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Commentary | 27 March 2024

No future? Cooperation with younger generation Russian experts

In her first book as a solo author, ELN Senior Policy Fellow Julia Berghofer describes the implications that the war in Ukraine might have for Euro-Atlantic security. “The New Cold War” addresses nuclear and hybrid threats and what Western states can do to prepare themselves for a long-term confrontation with Russia. However, despite these circumstances, Berghofer argues that the West needs to maintain certain channels of communication beyond the political and military level. In particular, this applies to contacts with a younger generation of Russian security experts, civil society activists and political scientists. The following text is an excerpt from “The New Cold War” (“Der neue Kalte Krieg”) published by Quadriga in 2023. Some parts have been shortened for readability.

Why should we continue to talk to Russian experts?

Exchanges between younger Ukrainian and Russian experts have become unusual, if not exceptional, and the space for meetings between Ukrainian and Russian experts has shrunk. This is especially true when the Russian experts in question still live in Russia. Ukrainian experts, on the other hand, are often faced with the difficult decision of whether they want to bear the mental burden of keeping in touch with their Russian colleagues.

Just as Ukrainian experts may be criticised for their contacts with Russian experts, there are voices in the security policy community that are very negative about exchanges with Russians—including the younger generation. Some colleagues in the security community have made it clear to me that they think it is unlikely that even a single Ukrainian would agree to talk to Russian experts. According to some, Russian experts would only repeat Kremlin propaganda anyway, making any real exchange of views impossible. This fear is not unfounded: there are Russian experts, young and old, who, at the beginning of the war, have shockingly adapted their statements to the brutal signals coming from Moscow. They have become more radical in their statements or have withdrawn altogether. For some of them, it is unclear where they stand ideologically. But there are also those who specifically seek out exchanges with Western experts, and it is easy to see that they have internalised the Kremlin’s narrative and want to convince others of their views.

A dividing line is often drawn between those Russian experts who have left Russia and those still in the country. The implication is that exchange is possible with the former but not with the latter. This distinction is understandable, but it is based on shaky ground. On the one hand, many Russians who leave the country are assumed (whether rightly or wrongly) to do so out of fear of military service or other reprisals – but not primarily out of opposition to the Kremlin.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly Russian opposition members who condemn the war, and yet they cannot or do not want to leave the country. Perhaps they have parents they do not want to leave behind, or they fear they would not be able to make a decent living abroad as citizens of a widely disliked country. Can one condemn these people and cut off contact with them?

In fact, it is too simplistic to categorically refuse any contact with Russian scientists and experts. One must decide on a case-by-case basis with which Russians it is still possible to have an open and constructive exchange. They may be few, but contact with them provides an insight into the academic and social thinking of a Russian social community caught in the middle. The West condemns these people for not leaving the country and for failing to organise themselves into an effective opposition to overthrow the criminal Kremlin regime. At the same time, they are strangers in a Russian society that is largely pro-war.

Over the past year and a half, I have witnessed several interpersonal encounters that have challenged my worldview. There have been moments when Russian experts, including those still living in Russia, have shown deep sympathy for the fate of their Ukrainian colleagues. I accompanied Ukrainian scientists – who initially refused to talk to their Russian counterparts – on a walk in the forest while we talked about Ronald Reagan’s historic walk with Mikhail Gorbachev. Although moments like these may seem small and insignificant, and they can’t hide the fact that the space for exchanges and encounters is getting smaller, it is still remarkable that Ukrainians and Russians with whom I have had professional contact in recent years are sometimes taking great risks to continue this exchange. It is a question of reputation, psychological strain, and fear of getting on the radar of the Russian authorities – with unforeseeable consequences.

The grey zone

It is important for the coordinators of meetings between Ukrainian and Russian experts to create the safest possible environment in which an exchange can take place. Julia Berghofer

There is another group of experts who appear to be more or less part of the Russian system, living either in Russia or abroad. It is unclear whether they maintain contact with their Western counterparts to gather information or to spread false information – or whether they believe they can undermine the system from within. Some may be surprisingly critical of Putin in a one-on-one conversation but would never condemn the Kremlin for its attack on Ukraine in a larger group or virtual meeting. When it comes to these experts, it is difficult to assess whether an exchange is still valuable and beneficial to both sides.

