Russia Direct and the U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England conducted a roundtable discussion on the state of Russian Studies in the U.S. to find out the impact of these programs on foreign policy decision-making in Washington.

The period of the Cold War was a “golden age” of Russian Studies in the U.S., when the Kremlin was seen as the main enemy. Photo: RIA Novosti

Amidst the debates about the future of U.S.-Russia relations within the context of the American presidential campaign, Russia Direct and the U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England held a roundtable event, “Russia Expertise in American Foreign Policy: The Role of Russian Studies,” in Boston on May 12. The event brought together a number of high-profile experts to discuss the impact of America’s Russian Studies programs on foreign policy decision-making within Washington.

Top U.S. officials admit that Washington lacks experts on Russia and systematically fails to anticipate the motives of the Kremlin, as The Washington Post argued in late December 2015. One reason why politicians and pundits are puzzled about Russia’s intentions could be that today’s Russian Studies expertise leaves much to be desired.

The period of the Cold War was a “golden age” of Russian Studies in the U.S., when the Kremlin was seen as the main enemy and financial resources were generously allocated for the study of the Soviet Union. However, as funding has dried up, previous academic tools that were well-suited for the study of the Soviet Union are now ill-suited for modern Russia, according to Nicolai Petro, professor at the University of Rhode Island, who participated in the Russia Direct roundtable.

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“We essentially had to rediscover components of Russian history, politics and their relevance to the present. The continuity exists in culture, in the classic Russian culture, but with respect to the study of Russian politics, Russian political parties, party ideologies and social movements, we were in the infancy,” he said.

Elizabeth Wood, a professor of Russian and Soviet History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who also participated in the roundtable, agrees. The U.S. needs to understand better Russia’s imperial and Soviet past, each of which had its own historic agenda, says Wood. By understanding this past, it would be easier to understand Russia’s current foreign policy moves and politics, she added.

Wood highlights that some decisions taken by the Kremlin, including Crimea’s incorporation, were “masked with protective rhetoric” and “a heroic narrative.” At the same time, she admits that attempts to understand Russia should not come without effective criticism.

To love Russia is to criticize it, she argues, echoing the approach of the well-known American politician and founder of the famous Fulbright exchange program, William Fulbright. “The citizen who criticizes his country is paying it an implied tribute,” he said once.

Pictured (left-right): Daniel Satinsky, the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England; Sheila M. Puffer, Northeastern University in Boston; Nicolai N. Petro, the University of Rhode Island; Elizabeth Wood, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ekaterina Zabrovskaya, Russia Direct. Photo: Anna Sergeeva

However, it might be not only from the lack of expertise in the White House, but also from the fact that there are few politicians who are ready to listen to this expertise and reflect on it. It is not a matter of lack of expertise. It is a matter of a lack of people who want to listen to this expertise, said Petro.

“The people in Washington are not so much sophisticated,” Petro argues, pointing out that politicians are less interested in academic, in-depth analysis on Russia and prefer to rely on media narratives or think tank reports.

While the academic research tends to be very abstract, the analysis from think tanks is more specific and is seen as a useful tool for decision-making. At the same time, the problem is that political science always seeks to narrow the agenda and oversimplify, Petro said.

Politicians and some pundits tend to see Russia as an enemy or a friend, as indicated by the debates over Russia’s future after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were two camps: those who argued that Russia failed to democratize itself and those who took a wait-and–see approach, believing that Russian democracy was developing step-by-step.

This, in turn, led to the black-and-white views of Russia and relegated the interdisciplinary or holistic approach to something irrelevant. Yet, this is what the countries need to understand each other, focusing both on history and the current period. Supporting student exchange programs can also alleviate the challenge and contribute to improving Russian Studies programs in the U.S., most speakers agreed.

Politics vs. academia

Today, however, it is the U.S. government that sets the tone of debate on Russia within the country. And a new government can change the direction of the discussion at any moment. However, the speakers of the roundtable don’t believe that the next U.S. president will bring much change to the dynamics of U.S.-Russia relations. Instead, domestic factors and external threats will inevitably influence the relationship.

One major problem that has an impact on Russian Studies and U.S.-Russia relations in general is the Ukrainian crisis, according to Petro. In fact, it revealed the dormant contradictions between the two countries and accelerated their schism. At the same time, it shed light on Russia’s foreign policy characteristics, with its concern over the unipolar dominance of the U.S., NATO expansion and, in general, Western institutions, which Moscow sees as anti-Russian in their nature.

No wonder, then, that anti-Americanism has become commonplace since the Ukrainian crisis, which also was the result of Russia’s assertive foreign policy. However, it doesn’t mean that Russia is anti-American as long as one talks about the American nation. Only when the U.S started to identify itself as an exceptional power did Russia’s foreign policy become “inherently anti-American,” said Petro.

Russia’s activities in Ukraine and Syria came as surprise because of the lack of understanding of Russia, according to another participant of the discussion, Daniel Satinsky, president of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England.

There shouldn’t be a great deal of surprise about Russia’s foreign policy for those who carefully followed Russia’s concerns over the threat of global terrorism and the implications of the Arab Spring, as well as disturbances in the post-Soviet space. In reality, Russia’s policy was straightforward, consistent and explicit, said Satinsky.

Likewise, another participant of the roundtable, Sheila Puffer, professor at Northeastern University and a fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, is not surprised by Russia’s moves abroad. She looks at the problem from an economic and business perspective. Putin’s aspiration to bring stability to Russia as well as his explicit course to re-nationalize many key industries reveals his ambition to boost his country’s global political heft.

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According to Satinsky, the problem is that the West seems to be reluctant to see Russia as a country with its own national interests – “on its own terms.” In contrast, it is seen as an adversary, which affects Russian Studies programs in the U.S. and how this expertise is disseminated.

To buttress his statement, Satinsky gives an example, quoting a top U.S. military official and four-star general, Philip Breedlove, who has described Russia as an “existential threat” for the U.S. The problem of teaching Russian Studies in the U.S. is aggravated by the fact that Russia’s image is negative in the U.S.  By default, everything that Russia does is perceived in a very unfavorable way, be it Crimea’s incorporation or its Syrian campaign.

Any attempts to understand Russia’s motives were not “acceptable to discuss” in the mainstream media, said Satinsky. Those who call for a better understanding of Russia are labeled as “dupes” of Russian propaganda.

“We are still facing those limitations, which, maybe, go back to the Cold War [stereotypes]. Media finds those experts, who support these stereotypes,” he said.

Meanwhile, 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. However, she points out that, “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,” she told Russia Direct. “At the same time, in the U.S., good academic and expert knowledge does not always translate into good policies.”

Carnegie Moscow Center’s Director Dmitri Trenin echoes her view. According to him, Russia’s political elites should “be far more sophisticated” and highly educated about the U.S.  According to him, this problem is aggravated by the fact that the Kremlin believes that it understands the U.S. well and, moreover, doesn’t “trust the expertise that comes outside the system,” either from academics or think tanks.

Watch Russia Direct's event: "Russia Expertise in American Foreign Policy: The Role of Russian Studies"