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Russia Experts See Thinning Ranks’ Effect on U.S. Policy Print E-mail

MARCH 6, 2014 WASHINGTON New York Times — “I have to do a TV broadcast now, can I call you back in maybe an hour?” Angela Stent, the director of the Russian studies department at Georgetown University, said when she picked up the phone. An hour later she apologized again. “I’m afraid I’ll have to call you back.”

For Ms. Stent and other professional Russia watchers, the phone has been ringing off the hook since Ukraine became a geopolitical focal point. “It’s kind of a reunion,” she said. “Everyone comes out of the woodwork.”

But while the control of Crimea by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has brought America’s Russia experts in from the cold, the news media spotlight has also showed important shifts in how American academics and policy makers think about Russia, not to mention the quality and quantity of the people doing the thinking. Among those experts, there is a belief that a dearth of talent in the field and ineffectual management from the White House have combined to create an unsophisticated and cartoonish view of a former superpower, and potential threat, that refuses to be relegated to the ash heap of history.

Michael A. McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia, said government expertise was less robust than it was decades ago.


“It’s a shorter bench,” said Michael A. McFaul, who returned from his post as the American ambassador in Moscow on Feb. 26, as the crisis unfolded. He said the present and future stars in the government did not make their careers in the Russia field, which long ago was eclipsed by the Middle East and Asia as the major draws of government and intelligence agency talent.

“The expertise with the government is not as robust as it was 20 or 30 years ago, and the same in the academy,” Mr. McFaul said.

The drop-off in talent is widely acknowledged. “You have a lot of people who are very old and a lot of people who are very young,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former economic adviser to Boris N. Yeltsin, a former president of Russia. Mr. Aslund, who had a dozen interviews on Ukraine on a single day this week, said people in the prime of their careers mostly abandoned Russia in the 1990s.

“It is certainly harder for the White House, State Department and intelligence community to find up-and-coming regional experts who are truly expert on that region,” said Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution and President Bill Clinton’s Russia point man. “It’s a market problem.”

Compounding the effects has been a lack of demand for Russian expertise at the very top of the foreign policy pyramid. Successive White Houses have sought to fit Russia into a new framework, both diplomatically and bureaucratically, as one of many priorities rather than the singular focus of American foreign policy. Since Mr. Clinton empowered Mr. Talbott, the portfolio has shrunk, and with it the number of aides with deep Russian experience, and real sway, in the White House.

As a result, Russia experts say, there has been less internal resistance to American presidents seeking to superimpose their notions on a large and complex nation of 140 million people led by a former K.G.B. operative with a zero-sum view of the world.

While President George W. Bush looked into Mr. Putin’s soul, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke his language and President Obama sought a so-called reset of relations, they all found themselves discouraged that Mr. Putin, and Russia, did not behave the way they thought they should.

Some experts lamented that instead of treating Mr. Putin as a partner on issues like the global economy and energy markets, the Obama administration has taken a more transactional approach. After Mr. Putin returned to the presidency following a stint as prime minister, dismissed new American arms control ideas and gave asylum to Edward J. Snowden, Mr. Obama essentially threw up his hands and declared a “pause” in the relationship. By that point, Mr. McFaul was considered about 8,000 miles too far from the Oval Office to affect decision making.

“When the Russians talk to the Obama administration, they want someone who they know speaks on behalf of the president personally,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment  for International Peace and a Russia expert formerly on the National Security Council staff. “Now that McFaul is gone, they are not sure they have that.”

That deficiency is not an accident of history.

In the midst of the Cold War, leading universities had whole departments dedicated to understanding the Soviet Union. The top national security question of the day drew the top minds, many of whom became fluent in Russian language and culture and graduated into the government or the spy agencies. But the breakup of the Soviet Union broke up those departments, and the national security enthusiasts melted away with the thawing of relations. Professors found themselves out of funding and eventually jobs.

Last year, the State Department ended a grant that Mr. McFaul benefited from as a young Russia scholar and that was specifically intended for Russian and Eurasian research. “That looks shortsighted, considering what we are looking at lately,” Mr. McFaul said.

Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University, said that if anyone had the power to save the program, it would have been Mr. McFaul. Mr. Cohen, who recently wrote an article titled “Distorting Russia” for The Nation, which is edited by his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, has embraced his role as dissenting villain in the current Russia debates, during which he consistently argues a perspective closer to that of Mr. Putin.

“This is what I tell bookers,” Mr. Cohen said, referring to those who book him for television appearances. “I will go on with somebody who disagrees with me 100 percent, but the moment he calls me a Putin apologist, I’m going to say” something that cannot be said on the air.

He does agree with his colleagues that the field is not what it once was. It is something the Russians have noticed, too.

During his time in Russia, Mr. McFaul said, American indifference bothered the Russians. “That asymmetry, that we still loomed large for them but for us they didn’t loom large,” he said. “I felt that a lot as ambassador.”

Now the Russia experts hope that a global crisis some believe is a result of American naïveté and unsophistication about Russia may serve as the catalyst for a new generation of Russia experts. Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was himself drawn to the subject as a 13-year-old watching President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 visit to the Soviet Union, said the Ukrainian crisis was big enough “to capture your imagination.”

If not, the United States may be increasingly caught off guard.

“When we’ve all retired, 10, 20 years down the road, I don’t know how many people will be left with this area of expertise,” said Ms. Stent of Georgetown University, who just published “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.” “And we can’t assume that our relationship with Russia won’t suddenly command a lot of attention. Because as we can see, it does.”

For now, she and her remaining colleagues continue to be on call.

Mr. Cohen, speaking on his home phone, excused himself to respond to one of the 30 requests a day he has received, this one a CNN booker for Anderson Cooper. “Utterly fantastic, thank you so much,” Mr. Cohen told her. “Do you have it written down there when the car is coming to get me?”

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When George Bernard Shaw visited New Zealand a reporter asked him his impression of the place and, after a pause, Shaw is said to have replied: "Altogether too many sheep".G.B. Shaw, 1934
Когда журналист спросил Бернарда Шоу о его впечатлениях о визите в Новую Зеландию, он ответил: "В общем, слишком много овец".Б.Шоу, 1934

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In 1808 and 1814, the first Russian encounters with the Maori took place at Cape Town and Sydney. Though the officers of the Diana and Suvorov found the Maoris from the Bay of Islands (Matara, Ruatara, Hongi Hika, and others) intellectually quick and very friendly, they could not think of them other than as recent and potential cannibals.
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