The U.S.-Russia relationship is facing another setback as Russia has turned off the Voice of America and the American Councils, a U.S. education NGO, has been ordered to suspend its activity in Russia.

U.S.-Russia political face-off hits media and education. Photo: AP / RIA Novosti

Against the backdrop of the standoff over Ukraine and the rapidly deteriorating level of trust between the U.S. and Russia, both sides are now making moves to curtail the level of bilateral collaboration at all levels. The latest victims of the standoff appear to be government-funded media and educational organizations from the U.S. working in Russia.

Just consider some of the recent moves from the Russian and American authorities.

Russia’s refusal to renew the AM broadcasting license for the U.S. radio station Voice of America (VOA), funded by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is not just another sign of the state reshaping Russia’s media landscape. It also points out the plight of U.S.-Russia relations.

James Brooke, the former chief of the Voice of America bureau in Russia and an American journalist working in Cambodia, sees the shutting down of Voice of America’s AM frequency in Moscow as symbolic.

“During my nearly four years as the VOA bureau chief in Moscow, I could never get it on my radio,” he said. “I was always surprised when I ran into someone in Moscow who had heard me on the air.”

Brooke warns against a tough response by the U.S. Congress. According to him, it might find a way to shut down the RT news bureaus in the United States.

“That is never said, but it is understood,” he said. “While there may be hotheads in Moscow calling for the closing of the offices, the power people understand the equation. If they do not understand that, they are setting themselves up for a rude surprise.”

A new challenge for American Councils

It’s the same case with American Councils, a U.S. education NGO that deals with cultural and academic exchange that is now facing problems with its registration. As The Moscow Times, a Russian media outlet targeting an English-speaking audience, reports, Russia’s Justice Ministry has ordered the Russian branch of American Councils to suspend its operations. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in controversial reaction from experts and journalists.

American Councils has been implementing different educational exchange programs for 40 years and it has always followed the rules and Russia’s regulations, according Carter Johnson, director of the American Councils for International Education in Russia.

“We respect the position of the Ministry of Justice,” he told Russia Direct. “As soon as we learned of the Ministry's request for American Councils to make changes to our organizational structure in Russia, we began formulating an action plan to make all necessary changes.”

American Councils will apply for re-registration with a structure and set of activities that comply with the advice and counsel it has received.

“We will do everything in our power to re-register and continue our educational programming for the mutual benefit of Russians and Americans,” Johnson said.

For U.S.-Russia relations, all this looks like another ill omen, especially when you consider the 2012 closure of USAID programs and Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents.”

American Councils occupies a long-standing position in the international education communities, both in the U.S. and in Russia, organizing respected programs of student and researcher mobility and bilateral academic cooperation.

“This year alone, 600 U.S. students and scholars are studying Russian language and culture at leading institutions across Russia along with other areas of academic interest, while approximately twice that number of Russian students and young professionals are perfecting their English, studying at U.S. institutions, or developing professional networks in the U.S. on American Councils-administered programs,” American Councils President, Dr. Dan E. Davidson, who is an elected member of the Russian Academy of Education, told Russia Direct.

“These respected bilateral programs, which reach out to talented individuals in all parts of Russia and the U.S. without regard to their financial or social status, have done much over the years to improve mutual understanding and strengthen ties between ordinary Russians and Americans,” he said.

At the same time, recent moves from the U.S. government also indicate that it is losing interest in constructive dialogue with Russia, notwithstanding former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s belief that U.S.-Russia relations and Russia’s exposure to the world should be “nurtured through educational exchanges, peer-to-peer dialogues."

A $30 million funding cut for the Fulbright Program and the closure of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute, an academic outlet that fostered U.S.-Russia academic exchange and mutual understanding, seems to have come at the exact moment when U.S.-Russia relations are seeing a significant decline.

Anti-americanism vs. russophobia 


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo: RIA Novosti

And this political standoff is aggravated by recent public opinion polls showing a growth of anti-Americanism in Russia and anti-Russian sentiments in the U.S.

According to the latest Gallup poll, the number of Americans who view Russia as an enemy increased from 60 percent this February to 68 percent in late March. Meanwhile, the number of those who view Russia favorably decreased from 34 to 26 percent.   

