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Why Kremlinologists failed and what’s wrong with Western analysis of Russia

Whether the West could have prevented the war in Ukraine is still a debatable question, but what is hardly disputable is that the war took Western politicians and experts by surprise. The Insider spoke with U.S. and European experts on Russia about whether the failed policies are the result of poor expertise, how involved they are in making decisions about Moscow, and where their colleagues miscalculated in trying to predict Putin's actions.

  • Expert Groups

  • Indirect Influence

  • The Foundations of Russian Studies

  • “Underestimating Putin cost too much”

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Expounding on the mistakes of Western countries has become an important part of the global debate about the causes of what happened this year on February 24. Without absolving Russia of responsibility for unleashing a war of aggression, many commentators point out that if the West failed to prevent Russian aggression, then something in the strategy to contain Putin was flawed. Some accuse Western politicians of being too flexible and accommodating, allowing Putin to feel impunity, while others (though fewer in number) argue that the West should not have ignored Putin's concerns and fears about NATO enlargement. One way or another, “containment” did not work, and from the creeping expansion of 2014 Putin went on to an all-out war of aggression that Europe has not seen in 70 years. How can this failure be explained - by the low level of Russia expertise or by the fact that Western politicians did not listen much to their experts? And who studies Russia abroad today in the first place?

Expert Groups

The Insider's correspondents who monitor the work of the Western expert community divide independent Russia experts (those who work outside of government agencies) into four main categories.

The first are academic scholars who teach and conduct research at specialized centers within universities. There are master's programs and entire departments devoted to Russian studies in many American and European universities. They include the Harriman Institute at Columbia University (formerly the Russian Institute), the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, and the Russia Institute at King's College London.

The second category includes those employed by think tanks with degrees in Russia studies. Most of these think tanks are based in Washington, DC: the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center established in 1974 to study the USSR, the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and others. In Europe, the British Chatham House, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), and the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) are considered influential. Many expert centers do not study Russia as a separate region, but rather as part of larger Eurasian programs that include not only post-Soviet countries, but also the Balkans and Turkey.

The third group of experts who often comment on events in Russia come from the public sector, former officials and diplomats who are familiar with the country and have contacts there. A typical representative of this group is John Herbst, former U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, and now head of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. According to Olga Khvostunova, a researcher with the Eurasian Studies Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI, Philadelphia), “The more time has passed since they resigned, the less they understand about modern Russia. Not all of them have the real desire to understand the situation.”

Finally, applied analysts working for international non-governmental organizations such as Freedom House and Amnesty International conduct country studies, but their field of interest is usually limited to human rights issues (human rights, media freedom, the nonprofit sector, and so on).

The careers of many professional Russian experts take shape between research and governmental institutions: they can be drawn from a think tank into the civil service, and after some time they can return to academia (the so-called “revolving door” principle). A case in point is Fiona Hill, one of the leading Russian historians and the co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin”.

Fiona Hill
Fiona Hill

Under the Obama administration, Fiona Hill was in charge of Russia at the National Intelligence Council, and under Trump moved from the Brookings Institution to the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), becoming the White House's top advisor on strategy toward Moscow. After retiring in the summer of 2019, Hill returned to Brookings. Similar migrations have occurred in the career of another respected expert, Celeste Wallander, a key Russophile in the Obama administration. She taught at several universities, headed the Russia-Eurasia program at CSIS, and joined the civil service in 2009: she worked on Russia and Ukraine at the Pentagon and was responsible for Russian affairs at the National Security Agency. Today Wallander is Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

Indirect Influence

According to observations of the scholars and experts interviewed by The Insider, their actual influence on foreign policy decisions is small. They may identify problems or suggest possible solutions, but they are not directly involved in the process, explains Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University of America and Cold War specialist (during the Obama administration he worked on the Russian and Ukrainian dossiers in the State Department's policy planning staff), so at best, independent expertise helps politicians “test the quality of the ideas to which they are a priori committed”:

“Think tanks are helpful as platforms for validating decisions that have already been made, since many think-tank experts have media platforms and serve as explainers to the general public of what is going on in international affairs. Political scientists and researchers, many of whom are not based in Washington, DC, have even less influence. They may at times be consulted - before a speech is drafted or an official visit is made. But only very rarely would ideas from the academic world be directly adopted by policy makers.”

In the experience of Stephen Sestanovich, professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Center for Russian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, think tanks influence the opinions of elites much more than politicians. Michael McFaul, director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, says the Biden administration engages with academics and think tankers on a regular basis:

“It is my personal impression that they engage more with outsiders than the Obama administration did, and most certainly more than the Trump administration did. That we outsiders interact with them, however, does not mean that we are influencing them. Sometimes, it works the other way around; they are trying to influence us, trying to explain their policies so that we will better represent their ideas when speaking in the public.”
Michael McFaul
Michael McFaul

The process in Germany is similar. - Policy-makers at various levels exchange views on a regular basis with think tankers and academic experts, confirms Fabian Burkhardt, a researcher at Germany's Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies and co-editor of the journal Russland-Analysen. Nonetheless, policy-makers talk to various stakeholders outside of narrow expert circles including other governments, industry, their parties, NGOs, voters, media etc. And policy-makers certainly have their own long-standing views on Russia to which they tend to stick as long as possible.

