High-profile American officials now believe that Russia poses a national security threat to the U.S. Could better Russian Studies programs and a more robust supply of Russian experts alleviate the problem?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov following a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. Photo: RIA Novosti

With Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East, the ongoing Ukraine crisis and Russia’s confrontation with the West elsewhere in the world, 2016 may see an extensive revival of interest in Russian Studies programs in the U.S. That would mark a significant turnaround because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. establishment and academia largely neglected the field. Quite simply, Washington stopped viewing Moscow as an existential threat.

There might be several indicators that the trend is reversing. One of them is the fact that top U.S. officials are now making public comments that Washington lacks experts on Russia. The U.S. has systematically failed to figure out the motives of the Kremlin, as The Washington Post argued in late December, and that might be the result of not enough Russian experts within the current administration.

Two signs of increasing interest in Russia

However, the interest in Russia (or, at least, concerns over the Kremlin’s policy) stems not from a feeling of deep respect toward Russia; rather, it results from the fact the U.S. doesn’t understand Russia, which it deems as one of the nation’s most important national security challenges, as indicated by the statements of top U.S. officials. Representatives of American academia, think tanks and the political establishment agree that they miscalculated Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space and in the Middle East. And this is the first sign of a revival of interest toward Russia.  

“We’ve been surprised at every turn,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria.”

“We have a situation today, in which Russia is now seen as a credible military threat not only in the Ukraine, but also in the Black Sea basin as a whole and in the Baltic [region],” said Stephen Blank, senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, at the convention of the Association of Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) that took place in November 2015. “And as we have seen, it completely confounded many American predictions. Russia has been successful not just in projecting power into the Middle East, but also sustaining that power.”

The second sign is the fact that the ASEEES convention at the end of 2015 brought together many experts from all over the world and was, in fact, more rigorous and relevant from the point of view of the addressed questions. Middle Tennessee State University professor Andrei Korobkov, who regularly participates in such conventions, told Russia Direct that the number and heft of the 2015 ASEEES participants indicates that the interest in Russia seems to be increasing.

Concerns over the Kremlin’s overtures

However, what remains questionable is the major driver behind such interest. As indicated from the 2015 ASEEES Convention’s agenda and comments of experts, the U.S. pays much more attention to Moscow because it sees Russia as a military and national security threat, as a revisionist country, which aggressively promotes its propaganda through media, tries to break current international rules, redraws the map of Europe and successfully conducts its policy in the Middle East.  

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Nevertheless, one should not confuse concerns over Russian foreign policy overtures with Russophobia, as some participants of the ASEEES convention argue.

Susan Smith-Peter from CUNY College of Staten Island thinks today’s misgivings over Russia have nothing in common with the fears about nuclear war with the Soviet Union, which was commonplace in the U.S. in the 1980s. Moreover, there was an ideological divide then: a negative attitude toward socialism and communism in general. Today, it is no longer the case.

“Now it is not that there is a phobia about Russia, it is just a sort of confusion about what Russia is,” Susan Smith-Peter said. “It is not like it was in the 1980s, when people were thinking about the Soviet Union a lot and were afraid that a specific thing could happen, which is nuclear war. Now well-educated people in the U.S. ask the question: What is going on with Ukraine? Just give me some kind of context, they say. They are just confused.”

Today, politicians and ordinary people alike have a rather negative attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not toward Russia as a whole. William Whisenhunt of the College of DuPage echoes this view. He argues that Americans tend to focus on people, individual actors, like it was the case when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s and gained a great deal of sympathy among Americans.

John Pat Willerton from the University of Arizona believes that such a personality-centric view can be explained by the fact that, for the West, it is common to view Russia “as an authoritarian country.”  “So, when you are dealing with an authoritarian country, you describe it in terms of the leaders of the country,” Willerton told Russia Direct in an interview. “We’ve been talking about American policy in Syria and Putin’s policy there.”

Anti-Americanism drives interest in the U.S. within Russia

Likewise, the current confrontation with the United States, which some experts describe as a new Cold War, sparks interest in the U.S. within Russia and, especially, among members of academia. But this leads to increasing anti-Americanism.

For example, in some cases, American Studies in Russian academia is boosted by anti-American sentiments, which means that the U.S. is primarily depicted by some Russian academics as the spoiler for Russia, said Ivan Kurilla, a professor of the European University in St. Petersburg during one of the panels at the ASEEES convention (“Teaching Russian-American Relations: The view from Russian and American Classrooms”).

According to him, previously, students in Russia were eager to study the U.S. because they found this topic really exciting and interesting, “but what I hear now that America is the country which always tries to spoil the chances of Russia, to make something bad for us and this is frustrating.”

This is the challenge for teaching U.S.-Russia relations in contemporary Russia, he argues, pointing out that, “It is not only an educational task, our [educational] problem, but also, more importantly, our social mission.” The problem of teaching U.S.-Russia relations in contemporary Russia is not easy given the rise of anti-Americanism.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are many misconceptions and prevailing biases about the history of U.S.-Russia relations that exist also in the United States, Kurilla believes. There are at least two prevailing stereotypes among the general public that existed both now and during the Soviet era: “Good Russian people vs. bad Russian government” and the messianic perception of the American mission toward Russia, which was depicted by well-known American historian David Foglesong in his famous book, The American Mission and The Evil Empire.

