ZOiS Spotlight 30/2022

The Role of Think Tanks in Russian Foreign Policy

by Felix Riefer 21/09/2022
The monument to former Russian diplomat Yevgeny Primakov in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Moscow. IMAGO / Russian Look

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

Think tanks have played a major role in the monitoring of international relations and states’ foreign policies for some time. After all, even governments find it well-nigh impossible to gain a comprehensive overview of our increasingly complex globalised, digitalised and technological world. Modern states – liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes alike – have therefore come to rely on the analysis, advice and advocacy provided by these policy research institutes.

Operating at the interface between politics and academia, think tanks are becoming increasingly visible, collecting and filtering information and providing analysis and advisory services. Until now, however, little attention has been paid to the Russian think tank landscape. In Russia, there was a very small window of opportunity for think tanks to operate freely: it lasted from early 1990 to the start of 2000. Since 2005, political institutions that are independent of the Kremlin have found it almost impossible to function in today’s Russia. Even so, the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program has counted more than 200 think tanks in Russia.

Foreign policy in Russia is a matter for the President and is therefore determined by the presidential administration, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Federal Assembly. It is only logical, therefore, to start any review of Russian think tanks by tracing the threads that lead back to the presidential administration.

A missionary/imperial understanding of Russian statehood

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now assuming a more strongly executive function. However, it also maintains a research and analytic infrastructure and, through its university, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), plays a key role in training new generations of diplomats. The majority of career diplomats involved in Russian foreign policy were educated and socialised at MGIMO. In this way, a missionary/imperial understanding of Russian statehood is inculcated in Russia’s future functional elites.

The presidential administration also maintains its own, directly subordinate think tank, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI). From 2009 to 2017, RISI officials under the leadership of secret service agent Leonid Reshetnikov increasingly served as advocates for the Kremlin’s new nationalist policies. It was here that the themes espoused and framed intensively by the Russian state media – such as alleged Russophobia, the vigorous promotion of the Russian World and the denial of Ukraine’s independence – were made visible and discussed. One particularly scurrilous report focused on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): it claimed that the virus was unable to infect true Russians and that the anti-AIDS campaign in the world media was part of the anti-Russia information war. RISI’s activities do not stop at disseminating such outlandish theories. Following the publication of another RISI report in February 2014, think tanks in Russia that received (part-)funding from abroad were forced to drastically curtail their activities or were declared to be undesirable organisations.

A further category of think tanks in the Russian context can best be characterised as NGOs under strict state control. They function primarily as advocacy and interest groups, promoting the Kremlin’s narratives and values abroad. One example is the Russian World Foundation – the most visible project of the powerful and cultural elites. It is headed by the regime’s influential functionary Vyacheslav Nikonov, who – alongside his many other prestigious posts – anchors a primetime show (Great Game) on Channel One. The talk show serves as an outlet for Kremlin propaganda, particularly in the context of international relations. In Germany, too, there is low-key dissemination of imperial Russian/Soviet positions via five language centres operated by the Foundation in Nuremberg, Dresden, Hamburg, Mainz and Berlin. Other associations in receipt of monies from the Kremlin’s cultural funding programmes were responsible for organising and mobilising pro-Russian car rallies in German cities after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The flagship institution of a banned field of study

The Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) was once the flagship institution of the increasingly disempowered Academy of Sciences. A number of well-known Russian/Soviet regional studies institutes have evolved out of IMEMO over the years. During the Soviet era, however, research and training in the field of international relations were confined to a handful of institutions in Moscow, namely IMEMO and the university of the Foreign Affairs Ministry (MGIMO), mentioned above. The study of political sciences was, after all, prohibited in this socialist country. The gradual establishment and legalisation of this academic discipline therefore centred on IMEMO and MGIMO, while the institutions themselves increasingly developed into what we now call think tanks. In 2015, after the death of Yevgeny Primakov, Russian foreign policy’s most visible icon, IMEMO was renamed in his honour and, since then, has attracted fresh interest from the Kremlin. With its academically-oriented yet open approach, IMEMO performs the role of “devil’s advocate” in Russia’s analytic infrastructure.

In the early 1990s, the now disempowered security elites of the recently defunct Soviet Union formed a club of their own: the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (SWAP). It was in these nebulous surroundings that Moscow’s current anti-Western and ultimately revanchist ideas were subsequently forged and formulated. Even Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), founded in the interests of liberal transformation in the early 1990s, has been progressively co-opted by SWAP’s leading representatives. The shift towards the East/the non-Western world takes on particularly clear contours here in the dynamic figure of SWAP’s co-founder, Sergei Karaganov, who until recently was Dean of the HSE’s Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs. The publication of the journal Russia in Global Affairs – to which Vladimir Putin paid tribute in a speech of thanks to SWAP – also takes place in this framework.

Securing society’s support for decisions already taken

Think tanks operate in an intractable field of tension between knowledge and power, acting as bridges between academia and politics. Alongside their research and analysis, they are increasingly exerting influence on policy-makers. Furthermore, Russia has inherited the forced merger of knowledge and power which prevailed de facto during the Soviet era due to the political-ideological complex: this is now being promoted more vigorously again and is a sign of the increasing control over the production and dissemination of ideas.

Overall, the advisory process performs an important function, particularly for Russia’s authoritarian regime, by ensuring that decisions taken are accepted by society. The fact is that in Russia, think tanks are controlled by the Kremlin: they are affiliated with and steered by the state. While the advisory services that they provide are needed and appreciated by the Kremlin, their primary purpose is to embed and disseminate predetermined positions. The advisory process thus serves to consolidate the allegiance and loyalty of the functional elites.

Dr Felix Riefer is a political scientist in Bonn. His main areas of research are Russia, the post-Soviet space and ethnic German repatriates. His book on the role of think tanks in foreign policy under Putin was published recently: 'Russlands Außenpolitik unter Putin 2000–2018: Welchen Einfluss haben russische Think Tanks auf die auswärtige Politikgestaltung des Kremls?'