Russia Direct presents the second in its series of monthly roundups from U.S.-based think tanks focused on Russia and Central Asia.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (left) enter a hall as they meet in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on March 22, 2013. Photo: AFP /East News

Council on Foreign Relations: Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes

In a New York Times op-ed (“A New Anti-American Axis?”) published on July 6, Leslie H. Gelb, former New York Times  editor and columnist and CFR President Emeritus, and Dimitri K. Simes, President, Center for the National Interest, discuss the current Russia-China ‘rapprochement’ and its strategic implications for the U.S.

The first country the newly-chosen Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited last March was Russia, where he told Putin that Beijing and Moscow “should resolutely support each other in their efforts to protect their national sovereignty, security and development interests.” An example of this newfound cooperation was China’s recent largest-ever joint naval exercises held with Russia. Other factors behind these new relations is the U.S. policy of dual containment aimed at curtailing the influence of Russia and China, as well as U.S. support for both countries’ neighbors.

Gelb and Simes stress that the U.S. should give priority to both countries because it needs Russia and  China  to deal with global security threats, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea. Gelb and Simes note that both countries are “two authoritarian, but ultimately pragmatic powers,” and failure to develop relations would be “a folly of historic proportions.”

Council on Foreign Relations: Andrei Shleifer, Julia Ioffe and Thomas Graham

On June 27, experts at the Council on Foreign Relations focused on the key issues facing Russia during Putin's presidency. Russia was the focus of the CFR’s Presidential Inbox featuring Andrei Shleifer and Julia Ioffe. Andrei Shleifer, Professor of Economics, Harvard University, and Julia Ioffe, Senior Editor, The New Republic, were asked to select the three most important issues regarding Russia on which to brief President Obama so he could devise an effective policy. The moderator was Thomas Graham, Managing Director, Kissinger Associates.

According to Shleifer, Putin remains “the most popular politician in Russia,” a leader destined to stay in power. Secondly, over the next decade, the Russian economy will continue to experience weak growth, which has political implications. The decade of steep economic growth during 1998-2008 accounted for Putin’s “enormous popularity.” Therefore, going forward, he has to find “alternative ways of staying in power.”

Shleifer believes that Russia has a very keen interest in instability in the world, making its interests unilaterally opposed to those of the U.S. Russia likes instability because "it helps keep oil prices high, it prevents U.S. dominance and makes Russia more central,” Shleifer explains.

Ioffe bracketed Putin’s popularity by noting that he was the “most passively supported leader" who had “cleared the political playing field of any viable opposition.” Secondly, Russia “was very much in transition.” In that regard, Ioffe cited a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed about Russia’s new energy pivot to Asia away from Europe, its key client. Regarding Putin’s third term, Ioffe believes Putin is “drifting towards the Gadaffi model of presidency, whilst still having the mentality of an ex-KGB agent," “slightly paranoid,” and mistrustful of the U.S.

Shleifer notes that Putin needs to keep promoting economic growth; therefore. the reorientation of the energy sector to China “is an obvious rational strategy.” In his view, the complementary strategy to the absence of economic growth is a “political strategy of there being no alternative to himself,” which implies more future political repression in Russia.

For Ioffe, Putin’s stated mission – to restore Russia to its global status – remains his goal. Putin believes Russia “is a European country that has elites that can compete globally, a counterweight to the U.S.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C) speaks at a ceremony marking the handover of the Schneerson library at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, on June 13, 2013. Photo: AFP / East News

For his part, Shleifer believes Russia’s ambitions are “not extremely high” and that Putin’s government is characterized by extreme caution. Russian troops, for example, “never went to Tbilisi.” Political interventions, not physical ones, took place in the near abroad. This is in contrast to the USSR, which was “a geopolitically ambitious country.”

Shleifer points out that, notwithstanding its “rhetoric” and “bluster,” a significant amount of Russia-U.S. cooperation has occurred on Afghanistan and, to a more limited extent, on Iran. Much of this has occurred behind closed doors. Regarding Snowden, Shleifer noted the “political costs are beginning to mount,” while Ioffe pointed out that Russia wanted to make “geopolitical capital off the situation.”

On Russia-China cooperation, although Russians “are used to a captive audience” in the form of a "European energy clientele,” Putin cannot ignore China. This is especially true, given that Russia’s Far East is increasingly depopulated and its long border adjoins some of the most densely populated Chinese provinces. More importantly, China is a bigger energy market, has an “infinite amount of capital” and has an 8-10 percent annual economic growth rate.

The moderator, Thomas Graham, asked a final question: in the next two to three years, how much importance should the U.S. accord Russia, given the  president’s huge domestic and international agenda?

For Ioffe, absent a willing partner, the U.S. should “not waste too much time” on the relationship. For Shleifer the issue is one of “approximation”: since we do not know what will happen next in Iran, Syria and North Korea, the U.S. should maintain “some kind of relations” with Russia which can evolve into a cooperative one when the needs arise.

