What Studying Russia Has Taught Me

Studying Russia has shown me that a stable, mutually beneficial Russia-U.S. relationship is not just possible, it's something that should be desired.

Before attending the University of Virginia, where I would study Foreign Affairs and specialize in Russian politics and affairs, my knowledge and perception about the country of Russia and its international affairs were distorted. I was exposed to, like many other Americans, to the constant negative and often, dishonest media coverage about Russia.

Over the past couple of years, the anti-Russian rhetoric in American politics has been exacerbated, with media outlets sensationalizing reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election and presenting one-sided analyses of the Ukraine conflict. Not to mention, Hollywood still fully leverages this Russian bad-guy mystique, producing blockbuster films that portray Russians as villains, as seen in Air Force One with the cunning Ivan Korshunov or coincidentally in Rocky IV, with the imposing Ivan Drago.

Luckily for myself, I was able to see through much of the anti-Russian narrative, labeled as “Russophobia” in the media, Hollywood movies, and in American politics. My studies in international relations and focus on Russian affairs has allowed me to do this, giving me an increased awareness of Russia’s regional and global security interests, alongside their complicated relationship with the United States. Despite its intricacies, it can be confidently asserted that there’s an opportunity to improve existing ties between the U.S. and Russia and reverse the numerous misconceptions Americans have about Russia through education, dialogue, and political activism.

American Misconceptions About Russia

Russia is Aggressive and Expansionist

In the past decade, Western states have frequently viewed Russian efforts to secure their regional security interests as an initiation to revive the former territories of the Soviet Union. As most commonly remembered, the year 2014 sparked controversy between the West and Russia, as Russia retaliated against NATO and E.U.’s ambitions to integrate Ukraine— a country that holds strong ethnic ties and immediate proximity to Russia. Labeled as “aggressive” from Western perspectives, Russia’s reunification with Crimea was instead a response to the West’s unrelenting strategic push since the Cold War to limit Russia’s sphere of influence. Unfortunately, Russia’s intervention in Crimea branded itself as an aggressive, rogue-state in Western perspectives. It should rather be understood as a retaliation to the West’s miscalculation of Russia’s national security interests.

Russia’s foreign policy objectives are also repeatedly misunderstood by Western audiences and in the realm of American politics. Moscow strives to engage the West and surrounding states through multilateral relations— engaging with international institutions to promote cooperation within the Eurasian region and tackle global issues.

Unfortunately, the institutions that partake in Russia’s multilateral efforts, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or the organization made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the BRICS), evidently lack any Western state participation. Russia’s efforts to participate in these institutions represent a method to prioritize Russian security interests and encourage regional integration. It’s vital that the U.S. and Western audiences recognize Russia’s foreign policy agenda, as it could open up the possibility for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia, and in return, yield a more stable regional and global setting.

Russians Live in America?

Yes, they do! According to the 2020 Russian American Experience Study, there are over 3-million Russian-Americans living in the United States, most of which are between the ages of 25 and 60 years old. The majority of these Russian-Americans not only speak a high-level of English but are also highly educated, many of which carry advanced degrees. Looking at the stats, 40.8% of Russian-Americans have a Master’s degree, 24.9% have a Bachelor’s degree, and 7.5% have a Ph.D.

Most importantly, 89% of Russian-American individuals have a strong desire to improve existing relations between the U.S. and Russia. Despite the media commonly illustrating that Russia lacks the need to rehabilitate ties with America, it’s impossible not to consider the perspectives of the vast majority of Russian-Americans who want a better relationship between the two countries.

Russia and the United States Have No Shared Interests

Due to Russia's constant denigration on cable news, major media outlets, and throughout the general American political discourse, shared interests between the U.S. and Russia have been heavily clouded, to the point where cooperation between the two countries seems unlikely. It’s often been disregarded that when the United States and Russia identify a shared interest and cooperate towards achieving it, the two countries experience a period of positive relations.

In years past, Russia and the U.S. have collaborated on key interests such as counterterrorism, nonproliferation of weapons, and deterring Iranian nuclear ambitions— all of which generate peace and stability while serving the national security objectives of both Russia and the United States. By only realizing that the U.S. and Russia share a standard set of interests, we may be on a path to rebuilding relations. Today, the U.S.-Russia relationship has a plethora of interests that they can tap into, including tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, combatting climate issues, strategically preparing for a rising China, and promoting stability in the Middle East.

Looking Ahead

As the Biden administration begins to transition into the White House and implement their foreign policy agenda, the lingering question of whether or not U.S.-Russian relations will improve arises once again. The fact of the matter is that improving ties between America and Russia extends farther beyond the executive branch's powers. Instead, it resides within the will of American citizens.

Before I studied Russia, it was easy to accept the constant inflow of anti-Russian news reports and content that many Americans are exposed to daily. By obtaining a general understanding of numerous unheard Russian perspectives, many Americans will gain insight into the possibility of a stable and advantageous Russian-U.S. relationship. To achieve this, American citizens must look past the barrage of anti-Russian sentiment American politics and mass media generate and distribute. Americans therefore can render the “Russophobia” narrative and will be on their way to achieving a relationship the United States has historically never been able to achieve with Russia.

In doing so, Russia and the U.S. will be on course to creating a steady and cooperative bond— a relationship in which both countries will reap the benefits.

Sam Schilling is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC), where he focuses on Russia-U.S. relations, post-Cold War security structures, and NATO’s role in Europe.