Why you should care
Because Russia is back — but many of our experts in the U.S. are not.
Speaking rather quickly, his face flush, Donald Trump recently gushed on national television about his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s fawned over the former KGB strongman before, even promising to oppose United Nations sanctions and recognize the annexation of Crimea. But Trump is far from the only one eyeing Mother Russia.
For many others, though, a newfound flirtation is less about admiration — and more about trying to understand the Russian Federation’s geopolitical intentions and its surge of aggression. In Rhode Island, the U.S. Naval War College has launched the Russia Maritime Studies Institute, created partially “in response to a resurgent Russian military that has enabled Moscow to assert itself in Ukraine.” Meanwhile, undergrad interest in Russian courses is on the rise, especially in feeder schools for the American intelligence community. Georgetown University, for one, has added programs over the past two years, and enrollment in one Russian foreign policy class has increased by at least a third. The stakes are high, says Angela Stent, who served as an adviser on Russia to both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and is now director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. “We’re not in a Cold War,” she adds, “but we’re certainly in a Cold War 2.0.”
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2013
The shift follows decades of relative indifference from the West, which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a world power. Slavic departments suffered severe cuts through the turn of the century, the Berlin Wall came down and the aftermath of 9/11 combined with the economic ascent of China pushed the next generation of global affairs students toward Arabic and Chinese studies instead. At the same time, fewer students went on to earn graduate degrees focused on Russia. During the height of the Ukraine crisis and Crimea takeover in 2014, federal lawmakers stopped funding Title VIII, the program that supported much of the postgrad research and language training in Eastern Europe.
Now, the absence of that lost generation is being felt as administrators scramble to add courses with professors who are in-the-know about Russia. “Universities are very faddish,” says Peter Rollberg, director of the graduate program in European and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. “To rebuild a field takes years.” Indeed, the number of people who can give qualified perspective is near its lowest since the end of World War II, experts say. This poses “a real problem,” Rollberg says, for those trying to inform the public and lawmakers about the real and not-so-real risks of Russian subterfuge — such as, say, alleged email hacks or election rigging.
In some ways, this process of readjusting priorities is an ongoing game. Studies of Islam and the Middle East languished, too, before the twin towers fell. Yet the limelight of the moment does offer opportunities. Those who rise to the occasion have an inviting pulpit, with cable news outlets desperate for talking heads to make sense of everything from the cultural roots of dissonant groups like Pussy Riot to the strategic rationale of posturing by Putin in Syria. Romantic treatment in Hollywood (thanks, The Americans!) has only helped build up interest in Russia, even if the intelligence work itself is more often a desk job, where the abilities to dig up research and write effectively are key, writes Matthew Burton, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst.
Even if Russia doesn’t remain the prettiest girl at the global affairs ball, it will continue to be one of the most intriguing players, especially after it joined a new partnership with the United States in September to reduce violence in Syria. That relationship could become even more interesting should Trump win in November. Putin recently told reporters that Russia would “view with sympathy those who publicly state that it is necessary to build a relationship with Russia” — his clearest nod to Trump’s advances yet. With little foreign policy credentials of his own, Trump has campaigned on the promise that he will rely on “the best” advisers to avoid getting played by world leaders like Putin. Forget asking who these advisers are — ask whether they even exist after years of Russian inattention. “When the next crisis arises,” Stent asks, “who will be well enough trained to deal with it?”