While the international war against the Islamic State and a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran underscore Russia’s growing influence in major foreign policy challenges around the world, there are growing concerns that Washington’s lack of understanding of its one-time chief adversary is proving to be a critical national security risk.
Top intelligence and national security officials — including the top general of NATO — have warned that the United States’ depth of knowledge and capacity for collecting information on Russia is not up to snuff, given the stakes of the conflicts at hand and the threat an unpredictable Kremlin poses to U.S. interests.
Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy. The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow’s recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available.
“We’ve been surprised at every turn,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria.”
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said there has been some “atrophy” in the government’s Russia expertise since the Cold War, a trend that needs to be reversed.
“We’ve gotta double down on re-looking at Russia,” he said.
Over the last several months, military and intelligence officials have repeatedly pointed to Russia as posing a potential existential threat to the United States, but the amount of resources dedicated to the expertise needed to gain a better understanding of Moscow and its plans does not reflect that reality.
“After Sept. 11 there was a focus, rightly, on trying to increase focus on the Middle East and it’s had consequences,” said Michael McFaul, the previous ambassador to Russia and a former senior adviser to President Obama on Russian and Eurasian affairs. Compared to 15 years ago, he noted, the government’s bench of experts and the quality of Eurasia analysis is “shallower.”
“Trying to figure out decision-making in Russia on foreign policy requires a great deal of qualitative depth… and that requires new investment and knowledge,” McFaul continued. “We’re going to disagree with the Kremlin and with the Russians on certain issues over time, but what we can’t have is disagreements based on misperception and bad information.”
It is difficult to quantify the exact abatement in Russia expertise since the end of the Cold War, as the knowledge of individuals occupying certain key positions varies and line-items in the budget often apply to a broader range of activities rather than a single country.
But there are noteworthy examples of how the federal impetus to create and sustain a highly-capable, Russia-focused workforce has fallen away.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of troops and support personnel stationed in Europe, who were tasked with understanding and responding to threats emanating from Moscow.
On the home front, experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists.
Experts also note that except for a few figures — such as Celeste Wallander, senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council and Victoria Nuland, assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs — it is difficult to find senior government officials grappling with Russia who intimately understand the country and its leaders.
“When senior administration officials go up to the Hill, it’s presumed they have expertise. The dirty secret is that our capability is terrible, it stinks,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. He said he has conducted Belarus briefings where “nobody in the room has gone to Belarus” and noted there are parts of NATO in which “we don’t have anyone who can read the Russian press.”
“Almost any metric we might choose to assess capacity, we just don’t have it: it’s weak, and it’s spotty,” Rojansky said.
Some lawmakers excuse such attrition as normal in a government of limited resources and argue that gathering intelligence and an understanding of what the Kremlin is up to has never been easy.
“When Russia was less of a threat, they were less of an intelligence priority and that’s really as it should be,” said House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). While changes are “certainly necessary,” he added, expecting expert intelligence on Russia overnight is foolhardy.
“Russia’s a very hard target in just about every way: they’re sophisticated electronically, they have good operational security and the decision-makers in this very authoritarian regime are a very small circle [around Putin],” Schiff said. “It makes predicting difficult.”
But that rationale doesn’t sit well with experts outside government.
“That’s actually jut a way of saying because he hasn’t told us his strategy, we can’t figure it out — when it takes some time and effort, and some expertise,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe and a former intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.
When NATO officials in Brussels can see Russia moving military equipment toward Syria, but can’t properly predict an impending offensive, she reasoned, the problem isn’t so much intelligence-gathering as having the frame of reference to understand the intelligence you have.
“Why are we constantly surprised? They do all these things, and sometimes they do signal quite clearly, but we missed a lot,” said Hill.
Yet grasping that elusive understanding of Putin’s Russia is no easy task. An ongoing diplomatic and sanctions standoff between the United States and Russia has already winnowed opportunities for educational and business exchanges, while Russian laws against “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” have made the business of getting Americans time in the country more complicated.
And with little funding available for new Russia positions at think tanks and universities, the pull toward a career in Russian studies is weak. While the recent Eurasian crises have sparked a slight uptick in Russian language enrollment, it is coming only after a significant decline. Enrollments in Russian courses plummeted as a percentage of students taking foreign languages between 1960 and 2013, only German suffered a greater drop in interest, according to a study published earlier this year by the Modern Language Association of America.
As a result, experts say, it’s inevitable that until the country can make up for lost time and build back up a corps of Russia experts, the United States is going to be at a strategic disadvantage.
“The mistake that was made 20 years ago was assuming Russia’s a weak power, a declining power,” McFaul said. “Whether they’re a great power or a middling power, we can argue about. But they are a major power, in the top 5 or 10 economies in the world, a top nuclear country in the world and now, given the investment Putin’s made in the military, they’re one of the major military powers in the world. Those trends are not changing in the next 20 or 30 years.”