Russian affairs specialists were among the first people in the Intelligence Community’s (IC) to experience an impact of post-9/11 environmental change. It began immediately in the fall of 2001.
Almost overnight their expertise became obsolete. They became dinosaurs with resumes whose value was equal to that of the paper they were printed on. Hardly anyone in Washington D.C. area was hiring people with regional expertise in the post-Soviet geographic realm. Many, however, were opening an inordinate amount of billets for the suddenly-appearing plethora of Afghanistan experts (aka “The September 12th Analysts”). Contracting firms were paying top money for such expertise, while lowering the bar whenever and wherever possible. Even years later a joke circulated: “If one had a layover in Kabul yesterday, he would be certified as an Afghanistan cultural expert today.”
In late 2001, a layover in Moscow equaled that of a layover in Lost Springs, Wyoming. Cold War warriors, the old-school guys, had to move on or retire. Within and across the beltway it was not cool any more to be a Russia expert. Decades of their painstakingly-built expertise, integrated in institutional knowledge, gradually faded away.
Figure 1. Lost Springs, Wyoming. Similar elevation to Afghanistan, similar interest to Russia. (All photographs were taken by the author.)
Intellectual Fulda Gap
The academic world displayed a similar attitude to that of Washington, D.C. Within undergraduate and graduate ranks Russia was on the back burner; not many students showed interest in specializing in its regional geography. They also received little inspiration from their professors. I recall attending a professional conference presentation, attended mainly by students, by one of more prominent scholars on the geography of Soviet Union/Russia. His delivery was such that, at the end of his presentation, I stood up and asked him: “Sir, do you understand that in an hour-long presentation you did not list a single positive thing about Russia?” He was somewhat surprised with my observation, but did not disagree.
Military and IC greatly benefit from recruiting talented students into their ranks. But when demand is low so is the supply of quality recruits. When at the same time existing expertise and institutional knowledge is rapidly vanishing, a significant gap appears. This gap can be measured and assessed quantitatively (number of personnel) and qualitatively (their knowledge and abilities). Today, in the realm of Russian regional cultural geographic knowledge, I would argue, both categories are likely insufficient.
In one of my previous articles I quoted Georges Clemenceau, who said that “There is no passion like that of a functionary for his function.” Allow me to paraphrase him and say that there is no passion greater than a functionary fighting others to replace him/her, particularly when (s)he is appointed to a governmental position despite questionable ability and expertise (HR professionals use a term backfill rather than replace, because no two individuals in identical roles can have identical abilities). I have never witnessed a governmental employee in IC resigning because he felt that others can serve the nation better (but I have observed a lengthy and painful legal process of trying to remove them).
Among others, those suddenly-appearing Afghanistan subject matter experts—many of whom became federal employees despite their questionable knowledge level—today guard their cubicles like Hesco bastions guard military bases downrange—impenetrable to outsiders. They were lucky, alas, to ride a wave of almost-unrestrained hiring during the quantitative era (great demands in quantity) and hide during the qualitative era (demands in quality).
Figure 2. Hesco bastions in a combat environment. Unlike those around the cubicles in D.C. these come with great views.
I am afraid that a similar scenario will unravel in regard to a forthcoming wave of Russia geographic expertise. The next echelon of Russian experts may resemble in growth that of their Afghanistan-focused colleagues in post 9/11 era. The quality control mechanism (i.e., the “old timers” and “dinosaurs”), however, is generally gone. Their behavior in dedicating much individual effort on guarding their own cubicles with the fortress-like defense of Hesco bastions may be similar, too.
Substandard analysis is a product of substandard thinking, which in itself is a product of inadequate knowledge and ability. The most important direct factor retarding the process is an educational focus on narrow topical and regional areas. Yet we are awash with a sea of experts on narrow subject matter, while in a desperate need for expanding a holistic-type analytical capability. I have described the background behind such reasons in The Flagellants and the Black Death: Intelligence Community’s Zeal for Human Geography.
Non-holistic analysis is like analyzing with paint-by-numbers approach—something will eventually appear on the surface. Even if each of us approaches the geography of Russia in such a manner, we will still have a collection of paint-by-numbers products. This is far from adequate for a thorough understanding of issues, their evolution, and charting positive future directions.
In an intellectual and social milieu that favors this type of attitude and a shortcut approach to understanding problems , the most dangerous aspect is the creation of institutional memory built upon convenient reality. This reality is deemphasizing needs (holistic analysis) and emphasizing wants (compartmentalization and narrow subject matter expertise). In fact, we can turn to the Soviets for a historical example to support this statement.
Soviet geographers were among the world’s best in physical geography. Outstanding tradition and expertise, however, did not equally extend to domestic cultural geography. In one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, ethnic geographic studies were severely limited. Discussing human interaction in general and ethnic issues in particular, could earn a scholar a free visit to a prison camp in Siberia. At the same time, some of the leading universities in the West were substantially investing in geographic understanding of these very issues. Yet the Soviets officially paid little attention.
The Soviet Union eventually disintegrated for mainly ethnic and economic reasons. Unless the Russians have corrected that mistake in the past couple of decades, their military and intelligence are suffering from the same problems the Americans do. If they have, I could only assume that they had to engage in paradoxical action. In absence of institutional memory and subject matter expertise drawn from own academia, they had to build it from scratch by utilizing the works of Western cultural geographers who were studying them for decades. These were the same scholars whose works assisted in building the American military and IC’s experts’ institutional knowledge pre-9/11.
[As a side note, I remember a conversation during a graduate seminar with a renowned American economic geographer, who spent time as a visiting faculty at Moscow University. I asked him a question about his experience with the scope and magnitude of Moscow University’s cultural geography program. It was a very short conversation.]
It is very important in this discussion to differentiate between research and analysis of a region, versus official policy and actions toward that region. They do not necessarily match. For example, urban planners conduct studies and provide advice, but do not dictate political decisions influencing public policy. Hence, urban infrastructure development chronically lags behind the actual and realistic needs. The politicians blame the planners, and then the public blames the planners, for all the infrastructural inadequacies.
Figure 3. Seattle’s own piece of urban history. Despite the reasons behind the original effort to relocate Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s statue to Seattle, very few of those who utilize him for selfies—mostly people of student age—can conceptually place him in a larger cultural geographic context.
Cold War experts who became unemployable after 9/11 are the equivalent of urban planners. The others, who were involved in policymaking shrouded by their political clout, remained in their seats. Their institutional memory has been preserved, but it is not the same. Yet, it is currently influencing the forthcoming wave of experts on Russia’s cultural geography.
The incoming wave of new experts are now learning not from the realists, but from opportunists. We should not be surprised if the understanding of Russia’s realm continues to lag behind the actual and realistic needs—and with serious consequences.