Kommersant Vlast: Fervent Advisors: Who in Washington ‘Gets’ Russia
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Alexandr Gabuev

Senior Fellow and Chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center.



e-mail: [email protected],
Postal address: 16, Bldg. 1, Tverskaya Str., Moscow 125009, Russia

The crisis in Russian-American relations is not only a result of conflicting interests in Ukraine, but also of a misunderstanding of the logic and intentions of the other side.  Vlast has investigated how America’s decision-making system regarding Russia is organized, and which expert resources influences Washington. 

“We Have Something to Thank the Kremlin for”

All of the problems stem from a poorly chosen verb.  In May 2012, Congress approved a budget for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013.  Since 1983, the U.S. State Department budget has included an article on the study of Eastern European and Post-Soviet states.  In 2012 (the services of diplomats cost the treasury $43.3 million that year), only one word was changed: instead of the verb “shall” appeared the verb “may.”  Since then, the State Department has not been legally required to finance research of the Post-Soviet space.  “It’s the classic bureaucratic story,” notes a source familiar with the topic. “Since currently, money ‘may’ be spent and not ‘shall’ be spent on the development of Russia experts, a process that yields unclear results, you can now invest in something quick and easily-understood – some kind of small project in Africa, for example.”  As a result, since 2013 the State Department has cut funding entirely for programs that have trained  generations of American Russia specialists.

The law on training Sovietologists and financing research on Warsaw Pact countries was passed during the Reagan Administration in 1983 – the same year Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and announced the Strategic Defense Initiative.  Even though Title XIII, as the program was called, ran the budget only $5 million per year, its strategic significance was no less than that of the well-known “Star Wars” project.  “Fact-based and veritable knowledge of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has great significance for the national security of the United States,” reads the law.  The training of specialists who “can work in or outside government” was declared a key national interest.  The two most important components of Title XIII were research grants for study of the Post-Soviet space awarded through open contest, and language internships.  Among the alumni of such programs are former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and thousands of American diplomats, members of the armed forces, and academics.  “The meaning of Title XIII cannot be emphasized enough.  It was something that attracted students and graduates to Russian studies.  You always knew that was a source of funding for your research,” notes Sam Charap, senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).  Russia specialists agitated against the dissolution of the program; their efforts include a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry written by several retired ambassadors.  However, the Fall 2013 State Department leadership was uncompromising – it decided not to allocate money to the study of a country that sunk the “reset” and harbors Edward Snowden.

The State Department only recalled the program once the Ukraine crisis broke out.  On the eve of the referendum in Crimea, The New York Times published a piece on the lamentable state of Russia studies in the United States, and the lack of experts who could understand the logic of the Kremlin’s actions and formulate an effective strategy.  Many then reminded the State Department of the funding cuts for Title XIII.  “Now, funding for Russian studies will almost certainly be restored – maybe even increased.  The study of Russia is a priority for the administration and a question of national security; now nobody has any doubts,” notes a high-ranking source of Vlast in the White House.  “Now we have something to thank the Kremlin for.”

“Like a Doctor Examines an Unruly and Unreasonable Patient”

John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, can be considered the founding father of American Russian Studies.  From 1809-1814, he served as the first ambassador of the United States to the Russian Empire, was officially accepted in court, and maintained friendly relations with Alexander I.  However, comprehensive research on Russia began only 150 years later thanks to Russianist George Kennan.  On February 22nd, 1946, Kennan, then Deputy U.S. Ambassador to Russia, sent Telegram no.501 to Washington.  In it, the diplomat disclosed the logic of the Soviet Union’s actions in the international arena, and explained foundations of a strategy that the United States could use in its battle again global Soviet influence.  The analysis made such a deep impression on the White House that copies of this “Long Telegram” were distributed to the entire cabinet and all American ambassadors.  Kennan became one of the architects of the West’s strategy during the Cold War years.

The recommendations of Kennan’s “Long Telegram” began with a thesis urging that the Soviet Union be “studied with the same decisiveness, impartiality, objectivity, and emotional literacy with which a doctor studies an unruly and unreasonable patient.”

