. must assess the risks of continuing to press forward with economic sanctions.

“Even if Russia does nothing in response, any restrictions on bilateral trade and economic relations between Russia and the countries of the EU would have a very strong impact on the European economy, which is still not over the crisis," he warns. "Therefore, any serious talk of sanctions right now seems to me to be impossible.”

Dmitry Oreshkin of the CFDP expresses a similar opinion.

“Sanctions are very cosmetic and precise," he argues. "They target not Russia as a whole, but certain members of the ruling elite, which is important... This means that the U.S., represented by Obama, is trying to sound tough, yet acting very cautiously. The reasons for this are quite clear: They have more serious, larger interests...”

The limited scope of sanctions is also mentioned by Ivan Safronchuk of MGIMO, who is fairly skeptical about the prospects of pressuring Russia through agreements with oil-exporting countries.

“The fact is that all the major players in the global energy market are interested in high oil prices,” he wrote explaining that economic sanctions are possible, but at this stage they will be relatively mild in nature. “I think the West will throw a noose of sanctions over Russia’s head, but refrain from tightening it for now.”

Some experts even see a potentially positive outcome.

Carnegie Moscow director Dmitri Trenin, for instance, believes that sanctions will facilitate the introduction of fresh voices into Russia’s elite.

“Western sanctions will only really help the Kremlin ‘clean out’ the elite,” he assumes. 

How long will the Ukrainian crisis keep Russia in isolation?

The experts from Russian think tanks agree on one thing: A new stage of relations between Russia and the West has begun, and nothing particularly good should be expected in the foreseeable future. But even among the analysts, there are differences of opinion on this matter too: Some are quite pessimistic, others a little more optimistic about the future.

The group of pessimists certainly includes Lilia Shevtsova of Carnegie Moscow.

“From here on, Russia finds itself in isolation, the consequences of which we will all (society and the elite) have to deal with," she argues. "Under the current leadership, Russia will never be a member of the West’s global clubs.”

She is backed by Carnegie colleague Alexei Malashenko, who notes that, through its actions, Russia has destroyed its relations with its leading partners, and will in the future be left to itself: “Although they won’t try to isolate Russia, [they’ll] just keep it at arm’s length.”

Alexander Goltz of the CFDP also writes about Russia’s deteriorating relations with the U.S. and the EU and gradual isolation.

“I suspect that soon we'll see Sergei Lavrov’s style alter radically," he warns. "What to say if there’s nothing to say? When all doors are closed, there’s no need to leave Moscow. Like Gromyko, they can all be removed from the ancient seat of government and sent far away. Diplomacy’s over, get ready for isolation.”

A far more optimistic slant comes from the CFDP’s Fyodor Lukyanov.

“There is no strategic partnership to speak of at present, but does that mean we are heading toward confrontation? Hardly,” he believes.

Vladimir Baranovsky of RIAC concurs: “In this case, we can see serious problems in Russia's relations with the U.S. and Europe, with sanctions to follow and the potential degradation of some very important aspects of our relations with these countries. However, it could stimulate a serious discussion about what was amiss even before the Ukrainian crisis.”

According to another RIAC analyst, Valery Garbuzov, “the most likely result is a strategic confrontation; however, at the same time, selective cooperation on various matters will remain. Neither country [Russia and the U.S.] can do without that.”