Think tank review: In November Russian experts discussed Trump’s election victory, prospects for the settlement of the Syrian crisis and the legacy of the departed Fidel Castro.
President-elect Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the first stop of his post-election tour, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Cincinnati. Photo: AP
The victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election was one of the most discussed topics by Russian think tanks in November. In fact, it took everyone by surprise, with Russian analysts rushing to figure out the potential implications.
In addition, the Syrian crisis remains at the top of the discussion agenda. According to Russian analysts, the upcoming elections in France and Germany will have an impact on the further resolution of the crisis. Moreover, the uncertainty surrounding the new U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will also have an important impact.
U.S. elections and Trump's victory
Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential elections created genuine interest in Russia and became a focal point of discussion. During the electoral campaign, Trump’s unconventional approach to the presidential race troubled Russian experts, who, by the way, did not really believe in the prospects for his victory. The result came as a surprise to everyone and now experts are speculating about what to expect from the U.S. president-elect in his domestic and foreign policies, including his policy towards Russia.
Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), states that Trump’s victory means a big change in global affairs. The U.S. has gradually abandoned its role of “global policeman,” which started to be too much of a burden. In this context, Trump’s words “make America great again” are not about the U.S.’s rising influence on the international arena, but rather, about a strong economy and the increased prestige of the country.
Such a re-orientation coming from the biggest global power gives an opportunity to actors like Russia to assert themselves. The only question left is how much Russia is ready to accept the new rules and whether it has enough resources to be involved in a major geopolitical game.
Lukyanov warns of the excessive trust in Trump. He suggests that if Moscow decides to trust the Republican leader, it then takes serious responsibility for many complex regional issues, which it cannot handle alone.
Mikhail Troitsky of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) assumes with a high degree of certainty that Trump will be ready for a radical reconsideration of U.S. foreign policy. That might include a re-thinking of the very basis of Russia-U.S. relations. In this sense, Russia will be most likely disappointed with his first steps in this direction.
Trump himself might treat Russia in a constructive way. However, the Republican establishment likely won’t agree on the improvement of bilateral relations. Without its support in Congress and within his administration, it is highly unlikely that Trump can implement his plans.
Ivan Kurilla, a professor from the European University at St. Petersburg analyzes Trump’s program for the first 100 days of the presidency. He notes that it does not contain some of the most controversial promises he made during the presidential campaign. Moreover, it contains only one foreign policy initiative – U.S. exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Russia, the Middle East, and even the wall with Mexico have no mention in the program.
Primarily, the program consists of steps aimed at restoring the U.S. economy, improving cyber security and stimulating business. On the one hand, it is a step towards American voters who traditionally are more concerned with domestic rather than foreign policy.
On the other hand, this is an attempt to create a constructive basis for his presidential work, which will allow him to push forward his ambiguous initiatives in the future. For now, this program is more business-like rather than political, and the first 100 days will demonstrate whether Trump has enough resolution and firmness to go against the majority of the political establishment.
Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center underlines the unpredictability of Trump, which can ultimately turn into an escalation in Russia-U.S. relations rather than a new détente. Putin and Trump are both charismatic leaders and violators of all sorts of rules, which can mean one of two options – friendship forever or a blood feud.
As an example, he points to Putin’s relations with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Both charismatic leaders cooperated and talked about a strategic partnership, but nearly overnight turned into opponents. This is why Russia’s euphoria from Trump’s victory is at very least premature - if not entirely groundless.
The Syrian crisis
The Syrian crisis is still in the focus of Russian experts. The situation around Aleppo, the Turkish operation in Syria and prospects for Russia-West cooperation in the Middle East are the main topics of discussion.
Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center views the situation quite pessimistically. He offers several scenarios of how the situation in Syria will develop. However, none of them assumes conflict resolution any time soon. Domestic political factors (religious and political rifts, absence of any authoritative political leaders, rise of radical Islamism, inter-elite conflicts) have the potential to ruin any interference of external forces, even if it is productive.
Moreover, external actors themselves have no chances to come to consensus as they have antagonistic interests. Malashenko notes that the Syrian conflict has started resembling the Arab-Israeli confrontation more and more: permanent conflict, with periods of stagnation and escalation, which de facto is impossible to resolve.
Evgenia Obichkina of RIAC analyzes the situation in Syria through the prism of Franco-Russian relations, which are experiencing a serious crisis. The Syrian issue just aggravated other tensions between the two states.
France, once a prospective strategic partner of Russia, has completely embedded itself into the Euro-Atlantic bloc, which is untied over Russia’s isolation. Such a gap is unlikely to be bridged as de facto both countries sacrificed their bilateral relations standing for their interests in other areas. It makes the settlement of the Syrian crisis even more distant and complicated.
One of the most famous politicians of the 20th century, Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, died on Nov. 25. Russian experts paid a fair deal of attention to this topic, considering the traditionally special relations between Russia and Cuba.
Maxim Samorukov from Carnegie Moscow Center writes about Castro’s contribution to world history. Often people associate Castro with an unsuccessful revolutionary experiment, with anti-Americanism, with dictatorship and a half-century long rule. Indeed, Fidel did not manage to fulfill everything he promised. Indeed, he is a bad manager inclined to dictatorship. However, in a sense he is the last hero of the 20th century and humanity owes him for his “adamant fight for humanistic ideals.”
No one in the modern world sees Castro as a liberal or a propagator of freedom; however, it was Castro who paved the way “to create the liberal world order where all countries are genuinely equal, regardless of their size, wealth and army,” even more so than “many other politicians whose names have become synonyms for liberalism,” Samorukov notes.
RIAC President Igor Ivanov underlines that Castro always acted “according to his principles, not to protocol.” Castro was a revolutionary and a violator of rules. However, even his opponents had to acknowledge that he was a personality of global impact who had his own image of international processes and who was not afraid to speak about them to the leaders of the world. Unpredictability was his main characteristic feature, which many times overwhelmed him and many times saved him.
Also read: "Why Putin didn't attend Castro's funeral"
Oleg Barabanov of MGIMO University insists that Castro's legacy will definitely find its place in any future annals of global affairs. Cuba’s evolution and its historical path can raise questions; however Castro managed to create a particular image and direction of thought that are in high demand during a period of global turbulence. Barabanov concludes that “Castro’s real and (more importantly) symbolic legacy will not die with him but will stay as a stimulus to political action in the 21st century.”
Castro is one of the “brightest embodiments of the phenomenon, which retrospectively will turn out to be the most important in the 20th century. This is about de-colonization, a massive release of the people’s energy that had become a result of the last century’s shocks, particularly two world wars,” highlights Lukyanov.
In addition, Castro introduced a new type of modern political leadership, which is now in demand around the globe. This type of leader today is rare. It is incorrect to mix Castro in with the current generation of populists. Revolutionary Castro is a titan who offered an alternative in hard times, and Lukyanov hopes that the current world crisis will not become so deep as to require such a figure as Castro appear again on the political stage.