Experts, Russian government officials and business leaders met during the World U.S.-Russia Forum in Moscow to discuss what can be done to end the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. One big idea was to reactivate a Cold War-era institution for promoting bilateral cooperation. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and US Secretary of State John Kerry stand together before a meeting at Winfield House in London, March 14, 2014. Photo: AP 

Organized by the Russian Association of International Cooperation and American University in Moscow, the two-day meeting of the annual World U.S.-Russia Forum brought together Russian and American foreign policy thinkers, government officials, academics, journalists and representatives of the business community.

Taking place just a couple of months after the meeting in Washington, the event in Moscow was attended by such figures as Robert Legvold (Professor at Columbia University), Sergei Mironov (Head of "A Just Russia" party and former Chairman of the Federation Council) and Nicolai Petro (Professor at the University of Rhode Island).

What can we do with the current state of U.S.-Russia relations? Is there a way to move forward? These were the two main questions discussed during the meeting of the forum this week.

With relations between Russia and the West at a crisis point over Ukraine, these questions are especially urgent.

While a large-scale information war threatens to split Russia and the U.S. apart even further, there are a few dissident voices on both sides raised in opposition to the Cold War policies being introduced by politicians. The World U.S.-Russia Forum gave these voices an opportunity to be heard and contribute to the discussion of the possible ways for U.S.-Russia relations to experience a reset once again. 

“At this time of difficulties in cooperation between Russia and Western countries the forum was an opportunity to get together and think about ways the situation can be improved, ways of getting beyond the current difficulties,” one of the participants of the event, Michael Stopford (Former NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Communications) told Russia Direct.

“What is to be done?”

The opening of the forum, which focused on the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, emphasized that debate over changing the contours of the bilateral relationship is almost entirely one-sided and, as a result, is almost completely out of reach of the American elites and public. 

As Edward Lozansky, the organizer of the forum, noted in his opening speech, the number of decision-makers in Washington who are open to perspectives from Russia is less than 1 percent. Only a tiny minority of legislators in the U.S. is ready to listen to the opposite view. 

Alexis Rodzyanko (President, US-Russia Chamber of Commerce), in his speech, set up the tone for further discussion, stressing the importance of “saving the existing outcomes of U.S.-Russian cooperation.” Dialogue between all sides is required. The interests of all parties should be taken into account, including the interests of the business community, which does not want to follow sanctions.

Anna Prozorova (Head of the Legal Department, The Belgian-Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce in Russia) agreed, and said that building on the experience of Belgian firms in Russia, it’s crucial for foreign policy makers to hear the voices of businessmen and stop the economic confrontation between the two sides. This could pave the way for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

It was not hard to notice that during the first day of the forum, almost every single speaker referenced the famous Russian critic and writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky and his famous questions: “Who is guilty? And what is to be done?”

However, most interestingly, the majority of speakers were united by one approach. In short, we all have to think in terms of “What is to be done?” rather than asking, “Who is guilty?” This common understanding set up a great platform for dialogue amongst the experts, participants, and the public.

The need for people-to-people exchange programs

Agreeing that there was a lack of Western media coverage of the unfolding humanitarian crisis in southeastern Ukraine, the majority of speakers agreed that people-to-people channels should be promoted and awareness of the situation on the ground should be broadcast to the Western public. More attention should be devoted to such expert platforms, which would make the voices of experienced diplomats, experts and businessmen more prominent. 

Bridging the gap between Russia and the U.S. will also require establishing effective projects for cultural exchange, thinks Sharon Tennison, President and CEO, Center for Citizen Initiatives. 

Boris Shiriaev, Chair of the Department of North American Studies at St. Petersburg State University agreed and went even further: He asked all participants of the event to do their best to promote the positive image of Russian society in the U.S. and of American society in Russia. “Presidents come and go, but people, nations stay forever,” he said rather emotionally.

Promoting and maintaining such a connection between Russian and American societies might be fostered with an introduction of educational programs that promote cultural diplomacy between both nations.

