When the protests in Ukraine began to turn into a “crisis” with Russian involvement and started receiving primetime US news coverage, one of the things that struck me the most was how out of touch many of the “experts” on Russia seemed. I’m not really sure what qualifications one needs to be considered an area expert or a policy expert, but I have a BA in Russian and an MA in Central and Eastern European Studies (and I wrote my thesis on modern coalition politics in the Ukrainian parliament), plus Ukraine has always been a bit of a pet project for me, so I’d at least classify myself as a “knowledgeable person” when it comes to Central and Eastern Europe. So while to me, references to the “active KGB presence in the Ukraine” seem like glaring errors*, I’m pretty sure that 95% of the other viewers either glossed over them or, worse, potentially even accepted them as fact.
But why is there such a dearth of current experts on this region? Is this motivated by policy makers, who aren’t looking for analysis in this area, or is it an academic problem, with a lack of interest or exposure for incoming university students? In my undergraduate experience, I found that classmates did not casually study Russian the same way that they took Spanish or Italian to fulfil a language requirement, or how many studied Arabic or Chinese because they were trendy. Rather, Russian students tended to be there because they had a genuine interest in some combination of literature, culture, and politics that existed regardless of expected ease of language acquisition or impact on potential future earnings. And it was precisely a result of the classroom dynamic that developed due to this genuine interest which cause these classes to leave deeper impressions on the students.
A Google Ngram search of several areas of potential strategic importance to the United States shows a general decline in the frequency of terms like “Russia” and “Eastern Europe” while terms such as “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” increase. These reflect the policy shift of the United States that occurred after the hubbub immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union died down and America’s interest in the Middle East and the War on Terror in particular picked up. Unfortunately for many of the aspiring Central and Eastern European experts coming of age in the 21st century, this policy shift also reflects a shift in hiring of government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and other bodies that perform area analysis. Gone are the days when Russian and German speakers were in demand. Instead, the de rigueur languages are things like Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto, languages spoken in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Although the US might wish to move on to different issues for a different century, Russia refuses to go away. As the largest country in the world, with the 6th largest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and in possession of a third-term president who is very vocal and extremely defensive of Russia’s “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье), its post-Soviet sphere of influence, in some fairly aggressive ways, the international community can’t help but notice Russia. While Putin’s leadership style might not win any awards in the West, recent independent polls of Russians show that a majority still approve their president’s actions**. Rather than accept Putin’s administration of Russia, the US has continuously vilified him in the media as a “KGB thug”***, pigeon-holing him in this role. This, unfortunately, leaves little room for positive relations to develop between Russia and the US in the foreseeable future, despite Russia’s contributions in persuading Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons or creating openings for the US in Iran.
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 represented a shift for modern Russia, as its neighbour began to pull away and look towards the West for the 21st century. Russia perceived the US support of the protestors and new government and subsequent attempts to draw Ukraine into NATO (coupled with EU offers of association agreements in competition with Russia’s offers to join its Eurasian Customs Union) as efforts to impinge upon Russia’s sphere of influence. US proposals to build radar/anti-missile installations in Central Europe, nominally targeted at Iran but much closer to Russia, further inflamed relations between the two countries. Despite the proposed “reset” under the Obama administration, the anti-Putin rhetoric amongst US media and policymakers has continued. There are many demands on American foreign policy today, and one would not expect Russia to be its sole focus. Yet given Russia’s continued global relevance, especially in relation to US national security (given its proximity to countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran), the US cannot afford ignore it, particularly if it is interested in avoiding 19th century solutions to 21st century problems (as John Kerry described Putin’s belligerence in Crimea). It is therefore all the more important that US government agencies, NGOs, and media outlets continue to hire and cultivate Russia/Eurasia analysts, because failure to understand Russia in context will at best continue to lead to crises like the one occurring now in Crimea and at worst result in a hot war beneficial to no one.
*Aside from the obvious factual error – that the Russian KGB ceased to exist in 1991, Ukraine is referred to simply as “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”. I find it super-irritating when people bombastically proclaim “THE Ukraine”.