“That is, even if behind closed doors an honest exchange of views on Russia-related issues and critical feedback is possible, in the “real world” they face constraints from various pressure groups or have own incentives to act the one or the other way. Oftentimes, in public, policy-makers would refer to expert assessments to legitimize their own views and decisions. That is, impact can be possible if views of experts and policy-makers align. But convincing a policy-maker of the opposite of her/his view is extremely difficult. Moreover, experts are oftentimes eventually consulted more frequently when the “house is already burning,” but less so during more quiet times when strategic decisions have to be shaped for the long run.”

According to Ben Noble, Associate Professor of Russian Politics at University College London and associate fellow at Chatham House, it's very difficult to generalize the extent to which policymakers take expert analysis into account. This varies by policy area, by government department, by country, and over time: “ That being said, it's not uncommon to hear of academics, think tank analysts, and state research analysts complain about the infrequency with which policymakers read, and are influenced by, their analysis. And yet, I also know of particular instances when policymakers have been influenced directly by evidence or arguments contained in expert reports.”

The Foundations of Russian Studies

During the Cold War, Sovietology was considered a prestigious field of study. Russian language and culture were actively studied in the U.S., the training of Soviet specialists was ranked in the national interest, and projects related to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries received generous funding. Many graduates of specialized university programs went on to work for the government. Former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, for example, have Sovietological backgrounds.

Everything changed in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was no longer perceived as the number one threat, and the need for its systematic study seemingly disappeared. Warming relations led to budget cuts, the curtailment of educational and research programs, and job cuts for Russians. Interest in Russia was waning, and those who continued to study it were rather treated as outcasts.

In 1991, Russia was no longer perceived as the number one threat, and the need for a systematic study of it seemed to have disappeared

Under George W. Bush, the situation was aggravated by a new factor: the September 11 attacks permanently refocused American foreign policy on the Middle East and the war on terror, while the establishment of the Putin regime appeared to be in the “blind spot” for the expert community. The final chord was struck in 2013, when the State Department suspended funding for in-depth study of the post-Soviet space. Established during the Reagan administration, this program had trained more than one generation of American Russians over the course of 30 years.

As early as the following year, it became clear how short-sighted this decision was. On the eve of the Crimean referendum in March 2014, The New York Times wrote about the deplorable state of professional Russian studies.

“Among 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... 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.”

The staffing problem, however, has not been solved in eight years, Michael McFaul laments: “<After February 24th - The Insider> we have not yet invested more money in the study of Russia and the region, but we should. In my generation, we have a lot of expertise, I worry about the next generation. Over time, that will deplete our knowledge about Russia inside the US government.” He warns that due to the lack of new specialists, the U.S. government's knowledge about Russia will deplete over time.

According to the interviewees, the current crisis is likely to spur investment in Russian studies. Anton Barbashin, the editorial director of the analytical project Riddle Russia (where many foreign Russians are published), believes that all preconditions for this are in place. “My colleague from Britain says that more and more students now choose to study Russia and Eurasia as a whole, so in the future they will be increasing the number of teaching hours and teachers - there is clearly demand for this.”

There is also a demand from the authorities. The experience of Ben Noble from University College London demonstrates that in recent months there has been a great demand for quality expertise on Russia: “Again, it's very difficult to generalize, but the frequency with which my colleagues and I in the UK have been contacted by the UK government for briefings has increased markedly following the February invasion of Ukraine. I would not be surprised if we were also to see a boost in the resources available for analysis relating to Russia and Ukraine.”

Things are different in Germany. According to Fabian Burkhardt, - The annexation of Crimea in 2014 has increased funding for research on Russia and the region as a whole which helped to stop cuts in the field and in some circumstances even led to the creation of new institutions and positions. Today, however, the country's authorities are being cautious about spending on science. The federal government has already announced severe cuts in the budgets of major foundations that support academic cooperation and exchanges of researchers and students: “ - These austerity measures appear to be related to expectations about rising energy costs and a tanking economy. So at least for Germany, I would be hesitant to expect an immediate new wave of interest in research on Russia, both from the sides of policy-makers and the scientific community. But it is very obvious that this would be a strategic blunder in the mid- to long-term.”

Currently, scholars and experts are engaged in discussions on how to do research on Russia in the near future, given that all institutional partnerships and personal contacts with Russia had to be cut, Burkhardt continues. “For the foreseeable future it will likely not be able to conduct qualitative field research in Russia. These conditions will drive how research will be conducted on Russia, with regards to topics that will be studied and methods that can be applied. So paradoxically, the circumstances described above might lead to a situation where even less scholars keep their research focus on Russia.”

