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Interview: Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Deana Arsenian on U.S. – Russia relations, and making scholarly expertise more accessible

- March 11, 2015
Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures as he meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 2, 2015 in Geneva. The meeting came amid continuing tensions over Ukraine and the U.S. calls for a full probe into the murder of a prominent opposition figure in Moscow. (Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images)

A key goal of The Monkey Cage is to make political science research accessible to wider audiences, and one of my primary research areas is in post-communist politics.  Naturally, then, I have been quite interested in ongoing efforts by Carnegie Corporation of New York to provide a forum designed to spread insight from scholars regarding current U.S.-Russia relations.  Deana Arsenian, vice president of the International Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York, who oversees the Corporation’s work concerning Russia and Eurasia, was kind enough to answer some questions about the forum, its goals, and what’s she learned from it on the subject of U.S.-Russian relations.

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Carnegie Corporation has a long history of engagement on U.S.-Russia relations.  What’s your current focus?

The Corporation’s history and interest in Russia date back to the end of the Second World War. Our current Russia-focused work aims to advance three specific objectives:  help sustain the U.S. analytical communities’ Russia-relevant work; create venues for serious and results-oriented discussions of policies and interests between U.S. and Russian experts; and facilitate academic networks between younger U.S. and Russian academics working on critical global challenges.

What’s changed and why this forum?

The obvious change is the significant deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, as well as in Russia’s relationship with Europe, due to the tragic developments in Ukraine, although the downturn in these relationships started before the Ukrainian crisis. Some in the U.S. and Europe now argue, moving forward, that the best way to deal with Russia is through containment of Russia’s further expansionist aspirations, which calls for more assertive policies toward Russia. Others take a different view and suggest that Russia’s actions today might have been influenced by decisions made by the U.S. and Europe over the past two decades and that in light of the history, engagement with Russia on issues of mutual concern is the better option. Given this sharp and divisive debate, and the fact that we as a foundation have been supporting scholarship on Russia and U.S. policy toward Russia, we decided to offer a platform to the expert community to voice their views. Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations features many experts whose work is supported by the Corporation, with the latest set of articles debating the possible consequences of the U.S. arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia-backed separatists.

What are some of the expert contributors to the site saying, especially about the situation in Ukraine?

The unfolding of the Ukrainian crisis will be a subject of dissertations down the road, but for those watching it in real time, it was akin to a train wreck that no one was able to stop. The violence within Ukraine, an unthinkable bloodshed only a few months ago that has already taken more than 5,600 lives, has been difficult to contain for a variety of reasons, but top among them is the different perceptions among all the key players (Ukraine, the EU, the U.S., Russia, and the Russia-backed separatists) about intentions, actions, and roles. The articles by experts offer various views on what could and should be done to deescalate and, as importantly, to begin the critical task of reconstructing Ukraine. With so much focus on the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the economic collapse of the Ukrainian state, which will make political consolidation so much more difficult, is not getting adequate attention or financial backing. Rebuilding the Ukrainian economy will remain an enormous challenge and not one that is likely to progress without Russia’s involvement.

What are some avenues where shared interests might resolve the current impasse, or is it too late?

The expert articles offer views on the shared interests. My own take is that it is not too late, but close to it. If the latest ceasefire fails, the likelihood of the U.S. arming Kiev will increase, which in turn will increase the prospects of a major Russia-backed offensive against the Ukrainian forces in the disputed region. In the worst outcome, the world could face a NATO-Russia confrontation in the heart of Europe. But even if the worst scenario could be avoided, Ukraine is likely to remain the source of a deep rift between Russia and the U.S. Partly because of Ukraine, but also due to various actions taken by both sides since the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Russian relationship has reached a point where it cannot be fixed any time soon. At best, it can be managed with the avoidance of a military confrontation and prevention of even deeper divisions that would complicate the already difficult challenge of addressing critical global threats. One point I want to stress is that no other country matters as much to as many U.S. foreign policy priorities as Russia. As we have seen historically, if Russia is not part of the solution, it is usually part of the problem. But if we look at Iran, North Korea, nuclear reductions and nonproliferation, the elimination of chemical weapons from Syria, the fight against international terrorism, and even U.S./NATO interests in Afghanistan, Russia had been largely on board with U.S. policies, at least until now.

What recommendations would you give to scholars who are interested in making their research more accessible to people trying to shape foreign policy debates?

The Corporation is dedicated to helping bridge the academic-policy divide across international peace and security issues. It is a challenge that must be addressed since so much of the expertise that resides in universities does not get to policy communities, largely because it is not easily usable. There are also few incentives for academics to produce policy-relevant products. On the demand side as well, while attempts have been made by policy officials to draw on academic expertise, these efforts have not been systematic. So, the Corporation is focusing on this issue through the Bridging the Gap program, which uses various interventions to close the divide. I urge the readers to check out Carnegie.org for more details on this.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I want to note that I have participated in the Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations and have also recently published an essay commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in their Carnegie Reporter publication. The decision to write this post was entirely mine alone and not in any way a condition of my professional relationship with the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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