Professor of Anthropology from the University of East Carolina Jami Leibowitz joined the forum via video and told the participants in Moscow about the project that she is coordinating in the U.S. The program – Global Partner in Education – aims to change perceptions of U.S. students about Russia. With only about 4 percent of college students studying abroad, the majority of people only know about Russia what they see and hear on the media.

“The only two things that students seem to know about Russia when they come to our program are vodka and mafia. That’s about it,” she said. Therefore, improving the overall state of relations between Russia and the U.S. needs to be started from the grassroots level – that is, changing perceptions of ordinary people about each other.

The importance of further dialogue

But what should we do if we need to do something fast? The answer to this question might be to keep on talking to each other.

The annual World U.S.-Russia Forum brought together Russian and American foreign policy thinkers, government officials, academics, journalists and representatives of the business community. Photo: World U.S.-Russia Forum

Lawrence Stratton (Professor at Waynesburg University, Pennsylvania) believes that the continuation of dialogue is vital not only for the future of Russia and the U.S. but, ultimately, for the future of the whole world. He emphasized that it is always important to keep on talking to each other, however hard it is.

In his opinion, the future of the whole world depends on Russia and the U.S. and how they cooperate. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville from his classic book “Democracy in America,” he said, “Russia and the U.S. would be inextricably linked together in the future, the future belongs to them so it’s an ongoing process to bring that better world and as difficult as it is it will have macro effects everywhere else.”

Indeed, the crisis in U.S.-Russian cooperation might have a global effect and make current international security challenges more dangerous.

Lozansky views it as the major factor that should be taken into account when debating the future of Russia-U.S. interaction: “Today there are three major issues that are important for all international actors, including Russia and the United States – nuclear nonproliferation, Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking.“  In order to address them we need to restart Russia-U.S. dialogue as soon as possible, he said.

This argument is widely shared. Michael Stopford (Former NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Communications) has a similar opinion: “There are so many things today that are more threatening to international security, for example international terrorism or such diseases like Ebola that we seem incapable of stopping. So I hope and believe that people will think about Russia-U.S. relations in a larger perspective.”

Speaking about the concrete steps of how we can improve U.S.-Russia relations he told Russia Direct that it would be vital for both states to establish a dialogue between different groups. “Think tanks, universities, the business community, media, cultural exchanges… all these people need to represented in one way or another,” he pointed out. The goal of bringing all these groups together might be realized with a re-establishment of the old Cold War-era Committee on East-West Accord.

Recreating the Committee on East-West Accord

At the end of the second day of the forum, participants unanimously agreed on the proposal to create a Committee on East-West Accord for a balanced approach to relations with Russia. Such an entity was already established in the U.S. during the Cold War period and was aimed at improving East-West relations with a special focus on U.S.-Soviet relations and was based in Washington, D.C.

Today the new Committee may be registered separately in Brussels, Washington and Moscow. Its primary objective would be “to provide a platform for comprehensive public deliberations on the way out of the present crisis in mutual relations,” according to the forum’s final document. 

Financed from funds provided by private businesses, non-state foundations and individuals, the Committee on East-West Accord would host conferences and special events inviting senior academics, business leaders and retired ambassadors to speak out and bring forward initiatives for improving U.S.-Russian relations.

In addition, “Full page advertisements promoting common sense dealings between Russia and the U.S. and EU signed by prominent personalities from politics, diplomacy, culture and science would be placed in newspapers of record,” reads the Committee’s establishment proposition.

The immediate goal of such an entity, as speakers see it, is to prevent a catastrophic breakdown of East-West relations with an ongoing scenario of tit-for-tat sanctions that might consequently lead to some irreparable damage not merely to bilateral trade but more importantly, to the world economic order itself.

Keeping in mind that speed is of the essence, the future body would “promote even-handed approaches in state-to-state relations, acting in parallel with the efforts now being done by business on its own but representing civil society more broadly.”

Even though it’s not yet clear whether such an institution will succeed, it seems that it’s better to take at least some active steps to improve the situation rather than see how the current crisis in Russia-U.S. relations become even more threatening with time.

In the words of Boris Shiriaev of St. Petersburg State University: “In any case, we have to co-exist in one world. And the best form of coexistence is cooperation and talks, not wars and confrontation.”