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Behind the scenes of Russia’s foreign policy-making

There is much we don’t know about how foreign policy is being shaped in Russia. Is Vladimir Putin as almighty as some believe him to be? Do international relations academics have an influence on government decisions? The RuKNOW project tried to find out.

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Relations between the EU and Russia are at one of their lowest points in history. While patching things up will be a gargantuan task, it undoubtedly starts with clarifying the main principles and drivers guiding Russian policies towards the EU. In an effort to understand academia’s role in this regard, Dr Katarzyna Kaczmarska from Aberystwyth University spent the past two years investigating the relationship between scholars and policy-makers in Russia.

Besides building bridges with Russian academics active in international affairs, her RuKNOW (Knowledge on International Relations in Russia) project, undertaken with the support of the Marie Curie programme, sheds new light on foreign policy-making in Russia and could help the EU in its efforts to strengthen pluralism in the Russian political debate.

What did we know about relations between Russian academia and government prior to your project? Does the latter exert much control over the former’s research?

Dr Katarzyna Kaczmarska: Our understanding of relations between academia and government in the sphere of foreign policy-making in Russia was quite limited. Mezhdunarodniki – a group of high-profile foreign policy experts that includes but is not limited to academics – have often been presented as following the official line or as the ‘guardians’ of the regime. Yet, we knew little about their motivation for regime support. Pundits said it was because of either genuine persuasion or opportunism.

Meanwhile, academic and policy discourses have been described as mutually constitutive or co-evolving. The view that International Relations (IR) scholarship in Russia resembled ‘policy-based evidence-making’ rather than ‘evidence-based policy-making’ dominated.

Why was it important to verify these claims?

Russia’s foreign policy-making remains difficult to disentangle. It is rarely subject to public debate, especially since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. Meanwhile, the academic discipline of IR in Russia has been flourishing for the last two decades. This raises the question of what academics’ role as foreign policy advisers is or might be.

By exploring the relationship between scholars and the policy world, we can better understand how foreign policy is made in Russia. It allows for nuancing both the oversimplified picture of Vladimir Putin taking all the decisions and the presumption that all Russian experts in the area of international politics follow the official line.

How did you proceed?

The most important aspect for me was to engage with Russian scholars and understand their perspective on the relationship between academia and policy-making. By focusing on the problems and issues they raised, I intended to mitigate the potential foreigner’s bias and minimise the practice of ‘othering’ Russia.

Over two years, I interviewed scholars while providing expertise for think-tanks. Since critical discussion has largely moved to the virtual space, I also studied opinions shared publicly by individual scholars on social media platforms, and I monitored online debates held by various academic associations and groups.

In order to better understand the context in which scholars work, I also examined the academic research governance system and monitored Nauka, a journal covering academia-related themes. This was complemented by an analysis of academic texts published in the IR field in Russia.

What would you say were your most important and/or surprising findings?

I have identified two concurrent trends in the relationship between the academic community and the policy-making world. On the one hand, authorities expect Russian universities to move up in international rankings and partake in the global education and publishing market. On the other hand, the academic community feels like professional expertise in IR is not valued by policy-makers.

I have found a full spectrum of views on scholarly engagement with the policy world. Some scholars see foreign policy-making as limited to state officials and openly excluding societal actors such as think-tanks, experts and academics. Some scholars point at how academics are often required to justify already existing policies or step in to fill policy slogans with content, and how they are not invited to participate in the process of policy formulation. Another group of scholars consciously withdraws from participation. Finally, less sceptical academics recognise that IR scholars usually share the ambition of having some leverage in the realm of foreign policy. In this group, the willingness to have impact goes hand-in-hand with the awareness of existing obstacles.

Several factors discourage scholars from active participation in the public debate. For instance, the state increasingly interferes with academic institutions and individual scholars. Some academics feel uncomfortable participating in TV or radio debates as they are unsure whether their presence could end up legitimising certain messages without giving them a proper opportunity to air their own views.

The unwillingness to contribute to the policy-making process stands in stark contrast to the relatively rich institutional setting for knowledge exchange between the expert community and the government.

How do you see EU/Russia relations evolving in the future?

The last decade showed a gradual worsening of Russia-EU relations. Both actors’ official rhetoric of partnership and cooperation allowed for many problematic aspects to be swept under the carpet. Unfortunately, none of the reasons that contributed to this state of affairs seems to be disappearing, starting from the conflict in Ukraine and ending with Russia’s unofficial support for far-right parties in Europe.

Both sides are disappointed in each other. Russian authorities have become more and more united in perceiving the EU as a competitor rather than a partner. In the EU, frustration related to actual and perceived threats to cybersecurity originating from Russia is growing. I believe that the evolution of the domestic situation in both the EU and Russia will be the most important factor in the future development of Russia-EU ties.

How can your project and its results inform future policy-making in Europe and, ultimately, influence EU/Russia relations?

My project shows that even under tightening control over the foreign policy process, there are societal actors in Russia who want to have a say and are willing to voice some criticism. The EU should take this factor into consideration and encourage dialogue and academic cooperation between European and Russian scholars and students. This, over the long term, could contribute to strengthening pluralism in Russian political debate.

My project also shows that it is important to promote the so-called track-two diplomacy, which allows experts to exchange their views and gain better understanding of how the other side represents the world, what obstacles exist in the process of knowledge production, and how this knowledge can or cannot be translated into policy-making.

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