From left, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano from Italy smile in front of a mock-up of a Soyuz TMA spacecraft outside Moscow on April 30, 2013, before taking their preflight exam. The three later went to the International Space Station. (Yuri Kadobnov/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The U.S.-Russia relationship, by many accounts, has reached a low point not seen since the Cold War. Syria, Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions, and accusations of hacking are just some of the bilateral bones of contention.

Against this backdrop, private initiatives and Track II diplomacy — the quiet, non-politicized discussions that can bring about progress on contentious issues — have helped the otherwise bleak relationship stay the course.

One example of this type of diplomacy is the annual Fort Ross Dialogue. Russian and U.S. intellectuals, politicians and business leaders met recently at Stanford University for the 2016 session. After top leaders provided some perspective on the challenges of the bilateral relationship, panels discussed ideas for educational exchange programs and innovative collaborative projects.

When international relationships are particularly tense, such dialogues are an important alternative channel to official diplomatic contacts. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Track II diplomacy happens when civil society leaders engage in “unofficial dialogue and problem-solving activities aimed at building relationships and encouraging new thinking that can inform the official process.”

Track I diplomacy involves official meetings — the events that the media is likely to cover. Since the 1960s, Track II diplomacy has concentrated instead on peer-to-peer relations and sub-national contact between states. The actual terminology was introduced in a 1981 Foreign Policy article by psychiatrist William D. Davidson and Foreign Service officer Joseph V. Montville. In the early 2000s, “Track 1.5” diplomacy emerged, an approach that includes both state and non-state actors.

Unofficial ties date back to the 1960s

The Kettering Foundation’s Dartmouth Conference, one of the oldest unofficial initiatives between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union, began bringing together citizen leaders in 1960. Participants continued to meet over the decades, including tense discussions during the Cuban missile crisis. The Dartmouth Conference has hosted more than 130 meetings on a broad range of topics, including nuclear disarmament, climate change, trade relations and peace frameworks for the Middle East.

Educational exchanges are a cornerstone of Track II diplomacy. The Institute of International Education’s 2015 report shows that 1,527 U.S. students were in Russia in 2013-2014, and 5,562 Russians studied in the United States in 2014-15. During their student years, both Ambassador Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Moscow, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice studied Russian at Soviet universities. The 2010 SAGE project detailed how study-abroad programs promote the development of global engagement, leading to long-term political and economic benefits.

Scientific exchanges also have a long and collaborative history. A 2004 National Research Council report looked at 50 years of U.S.-U.S.S.R./Russian interagency scientific cooperation and argued for continued ties between research academies. Future plans called for cooperation in education, environmental protection, nonproliferation, innovation and other areas. As Russian universities move to internationalize under the Russian Ministry of Science and Education’s 5-100 program, both scientific and student exchanges could increase.

A 2009 CSIS report detailed the long history of “health diplomacy” between Russia and the United States — more than 30 partnerships between health institutions foster direct peer-to-peer links between more than 3,500 U.S. and Russian doctors and health-care workers.

University programs broaden cooperation

University-driven programs have created a number of strong Russian-U.S. partnerships. The 2011 MIT-Skoltech Initiative helped build an innovation and high-level graduate training center in Skolkovo, near Moscow. In March 2016, MIT and Skoltech began developing faculty-driven collaborative projects. Ongoing research center grants cover topics such as functional genomics, energy systems and power distribution.

Other educational programs include UCLA’s partnerships with Russian universities on collaborative research and social entrepreneurship (ITMO); the University Consortium, a research and training partnership connecting Harvard, Columbia, HSE, MGIMO, St. Anthony’s College at Oxford and the Freie Universität Berlin; and PICREADI’s new Meeting Russia public diplomacy program for young leaders.

Student-initiated programs, including the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum, are another example of successful Track II diplomacy. The forum brings together Russian and American graduates and undergraduates and runs two annual conferences — one in Russia in the fall and a capstone conference at Stanford in the spring. In addition to meeting top leaders in both countries during the conferences, students work in teams to develop a collaborative research project in their field over the course of the year.

American Councils, an organization offering educational exchanges, also runs an innovation accelerator to help Russian start-ups network with American partners. These programs have brought together entrepreneurs in health and education technology, as well as leaders in capacity-building initiatives for university entrepreneurship curriculums.

There’s a strong incentive to cooperate

The success of this wide range of programs reveals an important point — both Russian and U.S. citizens have many reasons to cooperate with each other. According to the U.S. Embassy, there is nearly $10 billion in U.S. investment in Russia, while Russian Embassy reports put Russian direct investment in the United States at around $8 billion. Despite the sanctions in place, new joint business projects continue to develop.

Deep personal ties between the two countries also help drive Track II diplomacy. An estimated 2.9 million people in the United States in 2014 self-identified as having Russian ancestry, and the 2010 census reported more than 800,000 Russian speakers in the United States.

While the benefits of Track II diplomacy are difficult to quantify, the increased dialogue between states at odds with each other is one way to help improve understanding and trust between the two populations. This framework also gives greater perspective to media reporting, which tends to focus narrowly on the significance of official meetings and statements — such as those about gaps of trust — by heads of state.

Some conflict resolution studies argue that combinations of tracks — both official and unofficial — are most effective at promoting communication, peace and understanding. The strength of these types of unofficial diplomatic endeavors suggests that there is a real chance for breakthroughs in official channels in the future. The greatest task for leaders now is to foster those relationships and provide a framework for cooperation for the next generation.

Brittany Holom is a PhD candidate in the politics department at Princeton University. Her dissertation focuses on health-care reforms and institutional change in the former Soviet states, with a particular focus on Russia and Ukraine.

Alyssa Haas is a recent MA graduate in Russian, East European and Eurasian studies from Stanford University. Her thesis focused on Russian national and regional government policy toward developing technology start-up ecosystems.

Yury Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council covering Moscow’s policy toward the Middle East. He holds an MPhil in international relations from Cambridge University.