Russian think tanks attempt to isolate the key factors influencing Ukraine's future and assess the legacy of outgoing US Ambassador Michael McFaul.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left), the leader of the Batkivshchina Party, a candidate for the Ukrainian prime minister post, and Vitaly Klichko, the leader of the UDAR Party, seen attending the Verkhovna Rada meeting. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin

In February, the joy of Russia’s victory in Sochi soon gave way to alarming news from Ukraine. No sooner had the Olympic flame gone out than the situation in Ukraine flared up and out of control, forcing Russian experts to re-think all their previous forecasts of the Ukrainian crisis.

Another “information bomb” was the departure of Michael McFaul from the post of U.S. ambassador, who was a landmark figure in Russian-U.S. relations over the past two years. These two topics dominated the publications of Russian think tanks in February.

Ukraine: What does the future hold?

Russia’s neighbor Ukraine is in a bad way. No argument there. But that’s where the agreement among experts comes to an abrupt halt. In the current crop of opinions, judgments, and assessments more than a few of which are diametrically opposed four “sub-themes” can be highlighted.

First, a handful of analysts wrote articles on the root causes of the current crisis in Ukraine. Alex Tokarev from Moscow State Institute of International Relation (MGIMO-University), for instance, offered a view of the current situation through the prism of the “theory of color revolutions” — so in vogue in the early 2000s, when protests forced a change of government in several countries all at once: Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan.

Overall, Tokarev delivers a negative assessment of the notion of “color revolution,” but believes that in the present case any such label would be irrelevant because the state of affairs in Kiev is far graver than anything before: “As soon as the cordons in Kiev began to be showered with Molotov cocktails and gunfire, the idea of a color revolution quickly gave way to disorder, riots, insurgency, anarchy, and revolution without quotation marks.”

The assertion that the current crisis is no color revolution is shared by Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), who also notes that the origins of Ukraine’s present condition lie in its complex political culture and “failure to build viable state institutions.”

Second, Russian think tanks actively discussed the role of the West in the events in Ukraine. And their appraisal of the actions of the EU and the U.S., despite some degree of variance, was generally negative.

“A fundamentally new dimension has arisen in connection with the unprecedented interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs on the part of EU representatives and top U.S. officials,” notes MGIMO's Ksenia Borishpolets.

“By encouraging protest activity, Europe and the U.S. objectively loosened not just the political, but the governmental framework of Ukraine,” writes Lukyanov.

Vladimir Avatkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council on International Affairs (RIAC), states it even more bluntly.

“Western politicians are flying to Ukraine, allocating money, implanting lobbies, backing the activities of nongovernmental organizations, meeting with representatives of various interest groups, and unashamedly supporting bandits, while forever preparing fallbacks,” he said.

Third, experts from various Russian think tanks are at loggerheads over how the Russian Federation should respond to the Ukrainian crisis. Even the voices inside a single center often fail to sound in unison.Tokarev believes that Russia’s present cautious policy with the emphasis on non-interference “seems more than adequate.”

Meanwhile, Avatkov disagrees, maintaining that Russia is “staring open-mouthed at its brothers, urging them to come to their senses and voicing protest after protest with no departure from the policy of non-intervention, which effectively means that the principle of non-interference is dead in the water...”

Avatkov accuses Russia of passivity and calls for a more aggressive (but not military) policy, noting that “tomorrow is a new day and will be worth waiting for if plans are made today based on the assumption that the best defense is offense.”

An interesting position is presented by Dmitri Trenin, Director of Carnegie Moscow Center, who looks at the possible benefits of the “Ukrainian revolution,” in particular the end of the “double-dealing policy of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, which constantly played Russia and the West off against each other.”

Some experts support the idea of regulating the crisis jointly with the West.

“Logic and common sense suggest that Russia, the European Union and the U.S. must act together,” said  Igor Ivanov, Russia's ex-Foreign Minister and RIAC's President.

The fourth and last trend (more of an observation) is that articles about Ukraine presenting in-depth analysis and scenarios for the future are frighteningly few. Most of the authors of the published materials express, in one form or another, the idea that absolutely anything is possible, which is making experts and ordinary Russian citizens alike extremely anxious.

Fare thee well, Mr. Ambassador

Michael McFaul. Photo: Russia Direct

The departure of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul from Russia last week caused a serious stir in the Russian expert community. Russian analysts, who have kept a watchful eye on McFaul, now are attempting to assess the results of his activity.

Remarkably, the same McFaul who on assuming office immediately came under a barrage of criticism from experts, public figures, and especially Russian politicians of a conservative persuasion, is now departing to the sound of infrequent, but fairly resounding applause from those who took the time to assess the contribution he made to Russian-U.S. relations during his brief stint as ambassador.

Analysts point out that McFaul was a bright and strong personality, the “architect of the reset,” and without doubt a brilliant politician — but (and it’s a large but) not a diplomat, who provoked more than the odd conflict and misunderstanding between Russian and U.S. officials.

Second, his appointment was “mistimed”: His activism might have worked under the young and liberal Dmitry Medvedev, but not the conservative Vladimir Putin.

“It’s clear that Michael McFaul, the architect and poster boy of the reset, lost his footing in the political realities," wrote MGIMO's Tokarev. "He achieved no breakthrough not for want of personality, but due to the circumstances in which he was forced to operate. As a process, the reset is complete, but as a result it did not take place. That does not negate the fact that Ambassador McFaul did his utmost as a diplomat, scholar, and straightforward American.”

“Let's be honest: Michael McFaul’s resignation is clear evidence of the failed undertaking of this distinguished academic and Russia expert over these past few years, namely the ‘reset’ of relations between Moscow and Washington. And no blame whatsoever lies with McFaul personally: He was flogging a dead horse,” wrote CFDP's Alexander Goltz.

“His appointment as ambassador to Moscow was made under very different circumstances to the ones in which he later arrived,” said Lukyanov.