“We must be sure,” wrote Kennan, “that our people are relatively well-informed of the real state of things in Russia.  The importance of this fact cannot be emphasized enough.  The mass media cannot do this alone. Primarily the government should take on this task.  There is nothing as frightening or dangerous as ignorance.”  Washington took this recommendation to heart and created the most powerful system for the study of the USSR in history – and for the unique science of Sovietology.

“The infrastructure for Soviet studies was built following the Second World War,” notes Thomas Graham, Managing Director of Kissinger Associates and Senior Director for Russia in the National Security Council under the Bush Administration.  In 1946, the Russian Institute was founded at Columbia University, endowed by the Rockefeller family.  It became the first center for study of Warsaw Pact nations (the center was renamed in honor of magnate and Lend Lease coordinator William Harriman in 1982, who made a large donation).  In 1948, the Center for Russian Studies (now the Davis Center) appeared at Harvard, funded by the Carnegie Corporation.  In the 40s and 50s, a powerful network of Soviet Studies centers were founded in American universities (some of the 17 strongest programs were located in middle America locations, like Kansas and Ohio).  Every year, thousands of students, Master’s degree and doctorate holders in Russian studies, graduated from universities.  Almost every high-ranking employee at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department had experience with USSR, as the Soviet Factor warranted consideration across the globe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which almost no American sovietologists predicted, dealt a powerful blow to the discipline, recollects Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment notes: “In 1991, the labor market for Russia specialists imploded in both the government and research structures.  We closed many research programs on Russia in the United States, cancelled classes in Russian language, reduced budgets for everything related to the Post-Soviet space.”  He lists the fate of Title VIII, run by the State Department, and the analogous program Title VI, run by the Department of Education, as examples.  “The trend was quite clear,” agrees Sam Charap, “Every year, programs on China and the Middle East were created in think tanks, while it was complicated to find money for Russia – but mind you, this was the situation before Crimea.”

In what condition did American Russian studies arrive at the Ukraine Crisis?

“Russian Studies Stopped being Lucrative”

America’s Russian Studies community that holds policy influence can be divided into five segments with respect to employment: academics, think tank employees, business analysts, White House, Pentagon, and State Department staff, and members of the intelligence community.  The careers of many Russianists passes through the ‘revolving door’: somebody can begin their career as a bureaucrat, then join a think tank, then return again to state service – often, to a higher-ranking position, or different division.  Changes in position are often linked with the political leanings of the expert. “When Democrats are in power, think tanks attract Republicans from the previous administration, and vise versa,” notes Henry Hale, professor at the Elliot School of International Relations at George Washington University.  Usually, migrations take place between think tanks, state service, and business.  Academics and intelligence experts change positions more rarely.

Many problems face Russia scholars in all work sectors. Experts polled by Vlast most frequently named funding cuts as the primary problem of the discipline.  Following the dissolution of Titles VIII and VI, the government has continued to reduce grants for projects on Russia.  The site grants.gov lists only eight state contracts relating to Russia for the fiscal year ending September 30th, 2014.  Private endowments like the McArthur Foundation or Carnegie Corporation of New York have funded independent programs like the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia) – a network that unites a number of academics, whose research on Russia and the Post-Soviet space can be use in the formulation of policy.

“Corporations sponsor pinpoint research of Russia, but prefer to run with their own expertise and the services of special companies,” comments Cliff Kupchan, director of the Eurasia Practice with Eurasia Group.  The lack of significant corporate interest towards Russia studies, according to experts, is explained by low turnover: even following Russia’s accession to the WTO in 2012, it amounted to only $40 billion, around 1% of America’s balance of trade (20th place in terms of America’s trade partners).  “In the Russian-American Business Council there are around 700 companies,” notes Tom Graham.  “That seems like a lot.  But how many companies are there in the United States?  And how many of them work in China?  The interest in incomparable.”

