Q & A with Andrew Kuchins, CERES Senior Fellow

By: Ani Chkhikvadze, MAERES 2016

Dr. Andrew Kuchins is a new Senior Fellow at CERES. He conducts research and writes on Russian foreign and security as well as domestic policy. From 2000 to 2006, Kuchins was a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he previously served as director of its Russian and Eurasian Program in Washington, D.C. He was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center in Russia from 2003 to 2005. He has also held senior positions at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. He holds a B.A. from Amherst College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Ani Chkhikvadze, MAERES 2016, spoke with Dr. Kuchins about the work he will be doing at CERES as well as his thoughts on current U.S.-Russian relations.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I did my masters and PhD at John Hopkins SAIS, and I finished my PhD in 1992 right after the Soviet Union collapsed. Instead of taking up a research position, I wanted to be involved in the revolutionary transformations that were taking place in the former Soviet Union. I ended up taking a job with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago to develop a program to support scientists and researchers working in the former Soviet Union. That allowed me to travel to the region, meet a lot of remarkable people and support researchers and institutions doing interesting and important projects. After that, I went back to Stanford University where I was deputy director for the Center of International Security and Cooperation. In 2000, I had the opportunity to move to Washington for a position at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, running the Russian and Eurasian program. I have been in Washington since then, with the exception of three and a half years in Moscow, where I ran the Carnegie Moscow center from 2003 to 2005. Basically, my background has been in policy research, although I have done A fair amount of academic research. I am kind of struggling between the policy and research worlds.

How do you reconcile the two? And what are the overlaps?

Different administrations and the people within them have varying attitudes toward outside ideas and support. I have seen in the almost 16 years that I have been in Washington that some policy makers are more open to outside influences and advice than others.

There was one project in particular that I led at the CSIS (where I was for eight and a half years before coming to Georgetown) concerning the Northern Distribution Network: the new transit corridors to support our troops in Afghanistan, going back to 2009. It was from this that I and a few other people from the research team came up with the idea of evaluating lessons that can be learned from the transit corridors for trade and economic development policy for Afghanistan. That’s probably the time when I had the closest connection with the policy world, and the idea we had was getting quite a bit of reception in parts of the Obama Administration. And I felt that we were laying an innovative, intellectual foundation that the administration found useful and cultivating.

Do you have a specific research project for your fellowship at Georgetown?

Coming to a university environment stems from the desire to be more engaged with research and also with training another generation of experts on the area. I want help to solidify Georgetown as a  leading place for Russian and Eurasian studies. I am working with faculty such as Dr. Angela Stent, Dr. Thane Gustafson, the new Dean of the School of Foreign Service Joel Hellman and others. The idea is to help strengthen Georgetown’s institutional capabilities and reassess what I want to be doing in my career right now.  I would rather be writing things that are more research-based and have longer shelf life.

Do you think the Eurasia region is getting enough attention in international affairs at this point, and do you think this will have impact on the University environment in terms of what is thought or funded?

It depends on how you define what Eurasia is. I think a very broad notion of Eurasia — Europe to China, Russia in the north, India in the south including the greater Middle East and South-East Asia, etc. — is a more innovative and interesting idea. The problem with governments and many organizations is that they tend to look at certain parts of Eurasia, but fewer are thinking about the Eurasian continent in a more comprehensive and holistic way. If I can bring together experts from different parts of Eurasia, along with different disciplinary expertise, it will be a very exciting, long-term project at Georgetown.

Considering the dynamics you have described, does the former Soviet Union then remain a region, and if so how?  Can we look at it as a region or has it developed different regional dynamics today?

My personal view is that the terms “post-Soviet space” and “former Soviet Union” are becoming analytically less useful for understanding the multilateral dynamics of the region. These countries nowadays have a wide variety of relationships with different neighbors in the region and with countries that are not necessarily part of the region.

I think the term still has some analytic value. And certainly the way Russia has behaved the past couple of years—trying to recreate itself through the Eurasian Economic Union as a center of a coherent region. It’s not re-Sovietizing the post-Soviet space, it’s acting as the regional pole, if not a hegemon. This leads people to think that a Russia centric “post-Soviet space” or “former Soviet Union” has greater explanatory value. But I think what’s happening is more complicated, it’s very fluid and dynamic.

Here is one of my favorite examples of change in last twenty-plus years: early 1990’s India and China had a trade relationship of about 300 million dollars. Today, that trade relationship is greater than 100 billion dollars. We typically think of China and India as geopolitical competitors. And yet, China is India’s number one trade partner.  China is the biggest player in the room, but not only player in the room.  So I think there is rewiring, reshaping in the big Eurasian space.

How would you compare working for the Carnegie here in DC to your Moscow experience?

I worked with the Carnegie Endowment for the International Peace Foundation in Washington after I left Stanford in 2000. Then in 2003, I moved to Moscow with my family to take over as director. Although I was working for the same organization, it was a very different perspective.  I was in Russia at a time of quite dramatic change that deepened my understanding of Russia.

When I returned and went to discussions about Russia, I felt they were not talking about the country that I had lived in. The debate in Washington was and continues to be polarizing and lacks nuance. Also, people were not understanding the dramatic impact of economic growth and economic prosperity [in Russia] and how those dynamics were changing people’s daily lives, changing foreign policy and security interests.

Given the differences of perspective, do you think there is a lack of understanding of Russia in Washington D.C.? 

The problem of polarization has gotten worse, and I think the tendency to caricaturize Putin and demonize him is a problem. Henry Kissinger said shortly after the Ukraine Crisis that, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy.” For me, the fundamental thing is to always try to understand the government or leader you are analyzing, to try to be objective as possible and question your assumptions continually.

While we have done good things together—for example in June 2014, we implemented the agreement to remove and decommission all of Syria’s chemical weapons—nobody talks about it in Washington, and nobody talks about it in Moscow. We have also worked with Russia to reach a diplomatic agreement for the Iranian Nuclear program. Whether you agree or disagree with the settlement, this is the most significant diplomatic achievement in recent memory, and Russian involvement was essential.

I think this problem of how Russia is understood and characterized affects how we deal with Syria right now. I still think there is some possibility for cooperation.

Do you have post-CERES plans once you are done with your research at Georgetown?

Over the course of next few years, it’s my goal to become more entrenched in Georgetown. I will work with Dr. Angela Stent to put together a working group on Russia’s relations with the West. We will try to develop a roadmap for how the US and its European allies and Russia can navigate this period of alienation. In the next academic year, I will start teaching, so we will be focusing on different alternatives and scenarios of Russia’s development. It is important to me to build a stronger relationship between Russia and the US and more mutual understanding between our countries and societies.