One of my professors and mentors at Fresno State, Dr. Al Evans, was a bona fide Russia expert. I took three courses with him, Modern Politics, Soviet Politics and Soviet Foreign Policy. This was from around 1989 and 1991, so it was an extremely exciting time to study Soviet politics, you know, with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991.
In any case, I’m reminded of Professor Evans by this story on Russia expert at the New York Times, “Russia Experts See Thinning Ranks’ Effect on U.S. Policy“:
WASHINGTON — “I have to do a TV broadcast now, can I call you back in maybe an hour?” Angela Stent, the director of the Russian studies department at Georgetown University, said when she picked up the phone. An hour later she apologized again. “I’m afraid I’ll have to call you back.”
For Ms. Stent and other professional Russia watchers, the phone has been ringing off the hook since Ukraine became a geopolitical focal point. “It’s kind of a reunion,” she said. “Everyone comes out of the woodwork.”
But while the control of Crimea by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has brought America’s Russia experts in from the cold, the news media spotlight has also showed important shifts in how American academics and policy makers think about Russia, not to mention the quality and quantity of the people doing the thinking. Among those 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.
“It’s a shorter bench,” said Michael A. McFaul, who returned from his post as the American ambassador in Moscow on Feb. 26, as the crisis unfolded. He said the present and future stars in the government did not make their careers in the Russia field, which long ago was eclipsed by the Middle East and Asia as the major draws of government and intelligence agency talent.
“The expertise with the government is not as robust as it was 20 or 30 years ago, and the same in the academy,” Mr. McFaul said.
The drop-off in talent is widely acknowledged. “You have a lot of people who are very old and a lot of people who are very young,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former economic adviser to Boris N. Yeltsin, a former president of Russia. Mr. Aslund, who had a dozen interviews on Ukraine on a single day this week, said people in the prime of their careers mostly abandoned Russia in the 1990s.
“It is certainly harder for the White House, State Department and intelligence community to find up-and-coming regional experts who are truly expert on that region,” said Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution and President Bill Clinton’s Russia point man. “It’s a market problem.”
Compounding the effects has been a lack of demand for Russian expertise at the very top of the foreign policy pyramid.