A rare example is the Russia Balance Sheet, a project completed in 2009 at CSIS by Andrew Kuchins.  He gathered a group of experts and published a modestly sized book that laid out the key problems facing modern Russia for an audience from business leaders to the President.  “At the beginning of the 2000’s, CSIS already had a popular project on China, so we launched an analogue for Russia.  We had eight sponsors: AIG, BP, Caterpillar, Chevron, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and Pepsi,” Kuchins told Vlast. “In truth, the number of sponsors for the China Balance Sheet was several times larger.  More recently, in 2012, as part of the project with funding from Alcoa, we ran a series of meetings with experts: Alexei Kudrin, former Vice Premier, Mikhail Dmitriev, former Head of the Center for Strategic Research, Lev Gudkov, Head of the Levada Center, Sergei Guriev, former Dean of the Russian School of Economics, and Fydor Lukyanov, Head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.  Finally, Kuchins utilized corporate sponsorship to organize invitation-only dinners for Russia experts and influential politicians.  “However, beginning in about 2011, interest from business began to fall when it became clear that the period of economic growth was ending, and that other members of BRICS were proving more dynamic,” sighed Kuchins.

State funding reduction is explained by the fact that in the 90′s, Americans stopped considering Russia an important state, admit the experts polled by Vlast.  “Interest fell, because Russia ceased to be the number one challenge,” notes Andrew Weiss, who served as director for Russia in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton.  “Russian studies,” sums up Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “stopped being lucrative.”

The economic situation was reflected in the quantity of research.  Almost everybody admits that there are now fewer positions relating to Russia in research centers and in government.  The education system also reflects this transformation.  According to the Department of Education of the United States, in 1971, 715 people received Masters Degrees and Doctorates in Russian studies.  By 2011, this number had fallen to only 340.  In individual years, this number has fallen below 300 – to 279 in 2006.  Nonetheless, there are positions for Russia specialists: all of the leading think tanks have Russia programs (the greatest concentrations of expertise are at Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment, and CSIS), and also at universities across the country.  The old sovietology centers have reduced their budgets and staff, but still exist.

Another problem has appeared along with a decreasing number of positions for Russia specialists: a generation gap.  “It’s hard to name experts who aren’t old like me,” sighs Graham.  “You can count representatives of the youth younger than forty or fifty on your fingers.”  As for rising stars, you can count them on only one hand.  Vlast’s sources in government and in nongovernmental research centers name three names: Sam Charap at IISS, Jeffrey Mankoff, Kuchins’ deputy at CSIS, and Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute.  These three have the best chances of becoming key players for Russia and the Post-Soviet space in future administrations.  Among scholars at universities, though with political links, our sources named professor Keith Darden at the American University in Washington (one of the leading experts in the United States on modern Ukraine) as well as professor Cory Welt at the Elliot School (he studies exclusively Central Asia).

American experts of the older generation are convinced that the generation gap is linked to a drop in the quality of the researchers themselves. The majority of sovietologists over fifty believe that as a result of funding cuts and the lack of prestige of Russia studies, the best young minds have taken up Middle East or China studies.  “The brightest students of the young generation that began studying international relations following September 11th have chosen the Arab World or China.  People who study Russia are now viewed as in the margins; lovers of the exotic,” laments Andrew Weiss.

Younger experts do not agree that the quality of their training and expertise lags behind that of older experts. “Judging by my students,” comments Henry Hale, “motivated and curious people want to study Russia, not market-chasers.”  Keith Darden adds that “in academics, the decreasing of budgets has definitely led to an improvement in quality as competition has picked up… the older generation did not have the opportunities to conduct field studies that we do now.”

“Talk of the death of Russian studies is nonsense,” further adds Charap. “My generation and those slightly older have had a ton of chances to spend time in Russia, study, research, and make contacts.  This was impossible during the Soviet Union.”  Kuchins agrees: “Long-term experience in-country, outside the walls of an embassy, is something to which visits on business, even often ones, cannot compare.  Having worked almost three years as director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, I saw things many things in Russia much deeper.”  Mankoff notes that the age of researchers is reflected in their research priorities.  For example, few young experts study problems of proliferation or arms control.  “This topic, which was key during the Cold War years, is no longer the most important.  It’s a strictly technical field with a lot of jargon, druids, and sacred texts – young experts are not interested.”