Jamestown Foundation: Russian naval ambitions and the Navalny verdict

The Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation discussed Russia’s military exercises in the Far East and Moscow’s naval ambitions in the Mediterranean. In addition, Jamestown Foundation’s experts analyzed the unexpected release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny from jail from a perspective of the upcoming G20 summit in St. Petersburg.

In "Russia’s Military Response to the Asia Pivot: Flexing Small Muscles," published on July 23, Roger McDermott, Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, discussed  the largest military exercise in the post-Soviet era.

These miliatry exercises began in Russia’s Far East on July 13, part of Putin’s plans for regular “snap inspections” to test  the combat readiness of the country’s forces. “The scale of the exercise, the units involved, proximity to China and Japan,” made this exercise unique, as did Putin’s surprise inspection, according to McDermott.

According to an official Russian Defense Ministry report, up to 160,000 troops, around 1,000 tanks and armored fighting vehicles, 130 aircraft and helicopters from various units and 70 Russian Navy ships, were involved.

McDermott believes the exercise was meant to send two messages. The first, to Russia’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, that Moscow has the political will to defend its far-flung territory during a crisis. The second, to the U.S., signaling that any U.S.-Asia strategy cannot ignore Moscow.

In "Russia Seeks Naval and Air Bases in Cyprus," published on July 17, Stephen Blank, professor, Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, focuses on Russia’s recent request to Cyprus for permission to set up a naval base at Limassol and an air base at Paphos, steps which could “mark a serious intensification or escalation of Russian ambitions and capabilities for power projection into the Middle East.”  In August 2012, Moscow had announced a permanent naval deployment in the Mediterranean.

These moves have generated little response from the EU or NATO, Blank writes. Yet, this new presence will allow an “increasingly aggressive Russian posture in the Middle East and the Mediterranean,” allowing support to the Al-Assad regime in Syria and thwarting Western intervention there.

Russia's experts and opposition activists didn't expect the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Photo: Ruslan Sukhushin

In Navalny Becomes Only Real Thing in Fake Russian Politics, published on July 22, Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) and a regular EDM contributor, continued his coverage of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s politically-motivated embezzlement trial. In this article, he examines the reasons for Navalny’s unexpected release from jail pending a final decision on his appeal.

A key  reason is Putin’s desire for a smooth G20 summit in St. Petersburg in early September, one  excluding the possibility of President Obama cancelling his visit to Moscow, a prospect “that upsets Putin more than he wants to admit.”

The second reason, Baev writes, is linked to political intrigues tied to Sergei Sobyanin,  the mayor of Moscow. The mayoral election campaign, which features both Navalny and Sobyanin, will conclude on September 8.

Brookings Institution: The future of nuclear missile negotiations

In July, the Brookings Institution’s experts reflected on the impact of President Obama's recent proposal to reduce long-range nuclear weapons by one-third.

In “Obama’s Key Nuclear Deal with Russia,” published on July 8, Michael E. O'Hanlon and Steven Pfifer, both Senior Fellows, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, and co-authors of The Opportunity.

Next Steps to Reducing Nuclear Arms, focus on Obama’s recent nuclear arms proposal disclosed  in Berlin. According to this proposal, both the U.S. and Russia would reduce their long-range deployed nuclear weapons by roughly one-third, relative to levels under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Answering skeptics of Obama’s arms control offer, Pfifer and O'Hanlon note that, even with a cut of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, Washington would “retain a robust, reliable and even redundant nuclear deterrent.”

U.S. soldiers stand on May 26, 2010 in front of a Patriot missile battery at an army base in the northern Polish town of Morag. Source: AFP / East News

Secondly, outdated plans from the Cold War era, which were based on destroying each other’s nuclear forces, are the driving force for both countries keeping such nuclear arsenals. The change in affairs from the Cold War era creates “the dynamic in which negotiated mutual cuts make sense,” they argue.

Thirdly, Moscow may want to reduce costs so it can maintain New START levels, especially as its Soviet-era systems age and require replacement.

Fourthly, this accord on nuclear arms could save Washington $2 billion to $3 billion a year.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): The G20 agenda

Tax evasion and corruption will be the key issues at the upcoming G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Photo: RIA Novosti / Grygory Sysoev

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ main focus was on Russia’s presidency in the G20. On July 12, the CSIS held an event called “Outlook for G20 St. Petersburg.” The two event panels, which included U.S. Treasury, U.S. Commerce Department and International Monetary Fund officials, largely discussed macro-economic issues pertaining to the global economic and Eurozone crises.

Regarding Russia, Ksenia Yudaeva, G20 Sherpa, Office of the President of the Russian Federation, said building trust between countries was important for the G20. As holder of the G20 Chair, Russia’s own priorities were energy, trade, anti-corruption and  development.

David Lipton, First Deputy Managing Director, IMF,  noted that, in order to increase its annual growth rate from 3 percent to 5 percent annually, Russia would need to increase overall investment, which is currently running from 20-25 percent of GDP, as well as improve the country's business climate.