The need to engage with Russians
I wish folks who yelled "Cold War" remembered what it was really like.
For the last few years, both Russian and American commentators have claimed that a “new Cold War” exist between the two countries. It was only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that this statement felt real, however. As much as bilateral tensions had worsened over the past decade, connections between the two countries was still routine. Academic, cultural, and business exchanges between the United States and Russia Federation were not as deep as the Sino-American relationship, but they certainly existed.
That was then. Since February 24th, 2022, a combination of sanctions and voluntary cutoffs have severed almost all contact between the two countries. At the official state-to-state level, the only high-level contact has been the deconfliction channel between the Russian and U.S. armed forces. According to the Yale School of Management, more than a thousand multinational corporations withdrew or shut down their Russia operations in the first few months after the invasion. Similarly, almost all academic partnerships have been severed by U.S. universities. As I noted in my recent essay for Vox: “in some ways, the new iron curtain is as impenetrable as during the Cold War.”
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What folks forget, however, is that during the real Cold War there was still a fair amount of engagement between Soviet and U.S. officials: at the United Nations, during arms control talks, high-level summits, and even in space. Academic engagement was not uncommon.
It is understandable that most channels of engagement have been shut down. It is in both sides’ interest, however, to not go too far in cutting themselves off. This is not the same thing as advocating for the lifting of sanctions. Rather, the goal should be to ensure some base level of diplomatic and consular processes and academic exchanges.
I am an academic, so this might sound self-serving. And it is, to some extent — running a Russia and Eurasia program is difficult if there is zero chance of any interaction with Russians.
My argument for continued engagement is about far more than that, however. The less that Americans and Russians interact, the easier it is for both sides to develop malevolent myths about the other. This is a standard political phenomenon that occurs during war. The “other” is caricatured and dehumanized to the point when even thinking about negotiations becomes taboo.1 It is quite easy for Americans to do this when considering Russian actions and Russian rhetoric since February 24th alone. This is true for Russia as well, however.
I am not advocating peace talks now, but when the time comes, it will be difficult to negotiate a cease-fire if the parties to the conflict have conjured up fantastical, diabolical images of the other during the interim.
Relatedly, the push in Europe to restrict the access of ordinary Russians seems like a mistake to me. Again, I get the impulse: seeing affluent Russians galivanting around while their country bombs civilians in Ukraine seems appalling. And no doubt, many of these Russians have zero qualms about what their government is doing.
That said, ordinary Russian citizens are responsible for Putin’s actions only to the extent that they have not engaged in revolution to oust him, which is a tall order. Russian access to information has been limited since the start of the war. Exposing those who can travel to how Russia’s behavior is perceived in the West has value. So does allowing Russians to leave who otherwise might be called up or asked to help with military innovations.
Politico’s Mari Eccles reports that “flights out of Russia have sky-rocketed in price — and are selling out — following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address Wednesday in which he called for a partial mobilization of troops to fight in the war against Ukraine.” Araud is correct: making it easier for Russians to leave the country is the savviest and the most humanitarian foreign policy move left for the European Union.
Another thing the West did during the Cold War was encourage the emigration of refuseniks from the Soviet Union. That is a Cold War policy worth adopting anew.
This, by the way, is the most important, underappreciated takeaway from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Nothing from Book 1 or the Melian Dialogue is as remotely insightful as the simple point that war is a totalizing experience that eventually erodes every civilizing norm in society.