The opportunity to pick research priorities has led to a situation where knowledge of Russia is no longer comprehensive – there has been slackening in some fields.  According to experts and directors interviewed by Vlast, Americans understand issues of nuclear weapons and defense best – knowledge of the economy and Moscow’s contacts with foreign partners is also not bad.  Mankoff adds, however, “we know little about legislation, as nobody takes Russia’s legal system seriously.”  The most problematic area where America lacks any real knowledge is the alignment of Russia’s elite.”

“In the 2000’s,” notes Charap, “a view that Russian politics is Putin dominated.  Only a few sought a deeper explanation.”  One of the main research issues are lacking reliable sources among the elite, whose representatives are not eager to give interviews.

Quality of sources is another significant problem that plagues field expertise on Russia.  “The condition of contact bases,” comments Mankoff, “is a critical question.”

“You can find five to ten of the same people, or work on widening your circle of communication.  For those who speak Russian well, this is not a problem, but many speak poorly and communicate only with English speakers that have lived in the West and hold pro-Western views: this skews the picture a bit.”  Kupchan adds: “I respect my American colleagues, but what can they add that is new?  You hear the most interesting things from Russians.  You have to talk to everybody, or else your sources wind up being people you are close to.”  An expert circle of contacts depends on whether someone has worked in Russia, in what position, and when.  Not only think tank experts face this problem; so do government officials.  In Washington, rumor has it that no major businessmen or civil servants attended former Ambassador McFaul’s farewell party.  The most famous figure there was Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko Party [1].  “This explains the relative level of the embassy’s contacts under McFaul,” chucked a source.  McFaul did not answer any of Vlast’s questions.

“Moscow No Longer Requires Particular Specialization”

The state of expertise on Russia is determined not only by the quantity and quality of independent experts, but also by the level of knowledge in state institutions.  Here, the key players are the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies.  In contrast to academics and experts, government officials, depending on their level of access, can also work with classified material.  The amount of information available to government officials may be significantly higher than that accessible in civil society.  Universities and think tanks make practically all of their work available to the public. “If you’re judging by the last ten years, the level of knowledge about Russia within government is higher, but the number of competent Russia specialists is decreasing,” admits Weiss.  In truth, access to classified materials does not guarantee impressive expertise.  “Truthfully, in only 5-10% of cases, an analyst has to know for sure,” notes a source of Vlast close to one of America’s intelligence agencies. “Here, the quality of information plays the deciding role: if you don’t know the facts, no amount of brain power will help.  However, in the remaining 90% of cases, brains count, and many public experts are no worse than those in intelligence agencies.”

Formally, the main center of expertise on Russia among the civilian community is the State Department, to which the embassy and the analysts working with it are subordinate.  Unlike the documents of academics and experts, it was impossible to rank the level of analysis of the State Department until very recently.  However, one can now get an idea thanks to documents leaked by Wikileaks.  While only low-level documents from the Moscow Embassy were leaked (labeled classified), they paint an entirely clear picture.  The level of knowledge regarding Russia corresponds to that of a representative of the Russian middle class: with a wide worldview and experience in several regions of Russia (apart from the embassy in Moscow, there are consulates in Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok).  There were many topics covered in the cables, from foreign policy to healthcare reform to gender issues to the particularities of nuptials in Dagestan.

