Think tank review: Russian experts are increasingly divided about the potential for success of Russia’s latest military and economic moves in the Ukrainian crisis.

A Pro-Russian rebel stands near the damaged war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, August 28, 2014. Photo: Reuters

The month of August saw a wide variety of events – from the closing of the McDonald’s on Pushkin Square in Moscow to Petro Poroshenko’s dramatic announcement that Russian troops had “invaded” Ukraine – that added new complexities and nuances to the way Russian experts view the Ukrainian crisis. Three key events stood out this month for these experts: the introduction of “food sanctions” by Russia, the Minsk meeting between Putin and Poroshenko, and the “invasion” of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine

Whether a Russian “invasion” of Ukraine actually happened or not was a major topic of discussion by Russian experts. Analysts were divided: Some believe that this is an attempt to justify the failure of Kiev in the Donbas region, while others believe that the secret of Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine has finally been revealed.

One expert on the CIS, Kirill Koktysh of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), belongs to the first group. He, in particular, believes that, “For Kiev, it is now essential to explain the defeat, the massive defeat, of the Ukrainian army as being caused by direct Russian intervention. Kiev, of course, will insist on this version, because otherwise admitting that Ukrainian troops lost to rebel militias, well, actually, it's like signing their own death warrants – it is the recognition of the incompetence and incapacity of today's Ukrainian regime.”

Another MGIMO analyst, Alexey Tokarev, is trying to make sense of who these “lost paratroopers” were and just how possible the likelihood is that the Eastern Ukrainian militias are fighting alongside Russian troops. He doesn’t come up with any full answers. However, he does find something strange about the behavior of the interrogated paratroopers.

“It is unlikely that the paratroopers were ordered to discuss and condemn the actions of their commanding officers and the Russian government,” he writes. “However, in the video they act more as political observers, rather than captured prisoners (as a fact), or as individuals arrested for trespassing (de jure). During questioning, paratrooper sergeant Generalov looks at one specific point, relaying the basic postulates of the Ukrainian stance on the ATO (anti-terrorist operation) – most likely, he was reading from a screen or sheet of paper. His colleagues report on the error of the Russian government to participate in the operation.”

Alexander Golts of Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) holds an opposite view, similar to a number of experts, who believe that all the pieces have finally fallen into place.

“Now we know why the Russian authorities have banned thousands of subordinate security forces from basking on Turkish and Thai beaches,” he says. "[This was done] exclusively to encourage them to spend a well-deserved vacation, fighting their way to the Azov sea coast in the Donetsk region. Of course, our military could not go on this cheerful holiday without taking to the beach with them their tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled howitzers.”

“One way or another, the evidence is mounting that Moscow went from a covert operation in support of the separatists to the direct input of their units on the territory of a neighboring state," he concluded. “For the whole world it is clear that the war began in Europe.”

The Minsk meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the Minsk Summit. Photo: RIA Novosti  

It should be noted experts took such an important event as the Minsk meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Poroshenko very seriously: Even before the beginning of the meeting there were publications about what should and should not be expected from the summit.

For instance, Kirill Koktysh of MGIMO commented, “I am afraid that, once again, the problem is not about the actual physical meeting. It, in itself, is not fatal. The problem will be the one who will claim responsibility for what, and how the agenda of the meeting will be set. In the case of the Ukrainian president, it will be a very subtle and delicate conversation. I'm not even sure that the Ukrainian elite can demonstrate such a degree of subtlety now regarding the shaping of its domestic politics. There, the struggle of various interest groups will be at the forefront.”

The acknowledgment that a breakthrough should not be expected at the meeting was also made by expert Gevorg Mirzayan from Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who wrote on the topic. He stressed, however, that this does not mean that the event will be a failure.

“Meanwhile, the low probability that a final agreement will be signed does not mean that the summit in Minsk is unnecessary," he argues. "Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin will be able to at least share their views eye-to-eye, and possibly try to outline some of the “red lines”, which cannot be crossed. In addition, the agreement reached in Minsk on several other issues can help them at the next meetings.”

After the meeting, the experts have only confirmed their original conclusions. Yan Vaslavskiy of MGIMO-University commented in an interview with Kommersant FM, “It is good that the leaders have experienced personal contact. However, the problem as it was, still remains. The Ukrainian side requires real action to stabilize the situation in the east of the country and bring about a ceasefire. But this, at the very least, the pursuit of this, we, unfortunately, do not see.”

Moscow’s food sanctions

Russia’s counter-sanctions came as a big surprise for the EU leaders. Photo: AP.

Experts have different opinions on Moscow’s introduction of retaliatory sanctions, with all of them emphasizing the originality of such a decision.

Nikolai Kaveshnikov MGIMO-University suggests that even such a strong move does not necessarily mean that Russia has found the key to success.

“The Russian authorities have found a very vulnerable point, the Achilles heel of the European Union – and that is agriculture and the agricultural lobby," he said. "But even the agricultural lobby is unlikely to reverse the political mood in the EU for the support of the Kiev authorities.

A colleague of Kaveshnikov from MGIMO-University, Nikolai Toporonin, tried to count the losses from the mutual sanctions, stressing that in any case the U.S. came away comparatively well.

“Thus, if we factor in the total direct losses from the mutual sanctions, the EU and Russia equally lose about 100 billion euros, whereas the loss of the United States will be about 15 times less,” he argues.

Toporonin also noted that Russia’s retaliatory measures cannot be compared with the scale of the European and American sanctions.

“It should be noted that for Russia, Western sanctions will have more serious consequences, mainly reflected in the food market, access to financial resources, and superior technology, but in the EU, agricultural producers and exporters of modern high-tech are the main sufferers,” he added.

Fyodor Lukyanov of CFDP devoted a rather detailed analysis of the way the modern world of trade and economic model functions in relationship the issue of retaliatory sanctions. He believes that Russia has always tried to move its opposition into the military-political sphere, away from the economic, as traditionally it feels stronger in the former.

In this case, it acting predictably, but it is destroying and continuing to destroy the existing trade and economic system, “Russia also has something to offer for the enrichment of world trade. An article about GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) entitled “General Exceptions” contained a provision  perhaps departing from the rules for the adoption of measures “necessary to protect public morality.”

It’s a sort of “happy hunting ground” for adherents of conservative values​​ – those who just happen to now be the official representatives of the Russian ruling class.”

Alexei Malashenko, Lukyanov’s CFDP colleague, views the sanctions ironically: “So, it happened: the European sanctions punished Putin to the tune of 12 billion euros (about  $16 billion). As they should have. It’s good for us too – we will stuff our faces less now.  Without all these 12 billion euros, women will become slimmer and the peasants will lose their bellies. Getting rid of the bourgeois sausages and cheese is an important step towards our own special, national development.”