However, all participants in such networks and meetings are aware that there are certain risks that are difficult to predict. This makes it all the more important for the coordinators of such meetings between Ukrainian and Russian experts to create the safest possible environment in which an exchange can take place. This includes, for example, a careful selection of conference venues, a very restrictive use of social media, and an awareness among the participants that the results of discussions may not be shared, or only shared anonymously.

Walking a fine line

In the nuclear community, contacts with Russian colleagues continue to some extent. To be fair, not all formats for discussing nuclear risks are currently producing meaningful results. “We don’t know what to talk about with the Russian participants,” one Western colleague told me. On the other hand, I have personally participated in formats where the presence of Russian experts has added value. They can assess the Kremlin’s nuclear thinking much better than their Western colleagues, especially if they do not speak Russian and cannot follow the debate in the Russian media.

Russians who are well-connected on both sides can play a dual role as translators. On the one hand, the entire Russian nuclear doctrine requires a linguistic and contextual interpretation, which can be provided primarily by native speakers and excellent experts on Russian politics. On the other hand, the Kremlin and Kremlin-affiliated platforms, such as the prominent, state-affiliated discussion forum ‘Valdai Club’, regularly take statements by American and NATO representatives out of context and stir up fears of an alleged Western aggression among the Russian public. Russian experts, who are well-connected in the West and understand NATO’s position on nuclear issues, can act as fact-checkers.

Reflections of younger Ukrainian and Russian experts

This crisis will be over someday, and when it happens, there must be people who trust each other and who can rebuild peace. Russian expert

In the years following the illegal annexation of Crimea, it was clear that the younger generation across the entire Euro-Atlantic region would be left with a difficult legacy. As tensions rose, the opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the West diminished. Today, the generation of those who are gradually rising to positions of influence, whether in foreign and defence ministries, in the diplomatic service or as academics and experts, are standing on the ruins of a European security architecture that has never fully come together. At the same time, they have little time to fill a generational gap in security policy that has emerged in many Western countries since the 1990s. Until recently, strategic stability and deterrence, as well as the defence of NATO territory, were not high on the agenda in Western capitals. As understandable as this development was, it has led to a lack of crucial expertise.

At the same time, there are many extremely bright and capable security and defence policy experts among my colleagues. There are also still Ukrainian and Russian experts who are interested in mutual exchanges and believe these contacts serve a long-term purpose. It is difficult to judge whether these selective talks give cause for hope, but without these initiatives, it would certainly not exist.

To end, I would like to offer some views from young Ukrainian and Russian political science and civil society experts I have worked with over the past few years. I asked for their opinions and was particularly interested in why they decided to stay in touch with each other after the war began. As those directly affected, they can best articulate their motives. To protect them, I have refrained from mentioning their names and the institutions they work for. The following statements include the voices of Ukrainians living in Ukraine or abroad and Russians who either still live in their homeland or have fled.

Two of the original five statements are reproduced below:

“Although it seems like an unrealistic scenario today, it should not be forgotten that such reconciliation between France and Germany took place after three devastating wars, within 80 years, when the level of hatred towards each other was extremely high. But the two nations managed, first, to reconcile and stabilise Western Europe and then to advance the process of European unification as a whole. This ambitious goal—a lasting and just peace between two nations as a basis for true reconciliation and thus normalisation—is a task for the present and future generations of Ukrainians and Russians.”

Ukrainian expert

“It will take many years to restore trust-building and normal dialogue in Europe. Russia’s invasion has become a point of no return to the relatively peaceful three decades that followed the Cold War. Divisions are already huge and will likely grow further. However, the seeds for future cooperation should be sown now. This crisis will be over someday, and when it happens, there must be people who trust each other and who can rebuild peace.”

Russian expert

Image: Flickr, Thomas Hawk

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.