The State Department’s main problem its high turnover rate amongst employees.  On average, career diplomats change posts every three years.  Moscow no longer requires particular specialization.  A high-ranking official shared: “There are a lot of smart young people here, but to pick up and learn the language, they have about three or four years.  Next will be Afghanistan, China, or Europe – wherever they send them.”  “Among American diplomats, there are fewer Russia specialists who have built a career on Soviet and Russian studies,” notes Trenin.  The problem of rotation is characteristic not only of the embassy, but also of the Russia Desk in the State Department’s central apparatus.  Russia specialists occupy the senior positions, but among mid-ranking officials the level of expertise is significantly lower, notes a department official.  Nonetheless, fairly experienced Russia and Post-Soviet space specialists, such as Victoria Nuland [2], or her deputy Erika Rubin (former Deputy Ambassador to Russia 2008-2011), still direct American policy towards the region.

The Pentagon shows similar attitudes towards specialization.  The Office of the Secretary of Defense, and particularly the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, Evelyn Farkas, lead U.S. policy towards Russia.  Farkas does not speak Russian (her main languages are German and Hungarian).  “You have to understand that each department looks at Russia through the lens of the instruments it has,” comments Charap.  “For example, if you talk to the Pentagon, the issues that people are interested in are the deployment of troops, military aid, exercises.  It’s futile to talk to them about peace-making in Ukraine or ethnic reconciliation in Georgia.”

The intelligence services stand out among the state apparatus.  There are sixteen of them in the United States, and the Director of National Intelligence coordinates their work.  Speaking about their activities is not permitted.  “The policies of the Department of Defense prohibit us from publically discussing topics relating to intelligence,” wrote Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Furman, representative of the Pentagon.  “If you will be working on articles not relating to intelligence, we will be happy to help.”  However, several Vlast sources agreed to anonymously comment on the quality of intelligence work relating to Russia.

The majority of officials and experts believe intelligence services are one of few places in the state apparatus where quality expertise on Russia remains.  “They work very well.  The quality of their information, objectivity, and succinctness are at the highest level.  The specialists there are true professionals, which cannot be said of all parts of government,” notes a highly ranking source in the White House.  Another expert familiar with the work of intelligence services in relation to Russia shares that opinion: “You have a tendency to demonize the intelligence community, most of all the CIA.  That is based on ignorance.  In reality, the people there are educated and pragmatic, and do not hate Russia – they do not treat it that way at all; their perspective is like that of a scientist to the subject of his analysis.

The intelligence agencies that work on Russia differ in their degrees of openness.  Military intelligence, the CIA, and the NSA are the most closed-off.  The State Department’s intelligence service, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Goldberg, is somewhat more open.  INR staff live in a less limited regime than their colleagues in other agencies do.  For example, it is simpler for retired employees to speak with journalists and experts.  They do not need official permission to meet with non-official foreign citizens.  “While intelligence agencies frequently feud, there are moments of cooperation,” notes a Vlast source familiar with the work of the INR.  For example, when a Russian expert comes to Washington to present at a think tank, Langley staff can ask their colleagues at the Bureau to ask the Russian guest questions that interest them – they do not even have the right to travel to Washington from Virginia without permission.  The INR is one of few places in the State Department without rotation.  This is true for the Russia analysts there, of which there are about twenty.  They are all highly educated (some have doctorates from the best universities in the United States), and many have worked over ten years.  One of the experts adds, “what the spooks know, they know well and in great detail.  Their one drawback is that they are not allowed to travel to Russia.  And that leaves its mark.”

An important characteristic of the intelligence services is that they cannot make recommendations.  “Between decision-makers and intelligence is a legally prescribed Great Wall,” explains Charap.  “The task of intelligence is to analyze information, period.  As much as they would like to offer solutions, they cannot.”  A former official with the National Security Council confirms this.  “At meetings that I attended, as soon as discussion came to possible actions regarding Russia, representative of intelligence fell quiet and did not open their mouths unless asked.

“Policy is not Bad because People Lack Information”

Overall, Vlast’s sources agree that the pool of Russia experts in Washington is not as bad as one would like to think, and as some Russia specialists attempt to portray.  Nonetheless, almost all of the experts and even some highly ranked officials are dissatisfied by the White House’s policy towards Russia.  What is going on?

