A well-known Russian policy shaper and Dean of one of Moscow’s most prominent universities once described U.S.-Russia relations to me as “two people walking side by side with a gun to the head and a pistol to the hip.” Indeed, in mainstream U.S. news cycles, the word “Russia” has come to be associated with sensationalist accusations of Trump campaign ties, electoral interference, hackings, kleptocracy, Syria, and an existential threat to American democracy. In the most prominent Russian news outlets, U.S. (США) is associated with sanctions, regime change, hegemony, unipolar world order, CIA plots, NATO, missiles on European soil aimed at Russia, and an existential threat to Russia’s security. The cyclical atmosphere of accusations, counter-accusations, investigations, conspiracies, consequences, and competition for soft power influence amongst neutral states seems to be growing more intense, and pillars of trust replaced by brinkmanship desired to outlast one another.
“Cold war 2.0” is increasingly drifting towards a hot war; it’s only a matter of time before the first shots are fired. This trajectory of hostile great power competition, both hard and soft, is clearly unsustainable to any neutral observer, not only for the stability of both countries, but for overall global peace and security.
The pathway to restoring trust and confidence in U.S.-Russia relations lies in replacing realpolitik with mutual understanding amongst people-to-people ties as the central thrust driving bilateral relations. The baby boomer and X generations, which form the vast majority of current and upcoming leadership (respectively) of both countries, are clouded by memories of the Cold War and carry a tendency to be more conservative and realist in their worldview, and hence see the other country through a distrustful lens first and foremost. Most U.S.-Russia relations “experts” whose voices are amplified by both media and the political establishments essentially tout the same vilification of the other country which is reflected in official foreign policy.
In contrast, younger American and Russian youths (millennials and the current generation Z) were largely removed from the realpolitik of U.S.-Russia great power competitions in their daily lives, and vilification of the other country only began to dominate news cycles after the 2014 Ukraine conflict and 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Younger generations however are not “set” in their views about the other country, maintain a high curiosity about the other, and are increasingly looking to diversify their sources of news beyond mainstream outlets. Within a decade’s time, this same younger generation will start filling in and replacing the leadership of their respective countries’ government, private sector, and military institutions, and carry with them the views of the other country which they’ve developed thus far.
To be sure, conferences and forums on U.S.-Russia relations abound in academia, and plenty of bilateral university exchange opportunities do exist. However, such exchanges of ideas need to be expanded beyond their traditional “security studies” participants, who often mirror the doctrines of their countries’ establishments which carry a tendency to reflect the same biased narrative, to encompass other fields and perspectives which are less prone to orthodoxy and more focused on development and advancement of humanity.
In most of the UN Sustainable Development bodies, including those focused on climate action, healthcare, education, poverty eradication, financial inclusion, gender empowerment, quality infrastructure, and environmental preservation, Russian presence is decidedly underrepresented. As a representative sample, World Bank’s Russia operations maintain a skeletal presence at best. The potential of Russian Youth’s contribution to these areas is immense, if politics are moved aside and Russia’s talented young adults are welcomed as equal partners.
Furthermore, technical cooperation should not be limited to space exploration, the one area which has seemingly been spared by U.S-Russia tensions thus far. Imagine the speed of progress which would be unleashed if leading U.S. and Russian universities and scientific research organizations, some of the best in the globe, combined resources to develop novel solutions to common challenges including climate change / renewable energy sources, healthcare / Covid vaccines, and innovations to improve living standards. Instead, both countries have undertaken a soft power competition in these realms, with cooperation being virtually non-existent.
The "besoin du jour" to restore U.S.-Russia relations is youth engagement and cooperation in development. The underpinning of this new trajectory lies in newer generations not being shaped by propaganda and animosity towards the other side, but rather goodwill and admiration for the others’ efforts in solving common global challenges.
The Russian-American Youth (RAY) Alliance is playing a significant role towards this end, by fostering an open dialogue amongst the tech-savvy youth of both countries on Russian-American politics, culture, language and institutions, in order that youth from both sides can accurately understand each other and shed media-fostered stereotypes. We are setting the ball rolling in youth engagement and mutual understanding to explore areas of cooperation and policy advocacy from a youth perspective, and hope you will join us in being seeds of change!