“Underestimating Putin cost too much”

Do financial and personnel problems affect the level of expertise on Russia? And do mistakes by experts translate into mistakes by politicians? Nearly all of the Russia experts interviewed by The Insider are convinced that Western governments are supplied with all the information they need, and that complaints about the expert community are unfair. According to the interviewees, Russia experts were quite sober about where Putin's regime was heading, so the problem is not a lack of expertise, but the transfer of knowledge to the politicians and the public.

According to Michael McFaul, the level of competence of American Russia experts is now very high, but the quality of Russia’s expertise on the United States is much lower.

“The misunderstandings in my view, come from those who don’t know anything about Russia, but claim to be specialists about international relations more generally. These theorists, Mearsheimer is the classic example, have really gotten Russian wrong. And these theorists have great influence in American foreign policy circles.”

Discussing why the majority of experts doubted the possibility of a full-scale war in Ukraine, The Insider's interlocutors draw parallels with the collapse of the USSR. Few people in the West foresaw what Gorbachev would do, and those who predicted the end of the empire believed it would happen for other reasons. However, such miscalculations cannot be called a failure of expertise - rather, they shows how difficult it can be to use knowledge amid the “chaos of rapid developments,” says Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations: “First, almost all Russians that I know — even those with close Kremlin connections — were surprised by what happened [on February 24]. Experts on Russia in the West can't be expected to have a better understanding of what’s happening in Russia than knowledgeable and sophisticated Russians themselves, especially when the president of Russia does something monumentally stupid.”

Nevertheless, there are some serious grounds for criticism. Michael Kimmidge of the Catholic University of America points to two serious deficiencies in the international understanding of Putin's Russia. The first deficiency concerns Putin’s foreign policy. In the West, it is too often construed as reactive: the West is at the center of the international system and Russia is reacting to its impulses. But Putin’s foreign policy has very often been simply active… Secondly, the Western expert community has consistently understated popular support for Putin – and Putin himself, Kimmage says:

“The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 was not what experts or policy makers thought would happen. More dramatically, the annexation of Crimea was an absolute shock to the system - in the West. The 2014-2015 Russian war with Ukraine was perhaps less shocking; but it too was unanticipated. Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was not anything that any expert thought about or predicted before it happened. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a bit different. The intelligence community did very well in assessing the Kremlin’s actions and timing. Some experts also sketched, as early as November 2021, what might happen. But even here, most experts thought Putin would not invade, that it was all a bluff, that it was too radical a step for him. This systematic underestimation of Putin has been very costly. Its repetition, from 2008 to 2022, suggests that some of the standard operating assumption about Russia (in the West) are off base and need to be revisited and revised.”

Michael McFaul agrees there were mistakes in the policy, but blames them on politicians – the U.S. tried too hard not to “provoke” Putin for too many years:

“After he invaded Georgia in 2008, Bush did next to nothing - no sanctions, no military assistance. After Putin annexed Crimea, the West did implement sanctions but did not provide military assistance. In retrospect, we should have engaged with the entire regime more aggressively earlier on. Had we sent HIMARs and long-range artillery years ago, maybe Putin would not have invaded. Going way back, we also did not do enough to consolidate democracy and markets in Russia in the 1990s. That was a giant mistake. Had we provided more assistance, and Russia recovered more quickly economically, maybe Putin would not have come to power.”

“Had we sent HIMARs and long range artillery years ago, maybe Putin would not have invaded”

The reluctance to provoke Putin fits within the concept of realpolitik, which used to dominate American politics, says Olga Khvostunova of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Realists argue that no matter what, dialogue with the Russian regime should continue: if the U.S. can maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, why cannot it maintain relations with Russia? Moreover, until now, every American president had ambitions to build an effective system of relations with Moscow and strike a “grand bargain” with it, the expert says.

Olga Khvostunova believes that one of Washington’s key strategic blunders was its adherence to the well-known theory, according to which two countries with McDonald's restaurants will never fight each other.

“American politicians were sure that if the West helped Russia enter the global market, it would soften and come to its senses. Perhaps this confidence was based on the fact that this was how it worked with other countries. Many studies have proven that trade relations do reduce conflict, but every rule has exceptions. Russia is the exception.”

Prior to February 2022, Western expert circles were actively debating what the approach to relations with Moscow should be, Michael Kimmage says. Some felt engagement was pointless and that confrontation was the only necessary approach. Others argued for a balance of engagement and confrontation. With the outbreak of war, the balance has changed - and today there is a general consensus in the expert community that the West's policy (sanctions and military aid to Ukraine) is the right thing to do.

“The current consensus assumption is that Putin cannot be negotiated with, that his designs on Ukraine are entirely illegitimate, that he must experience a defeat in Ukraine and that if he does the political dynamic within Russia may start to change - and some change in leadership may become thinkable. Once again, this may be an underestimation of Putin’s political staying power.”

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