Growing the next generation of Russia experts

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The Pentagon's newest reassessment that Russia is a top national security threat comes on the heels of recent public discussions on the shortage of Russia experts in the U.S. government and the decline in funding for Russian studies. As a scholar approaching middle age who often finds herself as the youngest face on Russia and Eurasia-focused panels, I have not been surprised by either revelation, which unfortunately have only been brought to attention by the current crisis of relations between Moscow and the West. The dwindling interest in Russia has long been in the making and will not be resolved in the short-term, as it takes decades, not years, to prepare regional experts.

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The decline in ranks and funding for regionally focused scholarship spells a deeper problem because the academic and think-tank community is a supplier of human capital to Washington's foreign policy and national security apparatus. Thus any decline in scholarship reinforces a decline in policy expertise and will constrain Washington's future capacity to formulate and lead a long-term strategy vis-a-vis Russia, Europe, Eurasia, NATO and beyond.

The reasons for the current state are multiple. The end of the Cold War and the perceived triumph of democracy and capitalism marked a decline of interest in Russia both in Washington and the scholarly community. NATO and EU expansion to Eastern Europe since the 1990s seemed to reinforce optimism, while 9/11 and the subsequent global war on terror focused attentions on the Middle East.

As a result, funding from government and private foundations for language training and regional scholarship sharply declined. For instance, since the late 1990s, RAND Corp., the Rockefeller Foundation, and most recently the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation all ended their programs for building post-Soviet and Russian expertise. The numbers of graduates in Russian language or literature declined by more than half in the U.S. from 1971 to 2011. Similarly, in the United Kingdom on the other side of the Atlantic, although the government provided grants for area studies in the 2000s when I was completing my doctoral studies at the University of Oxford, this funding was not renewed as of late.

As a result, the growth of a new Western generation of Russia experts was stunted while former Sovietologists of the Cold War era were increasingly entering retirement. This inhibited the development of studies on the newly emerged independent states of the former Soviet Union and particularly their relations Moscow.

The current predicament is also related to broader trends in the American school of political science and international relations. Since the 1960s, American academia began to shift its attention to more "scientific" analyses of inter-state relations. This approach favored theoretical debates, statistical modeling and quantification of different variables rather than qualitative analysis based on regional expertise that necessitates language skills and in-depth cultural and historical knowledge of specific countries.

As a result, the system was more conducive to producing international relations generalists who, at least in theory, should have been equally adept at analyzing Russia, Afghanistan or China. And though a number of excellent scholars of Russia emerged over the last 25 years, overall, the academic trends thinned the ranks of regional experts. This was equally felt both in relation to the Middle East after 9/11 and to Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

Remedying the thinning ranks of Russia experts will require reassessment in both the ivory towers of academia and in the policy chambers of Washington. From the perspective of the scholar, the expertise required to inform national security or foreign policy is not gained over the course of years, but rather over the course of decades, and depends on a number of prerequisites.

Scholarships for graduate and Ph.D. studies are imperative as the academic field is increasingly underpaid and posts of tenured professorship are ever more rare. Support for research support, language training (in not just Russian, but also the other languages of Eurasia) and a deep immersion in the region's culture and history are necessary to grow regional experts. Experience in government institutions is also invaluable as I found from my service as an adviser to the Lithuanian foreign minister and even as an undergraduate at Columbia University through a summer fellowship in the Georgian president's office.

Today, however, the study of Russia poses additional problems. There are increasing barriers for foreigners to work or do research in the country as the Kremlin constrains the work of nongovernmental organizations and academic programs, sometimes even calling them "foreign agents." Scholars often have little choice but to attend Kremlin-sponsored events such as the Valdai Club so they can at least have some dialogue and contact with their Russian counterparts. In light of these circumstances, additional support from government and private foundations for the study of Russia and the post-Soviet states, rather than funding cuts, are necessary.

Without long-term investment in building and maintaining expertise in countries like Russia, the United States' foreign policy risks becoming reactive to external events. Already, Crimea's annexation and the rising pressure on the Baltic States have largely taken Washington and the European capitals by surprise. The rapid development of global affairs makes it difficult to sustain even reactive policies over extended periods of time. This gap in long-term strategic thinking and vision could be filled by the academic and think-tank community, but only if they are likewise nurtured and supported long-term.

Grigas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Truman National Security Fellow and author of "Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire" (Yale University Press, 2016). A discussion of the book will be held tomorrow, March 9, at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Details are available here.

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