Challenging different perceptions

Another challenge for teaching U.S.-Russia relations is the different perception of Russian and American audiences of the country of their study, Kurilla added. William Whisenhunt, a professor at the College of DuPage, who teaches U.S.-Russia relations for American sophomore students, echoes Kurilla’s view.

“Teaching Russian history to American students is always a comparison, there is always a comparative aspect to it,” he said during the ASEEES convention, implying that such an approach might lead to the rise of misconceptions and stereotypes. “I used to resist that in the class, I didn’t want to talk in that way: Don’t talk about Russia in the American view, but then I gave up,” he added, explaining that his students kept looking at Russia through their lenses.

In his approaches of teaching U.S.-Russia relations, Whisenhut tends to focus more on people and their personal stories and accounts, not political leaders and diplomats, who by definition and their nature are inclined to politicize the topic. But the problem of many colleges and universities, as Kurilla sees, is that they see the history of U.S.-Russia relations mostly as diplomatic history, like “a pure diplomacy” or just geopolitics.

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“What I think is we have to go beyond diplomacy,” he said, pointing out that the history of U.S.-Russia relations is much more “about the transfer of technology, about immigration, about many cases of social interaction, which was very important during approximately two centuries of U.S.-Russia relations. If you know all of these [social and cultural] processes beyond diplomacy, you will probably understand differently.”

History as the key to mutual understanding and respect

Knowing history also has a significant impact on the perception of a country and increased understanding of its intentions. For example, those professors who teach Russian history to Americans, including Whisenhut, Smith-Peter or Lee Farrow of Auburn University at Montgomery, argue that the students who come to their classes without knowing Russian history usually change their minds about the country after their courses, with a positive shift in their attitude. 

Some pundits argues that the problem of current Russia Studies programs deals with the preparation of well-balanced experts in Russia who can use an interdisciplinary approach in their expertise. Photo: Reuters

“I can assume our students know nothing when they are coming to the class about Russia,” Farrow said, adding that by the end of the semester, students seem to be more interested and enthusiastic about Russia. “So, by teaching Russian history, we do change their minds, they have a much more favorable impression [toward Russia]. Even though we talk about some bad events in Russia, their appreciation of Russia as a place and culture, with great history and rich literary life, is dramatic.”

Farrow also adds that there are Russian-American organizations focused on positive aspects of the history of U.S.-Russia relations, “They want these kind of things to be better known because they are trying to balance the negative image” of Russia created by media and politicians; they tend to “show there have been a lot of exchanges between Russia and America, a lot of positive interaction.”

One such interaction was the 1941-1945 Lend-Lease Program, under which the U.S. provided the UK and the Soviet Union with food, oil, provisions, vehicles and materials to help them in the fight against Nazi Germany. Another event that underlines the shared history of the U.S. and Russia is the end of the Civil War in the U.S. During the Civil War of 1861-1865, Russia was the power that openly supported the American North that was fighting for the abolition of slavery and, moreover, sent its fleet to New York harbor in 1863.

In addition, the meeting of Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe River on April 25, 2015, and the defeat of a common enemy - Nazi Germany - was the symbol of another wartime collaboration that included many more instances of mutual support and military collaboration in 1941-1945.

Russian Studies and American Studies: Tools of soft power?

Because the study of U.S.-Russia relations could a be a tool of reaching mutual understanding and improving mutual perceptions, there is a temptation to compare teaching the history of Russia or the U.S. with soft power. Indeed participating in different conferences and coming up with joint collaborative research or the collection of articles might be seen as the result of a soft power initiative, Whisenhunt and Stanford University political analyst Kathryn Stoner argue.

All this “can increase [to a certain] extent peer-to-peer dialogue,” said Stoner in an interview with Russia Direct during the ASEEES Convention. However, skeptics raise their eyebrows at the nature of the term “soft power,” because they see it in a negative light.

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For example, Kurilla says, “Soft power has a sort of negative connotation. It is a tool of international relations theory, but how it is used in political discourse is mostly in the Cold War confrontation logic.” After all, Russian politicians, including Putin, frequently claim that the U.S. uses its soft power against Russia.

Kurilla is reluctant to see the teaching of American Studies as a part of American soft power in Russia. “I don’t want to reduce our teaching to the logic of soft power and the Cold War confrontation, I don’t like this use of soft power as a term applying to education,” he said.

In contrast, Victoria Zhuravleva, a professor who teaches U.S.-Russia relations at the Russian State University for the Humanities, argues that academia should be more rigorous in promoting the study of U.S.-Russia relations as a sort of soft power tool. 

“Universities and research organizations need to expand the academic knowledge about each other in order to influence the foreign policy establishment and the media as well as to promote the pragmatic agenda of bilateral relations,” Zhuravleva told Russia DIrect. “Of course, Russian Studies and American Studies programs can be a soft power mechanism for better understanding of mutual motivations and intentions. The problem is bound up with the asymmetric role of academia in foreign policy making in Russia and in the United States. The state power in Russia doesn’t need both a multifaceted knowledge about the U.S and a serious expertise of U.S. foreign policy actions. At the same time, in the U.S. good academic and expert knowledge does not always translate into good policies.”