The FBI probe into Rossotrudnichestvo endangers U.S. and Russian public diplomacy initiatives and may create another credibility gap between the two countries.


The FBI's Washington Field Office. Photo: Reuters

The recent FBI probe into the activities of Russia's Federal Agency for the CIS and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) in the United States is a good reason to talk again about Russia's new public diplomacy strategy and its potential to develop the next generation of leaders.

Without even speculating whether or not Zaytsev was involved in Russia's foreign intelligence-gathering activities, the fact that he was suspected of such activities endangers the future of Russian and U.S. projects in public diplomacy. Although the term “public diplomacy” was originally coined as a euphemism for propaganda, now it is most closely associated with the word "trust." Trust is something currently missing in the relations between our two countries and what public diplomacy is supposed to achieve.

Recent attempts to use public diplomacy to promote Russia's soft power, including exchange trips organized and paid for by Rossotrudnichestvo, should be viewed, of course, as Russia's steps to improve relations with the U.S. and build ties on a personal level. After all, in addition to meeting their peers, participants meet top-level politicians and scholars in Moscow. That is an effort to open up Russia for them and make it more transparent to foreigners. Nothing could inflict greater damage on that project than suspicions of espionage.

After all, deep KGB involvement ruined exchange projects for Americans coming to Russia during the Cold War era. From this perspective, current concerns about what Russia is doing now may be a negative legacy of a bygone era.

Moscow's attitude towards America’s public diplomacy and international development projects within Russia is yet another source of mistrust. There are people in Russia's leadership who doubt the true reasons behind USAID and State Department programs in Russia (USAID was eventually closed in Russia). It has most certainly led to the same suspicions in the United States. Russia's lack of clear and unequivocal differentiation in its policy statements and appointments between intelligence and public diplomacy also did not help here.

There are two human capital aspects that are important here. First, there is a huge gap in public diplomacy training. There are few experts in the field in academia and even fewer among foreign policy practitioners in Russia. Contrast this to the United States, where public diplomacy has been an official track in the Foreign Service since 1999 and dozens of prestigious universities offer courses in the subject. Public diplomacy specialization has been taught in international relations graduate programs for decades now.

Second, as one of the Moscow exchange program participants interviewed by Mother Jones mentioned, there seems to be no real strategy behind the selection process - out of 50 candidates whom he referred, not a single was denied. The group was truly diverse and it was hard to understand which selection criteria were applied. This may well be a corollary of the first problem, i.e. a clear dearth of people with the right set of skills, knowledge, and experience in public diplomacy.

One can only hope that this incident won't put an end to the spark of interest in public diplomacy and soft power among Russia's decision-makers. It is important to see the actions of the FBI as pure counterintelligence, not "counter-public diplomacy," which the U.S. itself embraces and differentiates clearly from its spying activities.

State-sponsored educational exchanges are a great tool to build long-term trust among future leaders and such trust may help avoid situations like the one we are currently observing. What Russia needs is an increase in the number of such programs run by specialists in academic and cultural exchanges, education, and international cooperation. These specialists might come from the private sector and, ideally, they would also have formal international training (including training at such schools as Fletcher, SFS, SAIS etc.). This will help develop a professional public diplomacy talent pool over time.

The present time is, in fact, a window of opportunity for coordinating broader public diplomacy efforts. There is an ongoing discussion in Russia of how additional funds could be given to Rossotrudnichestvo to expand public diplomacy and international development programs.

Fostering international exchanges is an important part of that discussion, as was demonstrated in Russia Direct's recent report on Russian soft power. The two countries just need to establish an informal understanding that public diplomacy is an investment in the future that is clearly demarcated from other aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship, especially those that pertain to potentially unfriendly activities.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.