Spring 2024

Introduction: Understanding Russia

– William E. Pomeranz

Moscow's last years of empire, the rise of democracy, and return to dictatorship. Insights from the Kennan Institute's remarkable first 50 years, and for the road ahead.

The Kennan Institute has reached its 50th anniversary—a landmark for any organization. Looking back on those five decades, the region it covers (first the Soviet, then post-Soviet era) has experienced incredible changes and turmoil, only for us to return to a dangerous confrontation with Moscow. Through it all, the Kennan Institute has served to educate American policymakers and public audiences about the challenges and opportunities presented by this dynamic and culturally diverse region.

The first half of the Kennan Institute coincided with the Cold War, perestroika’s arrival, and glasnost reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev. It grew alongside the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the chaotic transition from the Soviet system. In 1991, it helped make sense of 15 new nations that emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse, as well as violent uprisings in Russia that soon followed. Kennan Institute staff and scholars studied Boris Yeltsin’s attempt to transition to democracy and a market economy, and the roadblocks that impeded that transition.

In a very real way, the Kennan Institute now exists in an environment similar to that of its founding in 1974, as the United States confronts a Russian state hostile to America’s post-WWII global leadership.

From its founding, the Institute led the way in engaging with Soviet academies under its first director, S. Frederick Starr. His successors built on his record by bringing scholars and experts from the region to the Institute, leading to important international collaborations and exchange. Through it all, the Kennan Institute served as a crucial nexus for policymakers in Washington who were working on the region and engaged with academics performing groundbreaking research.

During the transition from the Soviet era, “post-Soviet” quickly became a term to reference developments in the newly independent states. However, it did not adequately capture the region’s rapid evolution. In 1990, Ukraine approved a national referendum that called for its historic independence from the Russian Federation; its development was shaped by the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the Maidan uprising in 2014, confirming its popular drive for a pathway to Europe. “Post-Soviet” also failed to capture the complexities of social, political, religious, cultural, and economic transitions underway in the Central Asia and Caucasus nations.

Protestors on Independence Square during the Orange Revolution. December 2004, Kiev, Ukraine. Shutterstock/Alexandr Zadiraka.

Indeed, what used to be the most unifying idea of this region—the Soviet victory in World War II—no longer binds the region. Russia sought to forge and lead new regional groupings (the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization) to extend its influence. But just as the relevance of the Moscow-led Soviet victory ebbed outside of Russia, these disparate organizations experienced various setbacks and disagreements.

After three decades of the Soviet collapse, the “newly independent states” were ready to drop the word “newly” and establish their own identities and destinies. In recognition, Western academia has started to examine these nations outside of Russian control. Supporting research on and engagement with these diverse states continues to be a vital part of the Kennan Institute mandate.

Yet for Russia, three decades of reform and global integration were not sufficient to break the country from its long history of imperialism. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power at the turn of the century, Russia has gradually but inexorably moved from a policy of pursuing influence with its neighbors to one of reclaiming lands once held by the Russian empire. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to detach two enclaves on the border, enhancing its control over the region, and derailing any Georgian aspirations to join the NATO alliance. In 2014, it annexed Ukrainian land and sparked separatist conflicts on Ukrainian territory, then launched a massive military invasion in 2022. Russia and Ukraine are still locked in a brutal war with no end in sight.

The Kennan Institute’s 50th year and Russia’s renewed pursuit of empire are occurring alongside growing confrontation with the Western-led political and economic global order, making it an appropriate moment to dedicate this edition of the Wilson Quarterly to the issues we cover, drawing upon many of the Kennan Institute’s staff and scholars past and present.

Our greatest strength continues to be our deep bench of scholars, collectively covering a vast array of pressing issues and academic disciplines. We are always able to turn to them to find vital voices on most any topic.

For more than a decade, Russia has increasingly used disinformation, energy supplies, and military contractors to support its friends and disrupt its adversaries. It engages in nuclear threats while also complaining of unfair Russophobia. Instead of exchange and dialogue, US-Russia relations now revolve around accusations of war crimes in Ukraine, sanctions, and diplomatic struggles reminiscent of the Cold War. In pursuing his singular vision of Russian interests grounded in empire, Putin has led Russia to unprecedented isolation, broken only by relationships of convenience with states also suspicious of the West.

In a very real way, the Kennan Institute now exists in an environment similar to that of its founding in 1974, as the United States confronts a Russian state hostile to America’s post-WWII global leadership. Russia is once again closed to American scholars, and our national focus and attention on Russia is understandably limited to security and political concerns. All of this serves to renew the importance of the Kennan Institute’s mission of promoting understanding and knowledge of this region in all its complexity and iterations.

The only constant for this region’s foreseeable future is change. In turn, as all the former directors have elaborated in their reflections, the constant for the Kennan Institute remains our work to improve American understanding of the region by engaging in public debates in new ways.

My brief tenure as director coincided not only with Putin’s turn to aggression, but also the COVID pandemic and banishment to remote work. Instead of reducing our impact, our audience has vastly expanded. We now broadcast to multiple countries and hundreds of viewers at a time—as opposed to our more DC-centric audiences of the pre-pandemic era.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, October 2019. Shutterstock/Asatur Yesayants.

This new capacity could not have come at a more opportune moment. The Putin system is creating an ever-expanding network of banned Russian individuals and organizations, with increasing numbers forced to flee abroad. In response, the Kennan Institute launched a Russian language blog (“In Other Words”) written primarily by independent Russian journalists and experts forced into exile. Within 18 months, the blog reached around 1 million views, more than half of whom came from Russia. The best messenger to reach Russians behind the Kremlin’s information blockade are other Russians who share a language and culture.

Our greatest strength continues to be our deep bench of scholars, collectively covering a vast array of pressing issues and academic disciplines. We are always able to turn to them to find vital voices on most any topic. We are not immune from setbacks resulting from unfolding events. Our ability to hold alumni conferences abroad has been disrupted by travel restrictions—and by the natural tensions resulting from war and conflict. We also must walk a fine line as we transition from the handy framework of “post-Soviet” to a far more divisive and fragmented reality.

Optimism for those who study Eurasia remains in short supply. The end of the Cold War has given way to confrontation and competing notions of history. But the intellectual pillars of the Kennan Institute, which bears the name of the still relevant George Kennan and as set down by my predecessors and all the scholars that have come through our doors, remain as germane today as when the Kennan Institute was founded in 1974.

William E. Pomeranz is the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an expert on the complexities of political and economic developments in Russia— particularly through a legal lens. He leverages his extensive hands-on experience in international and Russian jurisprudence to address a wide range of legal issues—from the development of Russia’s Constitution to human rights law to foreign investment and sanctions. He is also the author of Law and the Russian State: Russia's Legal Evolution from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Cover photo: View of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square. Shutterstock/Reidl.