“The policy is objectively bad,” notes Rojansky. “Since there is a crisis in relations which every step is exacerbating, and we cannot get what we want, we are doing something wrong.  But that does not mean that the experts are bad.  Good expertise does not necessarily transform into good policy. It’s just that our decision making system has fallen apart – it’s gotten worse.”

The decision-making system in the United States is predicated on checks and balances.  Policies toward Russia in no way differ from discussions over the deficit ceiling, which in 2013 led to a government shutdown.  “Policy is not bad because people lack information.  You have to understand the limits facing politicians.  An expert can be guided by ideas of how to best solve a problem.  But if you are sitting in the White House and are making decisions, a ton of options immediately piles up for various reasons: due to commitments to allies, previous actions, the opinion of Congress, the position of the Press,” explains Charap.  “When they enacted sanctions against Russia, I imaged that they would have such a reaction.”

A number of Vlast’s sources described the situation the same way.  President Barack Obama personally makes all of the key decisions after meetings of his cabinet.  In the case of Russia, this was Secretary of State John Kerry, chief of the Pentagon Chuck Hagel, and the President’s national security assistant Susan Rise and her influential deputy Ben Rhodes (a long time Obama ally and his speechwriter), as well as other secretaries.  “The fact that such high level politicians have not studied Russia specifically in a long time is an important problem,” notes a high-ranking White House source.  Russia came up in the context of Libya and Syria, but nobody is an expert on the country.”  On the deputy level, the only one who prepares solutions for the president is Deputy Secretary of State William Burns,” adds Weiss. “This is fortunate.”

The only professional Russian specialist who took part in discussions was Celeste Wallander, who replaced Michael McFaul as Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council following his departure for Moscow.  Wallander is the key Russia expert in the administration, and she specifically handles the process of interagency coordination leading to White House discussions, controls incoming information, and conducts briefings for the President, explaining to him the fundamentals regarding Russia.  McFaul remains influential, according to one of Vlast’s sources, but less so since his return to California from Washington. Prior to working at the Pentagon, Wallander was an academic.  She worked at CSIS, taught at Havard and American University, founded PONARS, and still has an eye for experts in the network.   “If you’re going to talk about the influence of experts on decision making,” comments Charap (who worked as a research assistant for Wallander at CSIS; they remain close), “it is largely a question of personal connections.  In Washington, it is important not only what you know, but who you know.”

“The experts with connections to politicians are influential,” explains Graham.  “At present, it’s people whose opinion Celeste listens to, a circle of people she can call and consult, or can present to the President.”  According to a high-ranking White House sources, while Wallander is friendly with all of the known figures in Russia studies: Henry Hale, Michael McFaul, Sam Charap, Steven Pifer at Brookings, Eugene Rumer at the Carnegie Endowment, Alex Cooley and Tim Fry at Columbia University, Tim Colton at Harvard, Steven Henson, the Head of the Association of American Slavists, Timothy Snyder at Yale, and Steven Sestanovich at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to a high-ranking White House official, another problem is that situations develop incredibly quickly – the situation in Ukraine required immediate response, without the opportunity to develop a long term strategy.  Wallander has to think about tactics and strategy.  She definitely has no time for the latter.  Academics at think tanks can think in the long run, but they also have limits.  Some things can be said only at a closed meetings with the President, but there are no such meetings now – we have to act; there is no time to think.  “Some things cannot be said nor written.  For example, many like the idea of the federalization of Ukraine: why should we, the United States, the model of federalism, be against it?  But since Lavrov said it, supporting the idea in public is not allowed until we hit a dead end – you’ll sound like a nut job, or who knows, even an agent of Gazprom’s influence,” adds an expert.

As a result, in conditions of serious pressure from the media and from his party members in states with a large Ukrainian diaspora (for example, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut), Barak Obama must make increasingly ad-hoc decisions the results of which are far from thoroughly thought through.

[1] Yabloko is a liberal party that was most popular in the 90s.  It currently has no representatives in the Duma.

[2] See Kommersant Vlast’s piece, Euro-renovators, on Nuland: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2416384

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