At the same time, Russia’s Levada Center poll, published in late March, says that anti-Americanism in Russia is growing amidst the recent events in Ukraine. For example, the number of Russians who view the U.S. unfavorably jumped from 44 to 61 percent since January. At the same time, the number of those who still regard the U.S. as a friend dropped from 43 to 26 percent.

Victoria Zhuravleva, a Kennan Institute alumna and a professor of American history at the Russian State University for the Humanities, argues that closure or funding cuts in American organizations and funds in Russia is a result of the U.S. losing interest in Russia.

According to her, this lack of interest became a looming trend after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “when the U.S. didn’t see Russia as a serious international player” and stopped a thorough study of Russia.    

“As a result, we lost the whole generation of American academics studying Russia who might have become highly-qualified experts and helped the Obama administration to shape a more balanced policy toward Russia, based on multifaceted approaches and understanding post-Soviet Russia, its authorities, society, and foreign policy,” she told Russia Direct.

Indeed, an increasing number of U.S. and Russian experts and commentators have expressed concern about the decline in the number of Americans who are qualified as experts on Russia and Eurasia, as well as the view that American studies in Russia and Russian studies in America have failed to keep pace with the rapid changes that have taken place since the end of the Cold War in both countries.

“The 21st century requires a new set of competencies from our citizenry at all levels: Ordinary citizens who understand the world much better than the present generation does, professionals in all sectors who can engage counterparts and collaborate across borders, and a cadre of high-level experts on the U.S. and on Russia who are capable of comprehending the complex underlying forces that inform decision-making at all levels in the U.S. and in Russia,” Davidson said.

“Cutting off exchange contacts for students and early-career professionals can only result in a further decline in a relationship that remains as crucial for the world today as it was in the past century,” he warns. 

Davidson stressed the need for both governments to do everything possible to protect educational and academic research programs from the ebb and flow of political relations between the governments.

"American Councils is not empowered to speak on behalf of the U.S. government, but it would be wrong to reduce the U.S.-Russia relationship in 2014 to the specific set of disagreements that currently exist between the two governments,” Davidson said. “This is a time when our peoples should increase dialog and exchange of ideas regarding both shared interests and common challenges, rather than decrease them."

Zhuravleva is concerned with the fact that many fields of U.S.-Russia collaboration are increasingly shrinking, pointing out the lack of economic ties between countries.

“Russia is not an important economic partner of the U.S. unlike China. That’s why Americans can turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and authoritarianism [in China],” she said.

As a result of the Ukraine crisis, the rise in anti-American propaganda in Russia has caused some additional problems for U.S. organizations. This is because most Russia state media have tried to find links between Russia’s liberal opposition and the “subversive activity” of the U.S. Department of State, Zhuravleva explains. 

“Kiev’s Maidan will be used by Russian authorities and Putin, particularly, as a precedent,” she warns. “It’s very convenient to blame Washington for all domestic problems and flaws in foreign policy. Especially, it’s very convenient amidst anti-American hysteria.”

Zhuravleva is concerned with such tenacity and rigor in tightening the screws. According to her, there will be an increase in control over the activity of American organizations and media, and there will be additional requirements to their registration because all these organizations can be potentially included in the list of “foreign agents.”

Likewise, Brooke is concerned with current trends in U.S.-Russia relations. He sees the Kremlin’s recent moves as an attempt to “create a phony war-time siege mentality, where the less educated 50 percent feel the desire/need to rally around” the national leader.

“President Putin is a Soviet man, and unfortunately, he is trying to drag Russia back into a space where he is familiar. He has worked overtime to make an enemy out of the U.S.,” said Brooke.“Many Americans see that Kremlin policymaking has been taken over by very reactionary people, whose xenophobia is not widely shared by the Russian public. On one level, the Russian elite could not care less about grants and scholarships offered by the American Councils today or the British Councils five years ago. The elite can pay for their children’s American and British universities, the Councils serve Russia’s middle class and hence, are seen as expendable.”

Zhuravleva seems to echo Brooke’s view. “The question is whether the U.S. – regardless of obstacles from Russian authorities – is ready to work in Russia and save the presence of such organizations such as American Councils that have played a significant role in maintaining humanitarian collaboration,” she asks. “Hopefully, that ‘soft power’ will still be influential enough to counterbalance ‘hard power’ in determining the agenda of U.S.-Russia relations. This is the key requirement for success.”

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 13, 2014 to include commentary from comments from American Councils' officials Dr. Dan E. Davidson and Carter Johnson.