Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti via AP
In this June 2012 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and then-ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson shake hands at the Black Sea port of Tuapse, southern Russia, after an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil.

In tricky US-Russia climate, citizen diplomats and scholars do the talking

In conferences and forums around Washington last week, hacked emails and election influencing were not on the agenda. Rather, the talk centered on strategic stability, terrorism, and other areas of mutual interest that undergird US-Russia relations.

Washington was swarming with Russians last week. And that was a good thing.

At a time when all things Russian have become suspect, if not downright radioactive, distinguished citizens and scholars from both countries have stepped in to keep the US-Russia dialogue going.

It is, after all, a relationship that affects the entire planet, regardless of what emerges from an FBI investigation into connections between President Trump’s associates and Russia.

So at the various forums in and around town last week, hacked emails and election influencing were not on the agenda. Rather, the talk centered on strategic stability, regional conflicts, terrorism, and other areas of mutual interest that undergird the vital business of US-Russia relations.

“Everybody’s looking to Russia and to the United States, because we are nuclear superpowers; 90 percent of nuclear weapons are in our hands,” former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told a forum on US-Russian relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The session at CSIS brought other prominent Russians to Washington, too, as did a similar conference at Georgetown University. There were also two forums focused on nuclear policy and the latest multiday dialogue of the venerable US-Russia citizens-diplomacy project known as the Dartmouth Conference.

This convergence of events wasn’t completely coincidental. Two months after a presidential inauguration is typically a good time for experts to come together and weigh in on policy.

But the direction of US-Russia relations remains murky; key personnel for managing the relationship are still not in place.

In fact, Mr. Trump’s plan for an early rapprochement may already be crumbling, not only because of the FBI’s and other Russia-focused investigations, but also because so many of Trump’s top national security advisers still view Russia as a threat. Sunday’s big crackdown on anticorruption protests around Russia further complicates any move toward a reset in relations.

If anything, tensions are heightening. And Russians don’t hesitate to push back.

At the Dartmouth Conference, held over two and a half days, visiting Russian delegates spoke of Russophobia in the US and an “anti-Russia campaign” in the American media. Both privately and publicly, Russians scoffed at the notion that their country meddled in the US election, and suggested that Russia was being used as a scapegoat.

“Russia has become a hostage of your US domestic politics,” Russian delegation co-chair Yuri Shafranik says in an interview.

Another Russian delegate told the conference, without irony, that Russia is open to “wide interaction with the US,” but “only on the basis of equality and nonintervention in domestic affairs.”

Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, firmly believe that in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was behind street protests that erupted over alleged vote-rigging in Russian legislative elections. That, in part, explains Russians’ preference for Trump last November.

The Dartmouth Conference

Still, of all the US-Russia forums last week, it was the Dartmouth Conference that may have done the most to show the value of sustained interaction between Americans and Russians.

A core of Dartmouth participants, including this reporter, has now taken part in dialogues in both countries several times since the 57-year-old institution was revived in 2014. That has bred familiarity and trust among participants, says organizer Matthew Rojansky – particularly valuable commodities when the news is shocking.

Last week US-Russia news began with a bang. In dramatic testimony, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is investigating possible coordination between Trump associates and the Russian government during the 2016 election. But that didn’t faze Dartmouth delegates.

In fact, “the generally explosive and hostile atmosphere related to Russia outside the conference may have in some ways brought all the participants closer together,” says Mr. Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington.  

“I can’t predict where it will all lead, or how much longevity any of the specifics will have, but my sense is that everybody at this point feels they have a stake in it,” he adds. “Everybody knows each other, and there’s some degree of working trust.”

Some participants were reminded of the third Dartmouth plenary, in 1962, which took place during the Cuban missile crisis. Each delegation contacted its government and asked what to do. Keep talking, both teams were instructed.

Rebounding from 'rock bottom'

Today, the makeup of each country’s 20-member delegations is similar to those of the early meetings, with figures from academia, politics, diplomacy, defense, medicine, religion, and media in attendance. The goal is to draft recommendations for policymakers, and concrete proposals for joint projects. The biggest challenge in following through isn’t the will to collaborate, it’s funding.

Both delegations agree on the importance of youth, cultural, educational, legislative, and scientific exchanges. Religious leaders hope to organize an interfaith conference in Kazan, Russia. Planning is under way for conferences on cardiology and public health, collaboration in maternal and newborn health, and a medical-school exchange program.

But “this isn’t just about medicine, it’s about two countries whose relationship is troubled,” said David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, which studies nongovernmental diplomacy by participating in the Dartmouth Conference and other exchanges. “This is about trying to bring two peoples together.”

Mr. Shafranik, a former Russian energy minister, says his goal in coming to Washington was to figure out just how low US-Russian relations had fallen. When the US government seized two Russian compounds here last December, in retaliation for alleged election meddling, that was “humiliating,” he says. But “once we hit rock bottom, we can start to figure out what to do next.”

Shafranik looked back to the efforts at cooperation and mutual understanding of the 1990s, after the Soviet Union split up and Russia began to chart a course of integration in the world. Now, he says, that process of integration has stopped, and “both the Russian leadership and Russian public believe it’s not our fault.”

“Russians believe the world does not want a strong Russia, because it’s a competitor,” he says. Shafranik acknowledges the role of the US in the world, but with one caveat: “We have our area of interest.”

Shafranik says he leaves the just-concluded 22nd Dartmouth Conference with a “clear conscience that I did my best, I did what I could, so that in some areas we can move in a positive direction.”

Dialogue matters

At the CSIS conference, “Roadmap for US-Russia Relations,” a different sort of US-Russian collaboration was on display. Scholars from each country paired up and jointly examined prospects for US-Russia cooperation across a range of issues, from economic relations and energy to the Arctic and Euro-Atlantic stability.

Scholars were invited to think long term and short term – and, given the current state of relations, any potential for improvement was applauded. “Big is big, but small is also big,” the summary of the research began.

The overarching message was clear: Dialogue matters. Everyone needs to listen more. Both official and nongovernmental interaction can improve mutual understanding and generate new approaches. Sometimes ideas from scholars and citizen diplomats make their way into the halls of government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow next month, a trip that may shed light on the Trump administration’s approach to Russia.

But on one point there is no doubt, says Yevgeny Kozhokin, a Russian participant in the Dartmouth dialogue. “There is no choice but to keep this relationship going.”

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